If you’re considering a 5K race this year, then autumn is the perfect time to lace up your running shoes! Fall is the best running season for good reasons: comfortable weather, colorful foliage and a cornucopia of races to choose from. Whether it’s a turkey trot or a charity run, a 5K (a little over 3 miles) is an approachable distance for runners of any level.
To help you run your best race, here’s the most strategic way to choose a race, train smart, and find the most appropriate gear for any weather you might encounter.
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Which 5K Race is Ideal?
There’s no single “best” race course. Each path is different based on its location, elevation change, altitude, and even the surface you’ll be running on. As a beginner you may want to look for these features to maximize speed and enjoyment during your first 5K:
1. Course elevation gain: Elevation is a key element to consider for race day, especially if you’re a beginner! This is because running at higher altitudes will reduce the amount of oxygen forcing your lungs to work much harder. You should choose a course whose elevation gain matches the course you’ve been training on. This will ensure that you have a pleasant race experience.
2. A USA Track and Field certified course: If accuracy matters to you, a certified course will ensure that the distance is accurate. This will help you better gauge your personal best time on completing the race.
3. Race date in October or November: Depending on where you live, this will change. However, for the contiguous U.S., a race date in October or November will be best because it’s not too hot for fast racing.
4. Make it a road race: As a beginner, stick to the road, as opposed to trail, as much as possible. Trail runs are more advanced, but if you want to consider them, check out this beginner’s guide to trail running.
How to Train for a 5K Race
After finding your beginner-friendly course, plan out some training time. Depending on your fitness level, you may want to focus on either finishing the 5K or running it as fast as possible.
GOAL: Speed doesn’t matter–I just want to finish.
If your goal is to finish, ensure you can comfortably run (walk breaks are ok!) about 2.5 miles. If you can do that, then you’re ready to finish a 5K.
GOAL: Speed counts–I want to run as fast as possible.
If your goal is to run fast, then focus on the two most important workouts: the long run and a weekly faster workout. Increase the distance of a long run by about a mile every two weeks. If you can safely get up to 5+ miles, then the 5K distance will be easy, and you can then focus on running it faster.
Extra Credit: Once per week, run a faster workout like a tempo run or a fartlek (time-based repetitions run at a hard effort). Gradually increase the distance you run during these workouts so the number of “hard” miles approaches three total.
The 3 Elements of Essential Running Gear
Runners should plan to wear comfortable running pants or shorts, shoes, and a t-shirt or singlet during the 5K race unless the temperature is below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, a synthetic performance long-sleeve top is recommended.
1. Running Pants: Longer running pants are helpful for windy days or when the temperature dips below 30 degrees. Just remember that it feels about 10-20 degrees warmer when you’re running (especially if you’re running hard during a race) so there’s no reason to go overboard with the layering. Whether you choose shorts or longer pants, make sure you’re comfortable.
2. Running Tops: Running is a repetitive motion, so choose a top that is roomy and breathable. A solid, short-sleeve shirt with moisture wicking technology will work well in the fall and year round! If you’re concerned about body odor, try this trick: wash your top in one part vinegar and four parts water to eliminate stinky germs.
3. Running Shoes: For any piece of running gear – particularly shoes – the most important thing to remember is comfort. Your shoes and clothes should feel comfortable with no hot spots, chafing, or blisters.
Follow these recommendations and your 5K this fall will be a big success!
Got some of your own 5K training tips? Share them in the comments below.
Jason Fitzgerald is the head coach at Strength Running, one of the web’s largest coaching sites for runners. He is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field–certified coach; his passion is helping runners set monster personal bests.