Choosing Your First 5K
Maybe it is one of your New Year’s resolutions or just a goal you would like to achieve, but you’ve decided to run your first 5K! And perhaps you’ve already started training or maybe you have yet to begin but just want to get the race on your calendar as motivation. The question is which one do you choose? Sometimes there are so many 5k races it can be hard to choose which might be the right one for your experience level. Here are some tips on choosing the right first 5k for you.
How Much Time to Train
If you’ve never run before or if you have taken a long break (years) from running, in general, allow 8 weeks to train appropriately for a 5K. If you are physically active—you walk, swim, bike, etc.—you can probably cut that time in half and be ready in roughly a month. There are numerous training plans that can be found online. Also consider finding a local running group. Gyms, YMCAs, schools or locally owned athletic stores often sponsor training groups that meet for runs on a regular basis.
To Everything There Is a Season
Keeping those training timeframes in mind, consider what season you would most enjoy running your 5K. Do you like to break a good sweat? Do the sun and its warmth energize you? Then a 5K in the spring or summer might be a good option. Do you prefer a crisp, cool day? Do you not mind the cold or wind as long as you are moving? A 5K in the fall or winter might be better.
Also consider how your body responds to different weather conditions. Do your lungs hurt when you exercise in the cold? Do you find it difficult to breathe when you are exercising in the heat and humidity? These are all things to consider when choosing your first race, which you want to be as positive an experience as possible.
Keep in mind that there can be more physical issues associated with exercising in the heat and humidity than there are from exercising in the cold. Dehydration and heat stroke are two of the most serious but other things like muscle cramps and sunburn are common.
A Great Way to Start the Day
There isn’t too much wiggle room here as most races start in the morning. During the summer months, there might be an occasional 5K at dusk given the longer days. If you typically train in the morning, then a morning 5K will feel natural. If you train most often in the late afternoon or evening, it might be beneficial to work in a morning run on the weekends if possible.
If your 5K is in the summer, a morning race is a must so runners aren’t out on the course in the dangerous midday heat. If your 5K is in the spring or fall, you might have to dress for a range of temperatures as it might be significantly cooler at the race start than it is at the finish. A long-sleeve t-shirt layered over a short-sleeve t-shirt could be enough to accommodate the temperature difference. You can always peel the long-sleeve t-shirt off and tie it around your waist or choose a shirt you won’t mind leaving on the side of the road if you get too hot. (But make sure to check with the race first to see if clothes is collected and donated.)
Nature Takes Its Course
There are three main types of race courses. A loop course (or one with a number of loops) will start and finish at the same general location. An out-and-back course will send runners out to a point to turn around and they will run back on the same route. A point-to-point course starts and finishes at two different locations.
In general, point-to-point courses offer more variety in the way of scenery but loop and out-and-back courses have you travelling over familiar territory. Also, loop and out-and-back courses allow you to see the fellow runners who are both in front and behind you, which can give you a boost in confidence and extra motivation.
As far as the type of terrain of the course, you will need to consider the surfaces on which you have been training. If you have been logging your miles on a treadmill or a track with no incline, for example, you would probably be better off opting for a 5K with a flat course instead of a hilly one. If your training has included some hill running, either course would work.
Also, if most of your training has been on an all-weather track or treadmill and the 5K you choose is on asphalt, the harder surface might be more jarring to your legs than you are used to. Just be prepared for your legs to be a little more sore the following day if this is the case.
Larger races will offer access to online course maps on which you may be able to see the layout of the course, possibly the terrain and maybe even the elevation. Websites like googlemaps.com and mapmyrun.com that allow you to chart a course may be helpful in figuring out the terrain of your 5K.
Big or Small?
Road races come in a variety sizes. If you enjoy the camaraderie of fellow runners and you typically train this way, you might register for a race that your training partners are doing as well, or a bigger race to ensure you will have plenty of company on the road, even if you don’t know them personally. Even a smaller, local race close to where you live might offer home crowds lining the course as well as other runners you know and who could provide an extra boost of motivation.
If you like to train alone or don’t like to converse while you are running, choosing a smaller race out of the area might be a good option. You might pick a larger race in which you will just be one of many in the crowd. You can plug in your earbuds and get in the zone.
If you need more 5k tips, check out our 5k questions for runners.
No matter which race you choose, as long as you are properly prepared, your first 5K will be a learning experience. Good luck!