How To Train for a 5K

跑步

, by Nick Bester

Photography by: Sports Photos

Training for your first 5k can be hard, but following a schedule and learning about holistic running training will vastly help your progression. Use this 5k race training plan from a pro running coach to advance your workouts and conquer your next 5k with confidence.

In the world of running, the 5K race is truly the event for everyone. That’s because 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles, is a rewarding distance that most people can complete, but it’s long enough to be a competitive challenge if you want it. 5Ks are the most popular type of road running race by far, according to race directory site RaceRaves, and that’s really no surprise. Whether as a fundraiser, part of a community event, or a fun run to go with a longer race, you can find a 5K almost anywhere you look — making 5 km the perfect running distance to train for.

How Long Should You Train for a 5K?

As a running coach, I recommend eight weeks of training for anyone who is new to running, or for anyone who typically runs less than 30 minutes at a time. Gradual buildup and frequent rest are important for letting your body adjust to the impact of running. Advancing too quickly is a common mistake that runners make, causing extra soreness at best and real injury at worst. Another advantage of allowing eight weeks is that you’ll have some wiggle room, in case life happens and knocks your schedule once or twice.

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If you are already used to running 30 minutes at a time, or if you simply don’t have eight weeks to go before your race, then you could shorten your training by abbreviating the ‘Prep’ phase (Weeks 1-3) of the plan described below. I’ve designed this schedule only as a general guideline for beginner and intermediate runners, so feel free to adjust based on your own goals.

About the 5K Training Plan

Properly training for a 5K means more than just running. You need a variety of workouts to holistically prepare your body while avoiding overtraining and injury. Sessions in this training plan include easy runs, strength and conditioning, longer runs and track sessions. 

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For each of these workouts, it’s the purpose of the exercise and your level of effort that are important, not the pace you hit while running. In fact, most of your runs should allow for a breathing rate that lets you speak in full sentences. If you find yourself completely out of breath then it’s time to slow down. If that means some of your runs turn into walks, that is absolutely okay! It’s better to finish the distances than to beat yourself up for a number on the watch and risk injury.

Understanding Heart Rate Zones

When runners talk about “zones” we are talking about intensity in terms of heart rate. Heart rate zones are a way to understand how hard your own body is working. Measured from 1-5, zones are categorized as percentages of your maximum heart rate (HRmax), and each one means something different for your training.

  • Zone 1: 50-65% HRmax // Zone 1 is all about boosting your recovery. Training at this intensity should feel easy where you can easily hold a conversation.

  • Zone 2: 65-75% HRmax // Zone 2 helps to build the foundation of your aerobic endurance. Training in this zone allows your body to become better at oxidizing fat and works to increase your capillary density.

  • Zone 3: 75-85% HRmax // This is a moderately intense effort. Zone 3 training improves the efficiency of your circulation, and this is where lactic acid starts to build in your muscles.

  • Zone 4: 85-90% HR max // Zone 4 helps to target your speed endurance. Training in this zone will allow you to become better at using carbohydrates for energy and withstand greater levels of lactic acid in the blood, thus increasing your anaerobic threshold.

  • Zone 5: 90-100% HRmax // This is maximal effort. In Zone 5 your heart, blood and respiratory system are all working at full capacity. You will hit this level during your most intense speed workouts, but your body can’t continue at this effort for more than a few minutes.

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If you don’t already know your max heart rate, here is the basic way to calculate it: 220 - Your Age. Simply subtract your age from 220 to get a good estimate of HRmax, and you can figure out your heart rate zones from there. You can also use heart rate analysis in Strava to calculate and customize your zones for training.

Runners enjoying a 5km race in New York. Photography by: WoodysPhotos

Easy Runs

An easy run should be a jog or a walk. The exact rate depends on your fitness level and how you are feeling that day, but you should try to remain in heart rate Zone 1. The point of an easy run is to let your body recover aerobically while keeping your muscles active, and saving energy for harder sessions later in the week.

Strength and Conditioning

Non-running workouts, whether at the gym or in your home, are crucial for injury prevention and overall performance improvement. These can be weightlifting sessions or bodyweight exercises. You should focus on workouts that improve not just power, but mobility and stability in your legs along with strength in your core. For ideas on what exercises to include, see my own morning strength routine in this YouTube video. You can follow my routine or adapt it in your own way.

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Longer Runs

In this 5K training plan, the last day of each training week will be your longest run of the week. These can start out at a mile or less, depending on your base fitness level, but should gradually increase as your training progresses. The idea is to complete these longer runs with a controlled and steady effort, pushing into Zone 3 but not beyond. They are not about hitting your max heart rate — that’s what the track sessions are for.

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Track Sessions

The second half of your training program will add track sessions, which are fast-paced workouts focused on speed and anaerobic performance. These will get your heart rate into Zone 4 and even 5, building your body’s ability to dig deep when it counts. Doing these sessions at a running track is best, but if one is not available then you can measure a stretch of path or flat grass instead. 

Each week with track sessions will be slightly different. Here are the details of each track session that you can refer back to:

Table showing track session training exercises for running a 5K race.

As part of these track workouts, you should allow time for dynamic warm ups and cool downs, which are just as important as the sessions themselves. Raising your heart rate gradually before a hard workout and tapering off afterward is much healthier than going “zero to sixty,” so to speak. You can view my dynamic drill practice routine in this Instagram video, which will give you ideas for your warm ups and cool downs.

8-Week 5K Training Plan

This 5K race training plan is designed to cover eight weeks and to fit a variety of fitness levels. You’ll notice that I don’t specify any paces to aim for, only distances to complete. As I said before, it’s not the pace that’s important, but your ability to go the distance without totally emptying the tank.

Weeks 1-4: Prep, Then Start To Build

The first three weeks of your training make up the preparation phase. This is all about building a base of fitness and getting your body used to running. The interspersed run, rest, and strength days will all work together to build up resilience and avoid injury. If you feel you can’t run the full distances at first, don’t be ashamed to walk them or alternate walking with running. Remember: finishing the distance safely is what matters, not your speed!

Table showing weeks 1 through 4 of an 8-week 5K training plan.

Week four of this schedule begins the build phase. You’ll notice that this week the total mileage bumps up significantly. This is when it’s time to put that fitness foundation to work and start pushing yourself harder.

Weeks 5-6: Peak Training

Week 5 continues the build phase and introduces track sessions to your routine. Notice that the total mileage in this week does not have to go up, but you could increase the distance of your longer run if you’re feeling up for it!

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Week 6 is your peak — the week with the most total mileage and the toughest track session. Make your strength and conditioning sessions tougher or longer during this week if you can, too. It’s the epitome of your training and as such should feel legitimately hard!

Table showing weeks 5 through 8 of an 8-week 5K training plan.

You’ll notice that the longer run Week 6 is 2.5 miles, which is still short of the 3.1 that makes a 5K. While this may seem daunting, the taper phase is designed to help you rest before the race so you will be able to conquer the last 0.6 miles of your race easily. 

Weeks 7-8: Taper, Rest, and Race Day!

Week 7 is the taper phase, which is focused on maintaining and refining your fitness. There’s no need to up the mileage in this week, but you can concentrate on moving a bit faster. For example, if you have a finishing time goal for your 5K, then you should experiment with holding your target pace on this week’s longer run.

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Next comes Week 8, the final week leading up to the race. This is rest time, crucial for letting your body fully recover so you can give your best effort for the full race distance. Just a few easy runs are all you need. Other than that you should focus on sleep, eating well, drinking lots of water, and planning the logistics for race day.

5K Training Tips

There is a lot that goes into training for your first race, and all of the pieces can certainly feel like a complex puzzle. I know it’s tricky to fit all these sessions into a busy work week, let alone leave time for your social life and everyday needs like eating well and getting enough sleep. 

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This is another reason why the prep weeks are so important. They allow you to rehearse your routine and work out the kinks before training gets more serious. Ironing out your schedule in this way is my number one bit of advice, but here are some additional tips that will help you prepare physically and mentally for race day.

Train With Friends

Adding a social element to your training will help you reach your max potential. Besides just being more fun than going solo, running with friends will add accountability and help motivate you to push harder. Data from Strava actually proves this, showing that athletes tend to run farther in groups than they do when running solo.

If you don’t have your own group to run with yet, here are some ideas for building a running community while training for your 5K:

  • Ask a friend to join for your easy runs or walks. Conversation will make the miles pass quickly, and committing to a plan might help keep you honest with your schedule.

  • Join a local running club. This is the best way to meet other runners who share your goals, and you might be able to incorporate regular group runs into your training schedule. You can find clubs by searching online, inquiring at running stores, or

    searching clubs within the Strava app

    by sport type and location.

  • Look for local running events like fun runs, parkruns, or even beer runs! These are more great ways to meet other runners and make your training extra fun.

Keep the Easy Days Easy

It might be tempting to reach for that “runner’s high” and push harder on each of your runs, but easy runs are meant to be enjoyed at a steady-breathing pace. You should be able to talk the whole time, so bringing a friend makes these runs even better!

Photography by: Jacob Lund

Reserve your grit for the hard days, when strain and focus are required. If you stick to your training schedule, then you can push with peace of mind a hard day, knowing rest and easy days are coming up. You may occasionally have to move sessions around to fit a busy week, but you should try to avoid back-to-back hard days. If you don’t allow for rest then you will increase your risk for injury.

Don’t Neglect Rest and Recovery

It’s natural to think of training hard as the only way to get better, but intentional focus on rest and recovery is just as important for leveling up your running. The downtime is important for keeping your body healthy even as you push yourself to new limits. Some discomforts like shin splints, foot pain, and knee twinges are common during running training. If you feel any of these it might be a sign to take an extra rest day, and you should see a doctor or professional trainer if anything feels serious.

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Try No-Impact Cross-Training

You can think of cross-training as any workout besides running, and no-impact training is that which does not involve beating your feet against the ground. No-impact cross-training can be hugely beneficial for your running. It’s a way to keep up your cardio and overall fitness while letting your legs recover properly. Examples are cycling, elliptical, rowing, stair climbers, and swimming. 

At any point during your 5K training, if your legs are bothering you, feel free to swap a run for a no-impact session instead. Just be mindful of the session you are substituting and try to match the intensity, so that your heart rate zone matches what you would be doing in the run session. For example, a recovery session can stick with an easy-breathing pace, but if you’re due for a track session or longer run then your no-impact workout should be equally challenging.

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Personalizing Your 5K Training Plan

Keep in mind that this training plan is only a general guideline for 5K race training, and while I’ve attempted to accommodate a wide range of experience and fitness levels, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. The ideal plan for you will never look just the same as someone else’s, so you can expect to adapt this framework to your own needs. For more help doing that, consider these methods of personalizing your 5K training:

With that, I leave you to lace up your shoes and get to the track — or the park, the beach, the woods — wherever you choose to start your 5K training journey. I wish you all the best vibes in your running and racing!