I ran my first 5k race back in 2014. Even though I had put in my training and was excited to get to the start line, I was still pretty nervous about what was about to happen.
I wasn’t sure whether I had taken all the right steps in the week leading up to the race to make sure I had the best experience possible.
Many first-time 5k runners find themselves in the same boat. Don’t worry! We will demystify the process so that you’ll know exactly what to do starting the week before your 5k and continuing until right before the race starts.
The Week Before the Race
In the week leading up to your 5k, you don’t need to do anything super-special. Just make sure that you go for a few easy runs to stay loose. This is not the time to push yourself hard. Physiologically, your body will not see any gains from a workout that close to the race, so there is no need to go out and get one more speed session in. You just want to make sure that your muscles are loose and ready for race day.
Eat and drink normally. By “normally,” I mean be sure that you are well-hydrated and eating healthily. You want to set yourself up for success by making sure that you have enough fluid in your body. If you’re not a huge water drinker, you might want to drink a little bit more than usual this week.
Don’t stress. People of all fitness levels run 5ks, and nobody is going to be judging you. In fact, I would guarantee that all of your non-runner friends are going to be impressed that you ran 3.1 miles, and tell you that they couldn’t do that.
Finally (and this is probably the most important part) make sure that you get enough sleep. Yes, sleep is part of your training! Ideally, get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. This is essential because rest is when your body heals itself and becomes stronger. You want to be well-rested for race day.
The Day Before the Race
Hopefully, you’ve stayed well-hydrated the week leading up to your race. The day before, you definitely want to make sure that you drink plenty of water.
You can run a couple tests to see if you’re drinking enough. If you pinch the skin on the back of your hand and it doesn’t snap back down immediately, you’re dehydrated. Also, your urine should be a light straw-colored—it doesn’t need to be clear, but it shouldn’t be bright yellow either.
You might have heard about carb-loading for long distance races, and be tempted to raid the noodle aisle at the grocery store. For your 5k, don’t worry about that. The race is short enough that you don’t need to do anything out of the ordinary with your diet. Instead, just eat normally. You’ll probably want to err on the side of healthier versus not, but don’t worry about it too much. Just avoid fast food.
Right before you go to bed, make sure that you set out your running clothes, shoes, and anything else you’ll need the morning of. The more prepared you can be the night before, the easier the morning of race day will go. If you’ve already picked up your bib, attach it to your shirt the night before.
Try to go to bed early, but don’t worry if you can’t fall asleep. Instead, try to put your mind at rest by thinking about things that you’re thankful for, reading a book, or listening to soothing music.
The Morning of the Race
If you’re not a morning person, make sure that you set plenty of alarms so that you can get up on race morning. Make sure that you get up early so that you allow plenty of time to arrive to the race early.
Eat a light breakfast even if you don’t normally do breakfast, because your body will need some energy. That being said, don’t go crazy with it. Something light and healthy will be best. Try to avoid foods that are high in fiber, because those can be challenging to digest quickly. I personally go for a quick item like a banana.
If you’re a coffee drinker and you have it almost every morning, you’re fine to drink it on race day, but don’t start your coffee-drinking habit today. As the old adage goes, “nothing new on race day.”
Finally, remember to continue to hydrate. You don’t need to go overboard because then the water will be sloshing around in your stomach, but make sure that you are well-hydrated for the race.
The Start of the Race
In three words: Get. There. Early.
The last thing you want is to be frantically trying to make it to the starting line. Try to account for any traffic that you might experience and make sure that you’re still going to be early. I once arrived late to a race because a very long freight train was crossing the road to the starting area, stopping traffic. Plan better than I did!
Bib and Shirt
Once you get to the start, pick up your bib and race swag if you haven’t already, as this will let the people hosting the race know that you’re there. You can certainly wear that 5k shirt if you want to, but it’s sometimes considered bad luck to wear a shirt for a race you haven’t completed yet (although this is more for longer distances).
Now that you have all the necessary items, take time to familiarize yourself with the course. Ideally, you would have done this the night before, but still make sure that you know the course map and other details such as where the water stops are, in case you need them.
Since you have made a point to arrive early, you’ll have time for a light warm-up and/or dynamic stretching. You definitely want to be walking around to keep your muscles relaxed and your legs warmed up. Throw in some Frankensteins, leg swings, butt kicks, and high knees before race start. Not only will it help you be more prepared to run the race, but it will also help fight the pre-race jitters.
Lining Up At the Start
When you’re told to line up, put yourself near the back of the race unless you’re planning to run really fast. In general, the faster you are, the more toward the front you can be. If this is your first 5k, play it safe and hang back a little. It is far better to start behind and pass a number of runners, than to start at the front and watch other runners pass you.
If you’re not sure where to put yourself, you can always ask someone what they expect their pace to be, and line up accordingly.
Finally, have fun! You will never get to experience the butterflies in your stomach before your first 5k or the triumph you’ll feel when you finish ever again, so relish it! And be proud of yourself for making such a bold move to live a healthy lifestyle.