How to Race Your Best 5K

I originally posted this article over at Salty Running, but I figured I would share it here as well. The Spring racing season is heating up and you should have plenty of opportunities to test out this strategy!


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 me know how it goes!

3 thoughts on “How to Race Your Best 5K”

  1. This is probably some of the best 5K advice I have received. I always struggle with how to pace these things, especially at the beginning when you don’t want the little kids getting in your way– so you allow them to take you out 30 seconds per mile faster than you wanted! I am going to use this for my next 5K.


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