Sesame’s Strategy for Running Your Best 5k

5ks often get a bad rap, and rightfully so. Racing a 5k can be painful, but when approached correctly, it can also be incredibly rewarding! Of course that is assuming that you enjoy challenging yourself and testing your limits, but isn’t that is why a lot of us are hooked on the sport of running to begin with?

5ks are higher in intensity than longer races. They hurt more, but they are over more quickly. It’s best not to spend too much time thinking about how you feel (save that for next week’s therapy session) and instead, focus on executing one section of the race at a time. In this post, we will look at five key sections of your 5k race day.

Warmup: I highly recommend running 2 to 3 very easy miles pre-race. Of course, use your own judgement as far as what you think your body can handle, based on your experience level and overall mileage. Often I find that it takes me at least a mile or two to feel good. If it takes you a few miles to feel good, you might as well knock out those miles before the race. After your easy warmup miles, pick up the pace and do a few strides to stir up the aerobic enzymes and prime the engine before heading to the start line.

Here’s how the race should go down:

First 10%: Avoid the early sprint out and instead ease into the pace. While it seems to be fairly common, sprinting off the start line is not a good idea as it will only serve to spike your lactic acid levels, causing you to hurt sooner rather than later. Instead, start off smooth and use the first quarter-mile to gradually settle into your race rhythm and goal pace. This takes some pressure off the start and increases the chances of feeling good throughout the race.

Middle 70%: Once you settle into your goal pace range, you need to plan to stay here for the majority of the race (in this case from a quarter-mile to 2 miles). While I definitely advocate negative splitting in longer races, I don’t think it is a great strategy for a 5k, especially if we are talking about racing to your true potential. The goal here is to run within your goal pace range and to use as little energy as possible while doing so. Stay relaxed and focus on the rhythm of your footfall, keeping a strong cadence.

Last 20%: You made it to the home stretch! During the last mile, it’s time to really challenge yourself, compete and give it your best effort. Race it home with whatever is left in the tank. Depending on how the day is going, you should still be within your goal pace range or perhaps a tad faster. Your training has prepared you to run fast when you are tired. Break the last mile up into chunks and focus on executing one segment at a time.

Cooldown: I also recommend getting in 2 to 3 easy miles after the race (again, use your own judgement here). This will help you flush the lactic acid out of your muscles and will promote recovery. It can be difficult to make yourself do anything else after the race, but trust me, it is well worth it!

The great thing about the 5k distance is that you can get out there and test the strategy over and over again until you master it. I’ve run over 50 5ks in the last five years and this is the strategy that has worked best for me. There have been races where I have run incredibly negative splits (with the last mile over 30 seconds quicker than the first) and races where I have run incredibly positive splits (with the first mile over 30 seconds quicker than the last), but my best performances have been incredibly even splits (all miles within 5 seconds of each other).

Try this strategy at your next 5k and let us know how it goes!

What’s your 5k strategy?

I am a racing and running enthusiast. My races range from 1 mile to 50K and everything in between! I work as a CPA in public accounting and as an adjunct professor at a local university. I enjoy running (obviously) and spending time outdoors (especially near the water). I am also a big fan of coffee, naps, puppies and sunsets.

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  1. Thanks for this post and all of the comments! This comes at a perfect time as my coach and I are focusing on the 5K distance right now. I’m pretty good at pacing strategies for any distance longer than a 10K. In fact, I often run 5K and 10K PRs within a marathon because my body is so warmed up. But strategizing for shorter races, especially the 5Ks, are hard for me because I feel like I’m supposed to just sprint the whole time, which makes me really insecure. I’m going to incorporate your and Salty’s strategies into my 5K races.

  2. I’m so excited to read this! I’m exclusively racing 5k’s; as a new-ish runner, I want to see how fast I can do it before I extend to longer distances. I’d love to read advice on training for one as well. As for your strategy, for me the middle mile is the beast. I go out pretty smooth, and then hold on for dear life through that middle mile. The last mile is mostly mental, and much more fun b/c I know it’ll be over soon. I don’t warm up as much as you do, but I do about 10 minutes of light jogging and active stretching (my favorite is high kicks- great hamstring stretch). And definitely a cool down.
    Would you pretty please write about training for a 5K?

    1. I think that is really smart to focus on the 5K if you are a newer runner. So many people jump right up to half or full marathon, but I think it’s best to naturally work your way up. I’d love to write a post about training for a 5k. I’ll see if I can make that happen :)

  3. I ran my PR with a 3 mile warm-up at a fast-side of easy pace (~7:15 pace when my race pace was 5:52 pace) plus 4 x 30 second strides right before. I did the warm-up on the course and visualized the race which helped a ton! I also had some success with breaking the race into 4ths. The first quarter was setting a good tone for the race. The second was getting into a rhythm. The third was upping the effort (this is always the hardest 4th of the race, and by upping the effort a little at the halfway point, you’ll mostly just maintain pace). The last 4th is finishing strong. So this was essentially breaking the race down into 1200s.

    1. That sounds like a great strategy as well! I usually do my warm up miles VERY slowly, so now I’m curious if picking the pace up a little on those would help at all. My PR race pace is a tad slower than yours, but in general, pretty similar. I typically run my warm up miles at close to 9:00 pace. Haha. It’s been over 2 years since I’ve gotten a 5k PR at this point and I really want to change that! It’s nice to take a break from marathon training to focus on shorter stuff, which is what I plan to do throughout the spring and summer.

  4. This is a great strategy, and one that I usually follow. I have just issued myself a 5k challenge. For the last few years I have been focusing on marathons and long trail races. I am now going to try to run a 5k a month (approximately) and try to improve my time with each one. First 5k on Sunday.

    1. I love that challenge! I like to take breaks from marathon training to focus on speed as well. I think it’s a nice change of pace (literally) and keeps us well-rounded. Ultimately, the faster you get at the shorter stuff, the easier your marathon pace will feel as well. Good luck with your 5k!