Learn to Race Your Best 5k!

garlicThough a long-time runner, I am somewhat of a newbie racer.  Nearly a year into my tenure as a competitive local road racer, I still find myself learning things about how to race the 5K, my distance of choice, every single time I do it. Yes, I wrote “learning how to race.” For, much to my surprise, it turns out racing a distance is not only about bolting at the gun and trying to run it as fast as you can. If you race the same distance again and again, you will find your body and mind respond in certain ways at certain points in the race. Make note of this my friends, and remember it well! This is priceless fodder for directing your future training and mental preparation, and can help unlock the full potential of your fitness.

You have to learn to race your best 5k by racing 5ks!


You can learn to race any distance, of course, but here I am going to make a plug for the 5K as ideal distance for learning how to race. As Chipotle so eloquently put it, it’s a distance worthy of much respect. And there are some great reasons to love the 5K; notably, if at first you don’t succeed, you can try, try again! There are numerous local 5K road races on any given weekend, so racing one does not require much advance planning or far travel. Also, recovery from a 5K race is relatively swift; if you are Catnip, you might even be able to recover and race again the very next day! But for most of us, racing a 5K every 2-3 weeks is entirely feasible, and certainly once a month is manageable and results in little disruption in the progression of your training. So you have plenty of opportunity to learn from your mistakes or deficiencies, take steps in your mental and/or physical training to address these, and then try again soon afterwards. You will be amazed at how consistently making little tweaks in your race preparation and plan can result in huge improvements.

If you haven’t recently run a 5K and you want to use it to learn to race, I think it’s good to establish a starting point. Pick a local race and, as my fellow Salties advised me when I raced my first 5K last April, this is the time when you should run it all out – “balls to the wall.” See how you do. You have nothing to lose, because unlike with a marathon, if you crash and burn it’s a short enough distance you can always stop and walk home.

Once you have a starting point, each time you race the distance make note of where you have trouble or what you would like to improve upon. Patterns may emerge, or, as you improve in one area, other weaknesses may come to light. With 5ks, you can go through a trial and error process of discovery.

  • Do you have a tough time getting yourself going, and wind up finishing feeling like you still have way too much left in the tank?
  • Do you blaze out of the start like a bat out of hell, only to run out of gas at mile 2?
  • Do you find yourself making excuses in your head as to why you can’t run faster?
  • Do you feel afraid to push? If so, at what point in the race do you need to psych yourself up and be braver?
View each 5k as a chance to learn more about yourself as a racer. Flickr commons image by borwick.

Race a 5k, assess your performance and learn where you need to improve. The information you glean from practice races is all great information! It can help you decide if you need more sharpening with short fast intervals, or more stamina runs such as tempos or over-distance races. It might even reveal some mental barriers that need to be worked on to fully realize your potential.

For example, over the past 9 months I have shaved nearly 2 minutes off my 5K time, because of fitness gains for sure, but also by working on learning the distance. When I first started running 5Ks last spring and summer, I always went out too fast and had difficulty with the second half of the race. So I worked hard at controlling the start and making sure I didn’t go anaerobic too quickly so I could finish stronger.

Once I improved at this, the next thing I learned (by racing) was I had major fear of pushing myself hard in the middle of the race. This led to time and preparation spent on figuring out at what point in the race I needed to start to get aggressive (for me, mile 1.5) and which cue words I could call upon at that time to help me to be mentally fierce and take the risk of running faster (Opportunity! Joy! Brave!).  Getting better at doing this then exposed (again by racing) a deficiency in my stamina: the last two races I’ve totally tanked in the last half-mile. So currently, my training is incorporating lots of strength running to address this weakness. And even after all of these months learning the 5K, I still don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface of how to master it!

How about you, Salties? Have you had to learn to race in order to perform your best? What has been your most useful learning experience from racing a given distance?


Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. I dread 5ks (so much pain!), but my coach insists I run them in order to improve my long distance races. They are great speed work, no doubt. So far I’ve raced a few and I agree that I learn something new about the strategy, and myself, every time. This year I hope to get a handful more under my belt and to learn to love this masochistic race!

    1. I have a love-hate with them. On the one hand, they have done so much for my development as a runner and I am always grateful for the experience afterwards. But this doesn’t stop me from quaking in my sneaks every time I line up at the start of one of them!

  2. 5ks are so hard. But I love them. I especially love that you kill yourself and push yourself and feel pretty much everything emotion on the planet, and then suddenly it’s over hardly before it begun. It’s a great race to either aim to master or just to use learn to race.

    1. It is so exhilarating to finish a 5k! While racing I can’t wait for it to end but as soon as I’m done I want to do it again … Tomorrow, but again! 🙂

  3. I’m just getting back into racing and I’m totally nervous 🙂
    I’m a college student who ran well in high school and I’ve kept up my running since, about 25-30 miles a week, but I haven’t raced. My husband is a talented Division 1 NCAA Cross Country and Track athlete, making it difficult not to compare myself to that crazy elite, 4 min mile standard.
    I’m running my first official 5k in years on Saturday as a way to get back into racing and I’m totally nervous. 3.2 miles is totally doable but I find myself mentally shrinking.
    Thanks for your tips and this great website; it really helps to read from other runners in my situation!

    1. Thanks for your comment! Your race on Saturday will be an exciting starting point in this new phase in your training, and I’m sure you will feel so much better once you bust the rust. BEST of luck – let us know how it goes!

      1. Thank you so much for reaching out to me! Your little encouragement was super appreciated; I was so nervous and it helped.

        It actually went great! I surprised myself by running 30 seconds faster per mile than I originally thought and by almost medaling in my division.
        I learned that…
        1) I have a kick and should probably start putting that to use BEFORE the last 400 m. My husband, who like I said is a crazy runner, said he could tell I could’ve pushed it harder because I was still talking with 800 m to go 🙂
        2) Guys REALLY REALLY don’t like to be passed. They take it very, very personally.
        3) It was a lot easier to run with a, “I’m doing this to beat MY time, MY goals, and show MYSELF what I can do,” mentality, rather than with a, “I need to beat OTHERS to be a good runner.”

        I just really need to strengthen my anaerobic and, most critically, my mentality. Do you have any advice on that?

        Do you guys plan out all the races you’re going to do months in advance? Or do you wait to sign up until after your next race is finished? I’m finding it’s hard to keep up the intensity if I don’t have another race lined up, and I’m just curious how you guys do it.

        Thanks for letting me write a novel. Like I said, this is the only way I have of communicating with other runners like me! It’s wonderful.

        1. Awesome! Sounds like the first foray back into racing went about as well as it could have. I train with a coach so I do plan out my races in advance – however, I do try to keep a flexible mindset and listen to my body so nothing is set in stone. Regarding mental training, I find it’s helpful to segment the race into pieces and then set process goals for each piece; i.e., I’m going to hold steady until mile 1.5, then surge from 1.5-2, etc. It makes the race far more manageable, in my opinion. Best of luck!