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What You Need to Know to Run Your First 5K

A photo of runners during a race

Ready to tackle a 5K race? Perhaps you’ve been devoted to your 5K training plan for months, or maybe you’re just winging it. But whether you’ve faithfully stuck to a plan or not, there are plenty of ways to make the most of your upcoming 5K.

Here is what to expect during your first 5K and tips to have a great time.

Pre-Race Prep

Register early. Most races offer a lower price tag with advanced registration. Early signup also gives you first dibs on race swag like T-shirts, and it gets you in before the race sells out. If you must register on race day, expect higher prices and long lines. Some smaller races will only accept cash or check on race day, so do your research.

Read the website. It sounds basic, but you will feel like a pro when you know what to expect. Get familiar with the course map, the bathroom locations and the schedule for the day. Invite friends! Arrange a carpool and BYO running crew. Running with a group makes you happier! And it’s more fun to warm up, cool down and celebrate with friends.

Runners line up for the start of a race

What to pack for a 5K. Here’s what you need to bring:

  • Comfortable running shoes and running socks. Match your shoes to the terrain and competition level. For a road race, pick road shoes. For a trail race, you will get the traction you need from trail shoes. Want to go faster? Choose lighter running shoes.
  • A comfortable, weather-appropriate race outfit. Check the forecast leading up to race day! Consider the temperature, precipitation and sun, and tailor your kit accordingly. Depending on the conditions, you may want a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. And no matter the conditions, your race day clothes should breathable, quick-drying, lightweight and properly sized.
  • Protection from chafing. Wear high-quality synthetic fabrics, like polyester or nylon, or pick a soft natural fabric, like merino wool. Whatever you do, avoid cotton, which can soak up sweat and chafe. If you’re prone to blisters and hot spots, get extra help from products like Body Glide or Squirrel’s Nut Butter.
  • A water bottle or hydration system. Most races provide cups or plastic water bottles, but having your own gives you more control over your hydration and cuts down on waste. On a hot day, you may want to race with a handheld bottle or water belt during a race.
  • Nutrition products such as hydration tabs, gels and bard. Nutrition products designed specifically for runners help fuel, hydrate and replenish your body before and after the run.
  • A change of clothes for after the race. Don’t be wet and uncomfortable during the post-race party. Remember a fresh pair of undies and spare shoes or recovery sandals. Most people underestimate how much their feet sweat during a race. Plus, you can make your running shoes last longer if you let them air out and decompress.
A large group of runners start a race

On Race Day

Fuel right. Eat familiar foods that you know won’t upset your stomach. Race day is not the time to try something new. Since a 5K is a short event, eat something with more carbohydrates, which will burn faster than fatty or protein-heavy foods. Give yourself plenty of time to digest your meal so you won’t be racing on a full stomach.

Packet pickup. What’s in a packet, you ask? It depends on the race. The most important thing is your bib, or race number. This allows the timing company to keep track of each runner, and you can’t run the race without it. Some packets will have nothing but a number, and others will include swag like T-shirts, drinking glasses, coupons and more.

Unless otherwise instructed, pin your bib onto the front of your shirt, not your back. If you can get four safety pins, use them all so it won’t flap around while you’re running. If you aren’t wearing a shirt, pin it to your shorts. Race officials need your number to be visible while you’re running.

Give yourself plenty of time. Most races offer packet pickup on the day before the race and in the hours before the race begins. Early pickup lets you avoid long lines and pre-race stress. If you must wait for race day to get your goodies, arrive as much as an hour before the start so you can get what you need, visit the facilities and warm up before the race.

There is always a long line for the bathroom. Always. Most people get nervous before a race, which can enhance tummy troubles. It’s normal to use the bathroom several times before a race if you’ve been hydrating all day, or if you’re nervous. Pro tips: Use the bathroom right when you show up before the line gets long. Bring extra toilet paper or tissues, just in case.

Warm up. Use this as a time to get your heart rate up, get your muscles warm and check out the course before the race.

Consider your position at the starting line (front, middle, back). The front is for the people who expect to place at the front of the pack. You don’t want to get stampeded if you’re planning to walk. If you’re gunning for a PR, don’t put yourself in the very back, either. You’ll lose valuable time getting around others if you underestimate yourself. There’s no perfect way to pick your position, but give it some thought and ask those around you what pace they plan to run.

Race day adrenaline is a double-edged sword. It can amp you up at the start, making your normal race pace feel easy-breezy. Similarly, running with a crowd can push racers to start much faster than normal. Be mindful of your pace, and don’t go out too fast. This is the number one way to burn out too quickly. Stick with a consistent pace that you can maintain for the entire race. You’ll want to have some energy left to pick up the pace at the end. Pacing takes practice, but you are typically better off if you don’t push yourself too hard, too early.

It’s going to get tough. Before the race, decide how you might adjust your game when you get tired. Have a mantra for yourself to help you stay positive and not give up. Think about how proud you’ll be when you finish. If needed, plan walk breaks to let your heart rate come down. Walking isn’t quitting, and it doesn’t mean the race is over! Think about your training and the workouts you got through to get yourself to this point. You can do this!

CELEBRATE! When you’re finished, cheer for the other finishers. Take photos, pick up your medal, high five your friends, do a victory dance. Don’t forget to cool down and rehydrate. You’ll be tired, but try not to plop down in the grass immediately afterward. Walk or jog around and let your muscles recover. Many events have post-race celebrations with music, food, drinks and awards. Celebrate your accomplishment and have a great time! Start planning for your next race! Memories of pain and fatigue are quickly replaced by feelings of euphoria, achievement and plans for how to do it even better next time. Embrace it and sign up for your next event.

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.

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