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Going the distance: How to train for a 5K

Proper training is key to avoiding injury and completing the race


If it seems to you that 5K races are a dime a dozen, you would be right.

According to research at Running USA, a not-for-profit organization that studies road races, the most popular race among long-distance events in 2015 was the 5K, with a grand total of 7.6 million finishers across the U.S.

That’s millions more than the next most popular distance, the half-marathon, which had nearly 2 million finishers in 2015.

The difference between the two is considerable: A 5K is equivalent to 3.1 miles; a half-marathon is 13.1 miles.

From just-for-fun runs, to fitness challenges to philanthropic causes, there are plenty of reasons to sign up for your community’s next 5K and join the masses.

Here’s what your local experts say you’ll need to know when training:

Consult your physician

Anyone with injuries or chronic conditions should consult a physician before signing up for a 5K race or longer event, said Nic Seaver, director of kinesiology at HealthFit Gym in Castle Rock.

He also recommends those without serious injury or other conditions check in with their doctor first, just to be safe.

“You might not think it is a cardio issue,” he said, “but it might be.”

Conditions such as a recent pregnancy may create complications during training, even if a runner wouldn’t expect them to, he said.

Start slow, build gradually

There’s no rule that says a 5K must be run, Seaver said. Participants can also walk or jog.

Regardless, when it comes to training, he implores those who don’t regularly run distances to start slow and build up their workout routine incrementally.

“Start with your comfort zone,” he said. “The biggest mistake is to shock yourself too early and either hurt yourself or scare yourself.”

For non-runners, that might mean walking or jogging somewhere between one and two miles during those first workouts. He also cautions trainers to take a rest day in-between runs rather than working out every single day.

If not, he said, you’re tearing your muscles down and increasing the risk of injury.

Follow a schedule

Make sure you to give yourself plenty of time to train, Seaver said. He recommends starting training at least three months in advance of a race, especially for those who aren’t regular distance runners.

Then, stick to a schedule.

Run at least three times a week, starting with shorter distances if that’s your comfort zone.

At least two weeks before race day, a 5K participant should be at a weekly routine of running 1 mile early in the week, 3 miles mid-week and 5 miles at the end of the week, leaving one to two rest days before beginning the next week’s routine.

By race day, running as much as 5 miles should feel normal to your body, Seaver said. A properly trained race participant should be capable of running more miles than the race length, without it being a significant challenge.

Avoiding injury

Strength training — not just cardio — is crucial while preparing for a 5K. Exercise, such as weightlifting, helps connective tissues stay strong, Seaver said.

“When you’re running you’re putting more stress on your joints,” he said. “That’s something I run into a lot, is people just stop doing their more strength-oriented workouts.”

Keeping up exercises such as deadlifting or squatting can possibly prevent the most common running injuries such as tendonitis, pulls and strains in musclesor in the worse case scenario, tears in muscles or ligaments

Kiyoshi Yamazaki is a sports medicine physician at HealthFit who’s board-certified in sports and family medicine. He’s also a former NCAA track and field athlete.

The best way to avoid injury ties in with Seaver’s advice to start slow when training, Yamazaki said. When people quickly dive into running more than their body was accustomed to, injury becomes more likely.

“That jump sort of outruns — no pun intended — the caliber of your muscle tissue, ligaments, elasticity of tissues, and even just the muscle memory,” he said. “Over-training is the number one thing that ails our new runners.”

If injury does occur, he said, see your doctor or sports medicine physician. Often, they can keep someone training for a race and have them healed, or at least ready, for the big day.

Preparing on race day

As adrenaline kicks in on race day, Seaver said, don’t be surprised if you run faster than in training.

“There’s excitement, naturally, for human beings when they’re in competition,” he said.

But overall, race day should be a normal day to someone who has put in the work and trained. His final health advice is to warm up through movement before the run and stretch well afterwards.

As far as mental preparation, Seaver reminds runners that the human body is more than capable of walking, jogging or running the approximate 3 miles a 5K covers.

His best advice on race day, Seaver said: You can do it.


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