The season of turkey trots and holiday races is approaching quickly. This is the time of year when many devoted marathoners and half marathoners, now done with their fall goal races, dabble in the shorter distances including the 5K.
If you ask a marathoner or half marathoner which race distance scares them the most, many will answer the 5K. Most long distance runners gravitate towards 13.1 and 26.2 races because of a natural physical propensity for endurance over speed.
That said, even as an endurance runner, you don’t have to fear the 5K! These tips will guide you through racing a 5K and enjoying the experience.
A Long Distance Runner’s Guide to Racing the 5K
You obviously do not need to take fuel during a 5K race, but this doesn’t mean you should race on an empty stomach. The faster you run, the more carbohydrates your body burns. A bit of food on your stomach before the race assures that your muscles are primed and energized for running hard.
Eat a small snack or pre run meal of 100-300 calories approximately 1-2 hours before the race. This should be something you practiced in training, specifically before fast 5K pace workouts. Something simple like a banana or toast with jam should provide enough energy without weighing down your stomach.
Get Your Caffeine Fix
A 2008 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports concluded that caffeine ingestion before a 5K race produces “small but significant gains” in your finish time. Well-trained runners recorded 5K times 1.1% faster when they ingested 5 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight.
While tea and caffeinated sports nutrition products can provide caffeine, brewed coffee will provide you with the ideal amount of caffeine as based on this study. 8 ounces of brewed coffee contains 95-200 mg of caffeine (depending on the strength), which will be under the amounts used in the study but enough to increase your finish time.
As with everything else, don’t wait until race day to drink coffee before a run. You may experience the jitters or the trots, both of which will set you up for a miserable 3.1 miles.
Pre-Race Warm Up
The thing most endurance runners, myself included, often state regarding the 5K is: “It takes me 3 miles just to feel warmed up!” If that’s the case (which it is for most of us endurance types), then you should include a long warm up before your race.
In addition to warming up your joints and muscles and preparing the body to run fast, a long warm up before a 5K will decrease the risk of injury. Long distance runners’ bodies aren’t acclimated to running hard and fast, so a 5K could place more stress on your weak areas such as hamstrings, calves, or hips. By making sure these muscles are loosened and the joints are mobile, you reduce the risk of pulling something during your finishing sprint.
Your warm up should be similar to what you do before your interval workouts. Begin with dynamic stretches, 1-3 miles of easy running, and then 4-6 strides at goal 5K pace. Complete your warm up 30-45 minutes before the race begins.
You don’t want to start out at a pace too fast to sustain, but unlike the marathon or half marathon, you don’t want to start out much slower than goal pace. Seconds matter in the 5K.
Thanks to your warm up, you should be able to start out at your goal pace during the first mile. The rest of the race should be focused on holding onto your pace as best as possible and then delivering your best finishing sprint for the last 0.1 mile.
If you start out slightly faster than you planned, don’t panic. A 2006 study from the University of New Hampshire concluded that running the first mile of a 5K race 3-6% faster than your goal pace can still lead to a fast finish time. For a 7 minute per mile 5K runner, 3-6% faster translates to 6:36 to 6:48 per mile pace. You don’t want to aim to start that fast, but unlike the marathon or half marathon, a fast start does not guarantee that you will slow down later in the race.
Embrace the fact that you will be uncomfortable from the start and focus on one mile at a time. For long distance runners, the searing pace of a 5K race will feel uncomfortable from the start. Remind yourself that the race will likely be over in 20-30 minutes – shorter than your average training run, most likely!
After the Race
It will be normal to probably feel a bit nauseous after running that fast when you are not used to that level of continuous effort. Drink some water and give your stomach time to settle before eating or indulging in a post-race beer.
A slow cool down jog or walk will help return your body to homeostasis, so don’t stop moving the moment you cross the finish line. Even just one mile of easy running will lower your adrenaline levels and thus transition your body from stress to recovery.
And then, have your post-race beer. Many long distance runners disparage the 5K, but any race where you push yourself as hard as you can for the distance is worth celebrating!
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Are you racing a 5K or other short distance race this fall/winter?
Which race distance is your least favorite?
What tips would you add for racing the 5K?