- Beginners should spend 2-3 months training for a 5K, while experienced runners can prepare in 2-3 weeks.
- Optimal training plans include a combination of interval and endurance running.
- It’s also important to strike a healthy balance between running and resting in order to recover properly.
Training for a 5k but short on time? The bottom line is don’t rush.
It is estimated that 50% of runners are injured each year. And entering a race you’re not ready for could make you one of them.
Here’s how long you should train for a 5K based on your fitness level and tips on how to focus your training.
How long should you train for a 5k?
New runners should spend two to three months training for a 5K to properly build endurance and understand what their body needs.
Experienced runners, on the other hand, can prepare for a few weeks of “focused training,” says Cat Kom, an ACE-certified personal trainer and founder of Studio SWEAT onDemand.
“As with any athletic endeavor, the more training [you do]the healthier and safer you’ll be,” Kom says. “Don’t rush if you don’t have to.”
If you have limited time to train, you’ll want to do it as effectively as possible. I spoke to two athletic trainers for their top tips on how to train quickly and safely for a 5K.
1. Get an ongoing assessment first
Before beginning a training program, Kenny Ferrer, CPT and FitOn Head Trainer, recommends getting a running evaluation, also known as a gait evaluation, at a local running store.
“Your gait refers to how your body moves [while] walking, jogging and running,” Ferrer tells Insider. “That information allows you to experiment with the right running shoes to support your individual form.”
Knowing how you move and having shoes that give you the support your body needs can help prevent injuries, such as leg cramps, hamstring pulls, or knee injuries, and allow you to improve your running performance.
2. Find a balance between running and resting
Your current fitness level affects the amount of time you need to prepare for a 5K, the amount of rest you’ll need, and what you’ll be able to do during training.
A key part of your fitness level is your aerobic capacity, which refers to how well your lungs work while doing a cardiovascular activity like running.
Ferrer says that to build your aerobic capacity, you must first find the right balance between running and resting.
The amount of rest one needs varies, but running three days a week and resting four is a good balance for most. Alternate on and off days to give your muscles time to recover.
3. Do interval runs
You can further improve your aerobic fitness by doing interval runs, alternating between sprinting and walking or jogging at a more relaxed pace.
This also helps improve your efficiency, speed, and endurance, as the higher intensity of training pushes your body differently than something like a slower endurance run. Benefits include increased calorie burn (during and after exercise), better running performance, and improved cardiovascular fitness.
“Interval training involves combining high-intensity sprints that are typically done over a shorter period of time with recovery periods between sprints,” explains Kom. “For example, do a 45-second sprint with a 1:30 recovery done 10 times in a row.”
4. Add drag racing
Endurance runs focus on consistency rather than intensity: Instead of alternating between sprints and runs, you maintain a low to moderate pace and try to run for a longer period of time.
Kom suggests implementing a combination of interval and endurance runs throughout your training. He adds that new runners should focus on running no more than 3.1 miles (ie 5 km) while training to avoid overdoing it.
If you experience any of the following warning signs, you may be overdoing it:
- Persistent fatigue, lethargy, and/or muscle weakness that lasts longer than a recovery day
- Decreased performance (i.e. it takes you longer to run the same distances)
- Decreased appetite
- trouble sleeping
- General loss of motivation.
Listen to your body, rest when you need it and don’t push yourself beyond your capabilities; you won’t get very far with injured or exhausted muscles.
The importance of a 5k training plan
Using a training plan, especially one personalized by a running coach or trainer, strikes a balance between challenging yet realistic.
With a proper plan, you can learn to pace yourself so you don’t run too fast on race day due to nerves or excitement and burn out before the finish line. It also helps you stay motivated throughout the training process.
Here is an example of a beginner training plan designed by Cat Kom:
Should you run on a treadmill or outdoors?
Both Ferrer and Kom recommend running outdoors as much as possible.
If you’re used to running inside an air-conditioned gym, the hot sun or cold wind could put you off on race day. Practicing in a variety of real-world conditions helps you learn to control your breathing and pace when the weather throws you off.
Running on a treadmill also doesn’t exercise the body like running outdoors does.
“When you run outside, you use your body to propel yourself forward, propelling off the ground below you,” adds Ferrer. “Running on a treadmill requires keeping pace with a moving belt that creates subtle changes in your [running style] and overall efficiency.
Both experts add that treadmills aren’t entirely useless. Kom recommends keeping routines fresh by doing some interval training on a treadmill.
How to stay motivated
It’s natural to have days when you’re not motivated to run. Ferrer recommends creating an “attitude of disciplined commitment” towards training to overcome it.
“Saying ‘I will train no matter what’ and sticking to it is transformative,” he says. “It takes away a lot of the drama that comes from fighting yourself.”
Having a purpose behind your goal can also be helpful. Whether it’s to boost your self-esteem, get those mood-enhancing endorphins flowing, improve your cardiovascular health, or simply prove to yourself that you can do it, it can push you past mental barriers.
Kom suggests writing a mantra about why you’re competing and posting it somewhere you see every day.
Proper training is crucial to avoid injury and ensure your best 5k running performance.
It is also important not to rush your training. With a focused plan, beginners can prepare for a 5K in anywhere from six to 12 weeks.
If you’re an experienced runner, you may be able to get enough training in as little as two or three weeks.
Don’t forget to listen to your body, get adequate rest, and develop a disciplined commitment to why you’re training for a race.