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Beginners Guide to a 5K with everything from Good Finish Times to training a race tips.

Beginner’s Guide to 5K’s

Whether you’re lacing up running shoes for the first time, or you’re a seasoned racer who knows your way around race expos and finish chutes, the humble 5K is an excellent race distance for all. You can train for a 5K in as little as a month. Many people finish their first 5K and are bitten by the racing bug, and end up searching for another race to run as soon as possible. 

Many runners who are just getting started in the world of 5K racing wonder what it means to run a good 5K time. Like so many things in the racing world, a good 5K time for you depends on your previous fitness level, your age, the 5K course, and more. Running regular 5Ks can be a great way to track your fitness and stay in shape as you get older. 

Whether you’re at the front of the pack, or you take it at a slower pace, it’s fun to be a part of a 5K. Highly skilled competitive athletes love 5Ks because the short distance allows them to showcase their speed, while non-competitive runners enjoy the challenge, the energy, and the excitement of race day. 

While 5Ks are a great race to run solo, many families and groups of friends also enjoy bonding over the course of a yearly race. Turkey trots, Memorial Day 5Ks, and annual charity races are an exciting way to bring a little bit of healthy competition — or just straight-up camaraderie — to your family. 

Here, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know before you pin on your bib and step up to the finish line. Not sure what a bib is? Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered. 

A view of the course of the Canaan Valley 5K Race
A drone view of part of the course for the Canaan Valley 5K

How Far Is A 5K?

If you’re thinking about running a beginner 5K, you’re likely wondering exactly how much distance you’ll cover during the race. 

So, how long is a 5K? We’ll break it down in a few different ways: 

  • 3.1 miles (3.10686 miles, if you want to get technical)
  • 5,468 yards
  • 5,000 meters
  • 16,404 feet
  • 196,851 inches

Now that you’ve got a sense of what you’re committing to when you sign up for a 5K, let’s take a look at how long you can expect to spend on the course before you cross the finish line. 

How Long is a 5K?

Average 5K Times

When you sign up for your first 5K, it’s normal to be nervous about how long it’ll take you to complete the course, especially if you’ve never run a race before. Remember, showing up at the starting line is a victory in and of itself, especially if you’re putting yourself outside of your comfort zone. 

Many people have fears around finish times long before race day. Fears of coming in last (it happens), not being able to finish, or just having a bad day on the course are all normal thoughts of first-time (and even long-time) racers.

As we mentioned, many factors can influence your finish time, and it’s tough to know exactly what’s a great 5K finish time for you until you get a few races under your belt. Gender, athletic history, genetics, weather, course elevation, and even your mood on the day of the race can all influence your finish times. 

On average, newbie males can expect to finish a 5K between 30-40 minutes. Beginning female racers can expect to finish a 5K 35 -45 minutes. These times are estimates based on results at the Canaan Valley 5k.

Runners crossing the finish line at the Canaan Valley Half Marathon, 10K, and 5K
Nothing beats that feeling of crossing the finish line! Runners at the Canaan Valley Half Marathon, 10K, and 5K

 What’s a Good 5K Time?

Need some inspiration to push it on your next training run? Think about the world record times for the 5,000 meter (5K) distance: Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda holds the men’s world record at 12:35.36, and Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia holds the women’s world record at 14:06.62. 

Looking to train to win? Typically, male winners of 5K races finish in about 16:52, while female winners usually clock in around 19:12. If those times sound far out of reach, don’t worry — training to become a competitive runner can take years. Dedication, consistency, and commitment to hard work can all help you improve your personal best 5K time, one race at a time. 

There are ways to keep your head in the game and get competitive other than trying to win a 5K. Working to finish at the top of your age group, trying to improve on past times, or even finishing on a course more difficult than what you’d normally run can all be fantastic goals that can get you focused, motivated, and consistently performing your best. 

If you’re concerned about your times declining as you age, don’t worry — for many runners, age and experience result in faster times (especially for runners who came to the sport later in life). Many racers find that their times consistently get faster in their 20s and 30s. Research shows that runners in their 40s only experience a performance decline of 0.2% (that’s about a second per mile) each year. As your knowledge of your body, nutrition, and training improves, it’s possible to continue achieving personal bests well into your 40s and beyond. 

5K Pace Chart with Finish Times

Determining Your 5K Finish Time

If it’s your first 5K, it’s normal to wonder how fast you’ll be able to finish the race. While it can be tempting to take your fastest mile time, multiply it by 3.1, and try to beat that time, that’s not exactly realistic.

A 5K isn’t a marathon, but it’s certainly not a sprint either. If you’re running a beginner 5K, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep your fastest mile pace throughout the entire course.

A better idea: take your comfortable (but challenging) mile pace, multiply by 3.1, and add an extra minute to account for fatigue and factors out of your control. This can help you get a finish time goal that makes sense for you. It’s also a smart move to check out our race calculator to give you an idea of a smart goal time. 

Your beginner 5K time may surprise you — adrenaline, excellent preparation, being well-hydrated, and having your mind in the right place can all help you outperform your own expectations on race day. 

Tips For Your First 5K

Apprehension is normal as you prepare for a 5K, and being fully prepared can be the perfect antidote to the nerves you feel in the weeks leading up to your racing debut. Here, we’ll take a look at some factors you’ll want to consider to help you get ready for your first 5K. 

Choose a Race

You won’t have trouble finding a 5K in your area — these short(ish) races are popular and are often organized around a charity cause or holiday. 

There are a few things you’ll want to consider when choosing your first 5K: 

  • Cost. Some 5Ks are free, some have a moderate cost, others are a bit more expensive and come with fancy swag bags. 
  • Course. While it may be tempting to sign up for the toughest 5K around, you’ll want to take a look at the course map (available on the race’s website) to see if it will be doable for you. Check out the elevation gains and losses throughout the course, and make a smart decision about the course challenge level that makes sense for your fitness level. 
  • Swag. You’re going to work hard during your race — check out what runners get at the end before you sign up! Whether you’re looking for a gorgeous medal to hang on your wall, awesome post-race snacks, or a t-shirt you can wear to show off your accomplishments, be sure to take a look at the contents of the post-race goody bag. 
  • Date. You’ll want to consider a few things when it comes to timing. Does the date of the race give you an appropriate amount of time to train? While you can train to finish a 5K in about a month, you may want to allow a longer time to get ready for the race if you plan to run competitively. 
  • Chip timing. Be sure to choose a 5K that uses chip timing. A small chip that’s attached to your race bib (or that you’ll attach to a shoelace) will clock the time you cross the starting and finish lines. This means that you’ll know the actual time it took you to complete the course. Unless you’re at the very front of the pack at the starting line, there will be some lag time between the starting pistol signaling the beginning of the race and the time you cross the starting line, which can add seconds (or minutes, in large races) to your time. 
Finisher medals are the best
Awesome Race Swag, and Finish Medals are always a bonus after your 5K

Get the Right Gear

While running is one of the less expensive sports out there, you’ll still want to invest in a solid pair of shoes to protect your feet as you begin training. Head to a local running store to chat with a well-informed specialist about the type of shoes that makes the most sense for your feet. If you’ve been wearing the wrong running shoes, you won’t believe the difference a good pair of sneakers makes in your training. 

If you’re throwing some longer runs into your training (an hour or more) you may also want to check out fuel belts that allow you to bring energy gels, jelly beans, or other quick and easy fuel sources. 

Training for a new race can also be the perfect time to invest in some new running gear — there’s nothing worse than being uncomfortable when you’re pushing your body to the limit. 

Train Right

A tried-and-true beginner 5K training plan is an important part of preparing you for your first race. Check out plans from Hal Higdon, Runner’s World, Jeff Galloway, Nike, and Runkeeper to find one that’s the right fit for you. 

Be sure to select a training plan that’s the right fit for you — a plan for someone who has never run consistently will likely look different from a plan for someone who is trying to improve their time. Choose a training plan that has a doable schedule for you, includes rest days, and covers approximately the amount of time until race day. 

It’s also smart to include cross-training in your plan. Lifting, yoga, HIIT classes, biking, and swimming can all be great additions to your 5K training. 

It's hard to beat the feeling of a mass start of a race
It's hard to beat the feeling of the start of a race! This picture is from the Inaugural Canaan Valley Half Marathon, 10K, and 5K

Meet Other Runners

Check out a local running shop or Facebook pages to get in touch with a nearby running group. Runners have a great sense of community with one another, and getting to know other runners in your area can help you stay motivated and committed to your training plan. You might even get to chat with runners who are running the same 5K!

Learn What Pre-Race Fuel Works For You

Race day isn’t the time you try out some new fuel. As race day approaches, be sure to try out different types of fuel before your run to learn what works for your body. You may feel that you run best on an empty stomach, or you might enjoy a piece of toast before you hit the pavement. Take note of what works well for you, and be sure to keep that routine on race day morning. 

Race Day: What To Expect

Deep breath. 

On the morning of race day, anxiety is normal, but you’ve trained for this — you’re ready. 

For a smooth race day, you’ll want to: 

  • Arrive early. Give yourself plenty of time to beat traffic, find a parking space, get to the starting line, use the restroom, and warm up. Check the race’s website or Facebook page for information on how many people are expected. If it’s a large race, you’ll likely need to leave extra time to walk from the parking area to the starting line. 
  • Pin on your bib. You may have had the option to pick up your bib ahead of time, or you may need to pick it up on race day morning. Simply head to the registration or check-in area, get your bib and a few safety pins, and pin it to your shirt or other article of clothing you know you won’t remove during the race, even if you get warm. Easy!
  • Have a plan for your gear (and your keys). If it’s an early morning or chilly weather race, what you wear to warm up may not be what you wear during the race. If the race doesn’t offer bags to stash your gear, wear a warm-up shirt you don’t mind losing, and bring a single car key (tie it securely to your shoelace). 
  • Fuel normally. You’ve discovered what works for your body — don’t stray from the pre-race food (or lack thereof) that makes you feel your best). 
  • Warm up — but don’t overdo it. You’ll have some nerves the morning of race day, and that’s normal. Warm up your muscles with some light jogging and stretching, but don’t run around too much to try to ease your nerves — you might end up tiring yourself out before the gun goes off. 
  • Hit the restroom. The lines for the restroom will likely be long, and you’ll want to make sure you get there with plenty of time before the start. Get in line early — you’ll be glad you did. 

Signing up for a 5K is exciting, and training for your first race gives you the chance to show yourself (and others!) what you’re made of. Enjoy the process, and don’t be afraid to leave it all on the course on race day. You’re ready for this — do your best, and enjoy every second of your post-race endorphin high. You’ve earned it!

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Robby McClung

Robby McClung

This article was written by the editorial staff of the Canaan Valley Running Company and Robby McClung. Robby is the founder of the Canaan Valley Running Company. You can read more in the about section of the website on Robby and the Canaan Valley Running Company.

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