Pacing the marathon and half marathon means playing a long game. Start out too fast in the marathon, and you will hit the wall; get too greedy at the start of the half, and you will slow down with heavy legs by mile 10. These are both long distance races that require patience, fatigue resistance, and enough carbs in the tank to power anywhere from 90 minutes to almost 5 hours of running.
The 5K and 10K are completely different when it comes to pacing. Hitting a wall is not an issue in these shorter events, which take most runners about an hour or less to finish. At the same time, most runners will agree that 5K and 10K races, with their lung-searing speeds, hurt from the start – there’s no comfortable miles here. You may have tired legs near the end of the half marathon, but at the end of the 5K or 10K, the finish line never seems to get closer even as the metallic taste of hard effort fills your mouth.
Just as with long distance races, starting out too fast can set you up for a slowdown in a 5K or 10K. You want to start out controlled in terms of effort, not letting the adrenaline of race day mess with your mind-body connection. Most likely, this will equate to starting out at goal pace – or very close – in the first mile of the race.
From there, the 5K and a 10K are a game of holding on and pushing hard through the dreaded middle miles, when everything hurts yet the finish line is far away. The best thing you can do during the middle miles is to not think about the end of the race – focus on the mile you are in. The final third of each distance should be the hardest and, hopefully, the fastest.
You will pace your best in a 5K or 10K race when you warm up well. Dynamic stretches (such as these warm-ups), a 10-15 minute warm-up jog, and strides will prepare your body to run fast from the start of the race. Without a warm-up, your perceived effort will be higher from the start of the race.
Pacing a 5K Race
The first mile: In terms of effort, this should feel like a fast tempo run. Stay in control and resist the urge to start out at a sprint. You don’t want to be too conservative, so if you feel like you are off on an easy run, pick up the pace a bit.
The second mile: This is arguably the most challenging mile in the 5K. More than anything, this mile requires focus. The pace should feel hard at this point, but still within your abilities. Every time you feel tempted to slow down, assess your form: relax your shoulders, quicken your turnover, and focus on a smooth stride.
The third mile: If you feel like you have anything left in your tank at this point, use this mile as an opportunity to run harder. If one mile feels impossibly long, focus on maintaining your current pace as best as you can. Try to pick a runner in front of you and pass them, then give yourself a moment before picking another runner to attempt to pass.
The final 0.1: Sprint as fast as you can while maintaining good form.
Pacing a 10K Race
The first mile: Your first mile should like a tempo effort – comfortably hard and controlled.
The second and third miles: Don’t think about the finish line at this point – focus on the miles you are in. At this point, you should be running at a hard yet controlled effort. If the pace feels beyond your ability, slow down a bit.
The fourth and fifth miles: These miles are uncomfortable – so being mentally comfortable with physical discomfort is essential. If you feel good, pick up the pace and run faster; if you are struggling, do your best to maintain your current pace. Either way, this means increasing your perceived effort.
The sixth mile: Divide this last into smaller segments, such as quarter miles, and increase your effort with each segment. You may slow down in the mile, so focus on keeping up your perceived effort and not slowing down.
The final 0.2: Sprint as fast as you can while maintaining good form.
Any strategy should be adjusted for the course – aiming for a negative split may not work on a race that begins on a downhill and ends on uphills.
Linking up with Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday!
What works best for you in pacing a 5K or 10K race?
Do you prefer racing a 5K or 10K?
These are both great strategies. I find 5ks so challenging to pace. Ive been guilty of going out either too slow or too fast. I agree that the second mile can be the hardest because you’re already tired but know you still have half the race to go.
Thank you! It’s hard to start a 5K just right!
I’m horrible at pacing for a 5k! I always go all out for the first mile and then hang on as much as I can for the last. It’s been YEARS since I raced a 5k. Maybe I need to do that this year? Not going to lie – that scares the pants off me! 😉
It scares the pants off of me also! It’s just a pain cave the entire race!
This is great advice! As I’m starting to struggle more with long distances, I may change my focus to shorter races. Stay tuned.
I bet shorter races would be a fun change of pace for you! And thank you!
It has been so long since I have participated in an organized 5k, so I am not sure which distance I prefer to race (hmmmm….maybe I add that as a goal near the end of the year…). As to what has worked well for pacing, that would be following the plan you have laid out for me. 🙂 My 10k PR last fall was pretty fantastic. I have really tried to hone in on focusing on effort for each mile vs actual pace. As you touched on, depending on the course, focusing too much on time can throw things off.
You ran an awesome 10K last fall – your pacing was perfect in that race!
I have run a lot of 10K’s (and 5K’s as well), but seldom have a strategy….I just try to run them faster than a half marathon, but with a controlled, steady pace. I have a 10K happening in a few weeks, I’m gonna try breaking each mile up like you suggested. Thanks!
Good luck on your 10K!
These are great tips!
I truly like every distance (except marathon, which I have not attempted).
They all have their challenges & that’s part of what makes running so interesting!
I agree – every distance is challenging in its own way!
This makes me think I paced my last 10K too conservatively! And I’ve yet to race a 5K I was well-trained for. Maybe this year…
I bet you would surprise yourself going into a 5K race with a bit of training! It would be fun!
I’m still thinking about a 10k for this spring! I have two options and neither of which will I plan for – I think it will end up a very last minute decision.
You should do it! Your running recently has been fast so it would be fun to see where you end up on race day!
For a 5k, I find it important not to start out too slow as it’s really difficult to make that time up. Once I get into a rhythm, speeding up becomes a real challenge and uses up a lot of energy.
Great article! I just raced a 5K yesterday and forgot how painful it was. You definitely hit the nail on the head – pain cave – and that’s exactly what it was. At mile 3 my glutes and back start tightening up quite a bit and need to work on that area. I do some stretches before the race but definitely have to incorporate all these you mentioned and see how that affects my outcome.