How To Start Running 5K Distances If You’re Not A Runner

How To Start Running 5K Distances If You’re Not A Runner
Photo by Candra Winata / Unsplash

I remember when I started running longer distances. At first, when I was in high school, I dreaded the 1-mile run at gym class. I hated the long runs in track. I played football, so I wanted to develop as many fast twitch muscles as I could to be faster. I had in my head that if I ran more than a mile all of a sudden, all my fast twitch muscle gains would disappear overnight, and I would get slow. I developed that bias when I was in middle school and there was someone who could run a 5:00 minute mile. I thought, “dang, he’s fast.”

Then the 100-meter dash came and he got smoked by almost everyone. That’s when I found out about the concept of fast twitch and slow twitch muscles and thought to myself, I need to stay away from running any long distances, so I resisted until my freshman year of college.

When I started running my freshman year of college, running more than 2 miles was a big deal for me at the time. I remember once I managed to do a slow 7-mile run and thought to myself how big of an accomplishment that was. I never thought that someone like me could even run 7 miles at once without needing to stop.

I did not have a running coach or anyone telling me how to gain distances when running, but I did know one thing, how to condition the body. With seven years of experience at that point of running wind sprint, conditioning drills and gassing myself, I knew how to get my cardio levels up. Now it was time to get my muscles on the same page.

This post isn’t intended to be a normal post on how to run a couch to 5K. It’s about what I learned along the way when I started to run long distances. Fast-forward to today, and I run ultra marathons now. I think that I am living proof that there is no genetic gifts or inherit ability to run long distances. I’m a firm believer that anyone with good joints that can walk can find a way to do this with enough tenacity.

Relay runner
Photo by Braden Collum / Unsplash

Start With Interval Training

When I started running long distances, I didn’t have a smartphone or smartwatch to work with. I went to the store and got a basic Timex watch that could do intervals. With the plethora of apps now, you can find an app that you can easily program the intervals into. My favorite is Intervals Pro.

I set a basic timer to do two intervals. I called it the 90/30 interval. I would jog (or walk) for 90 secs at a slow enough pace where it felt easy, then I would sprint for 30 seconds. I would repeat that about 8–10 times.

It was brutal if I am being honest. Doing sprint intervals as often as I did probably isn’t the most efficient way to do it, but you have to start somewhere.

It’s better to get your training in some way than not at all. I have always leaned towards having an intense mentality when it comes to workouts. It’s most likely from watching too much Dragon Ball Z when I was younger, but who knows.

Do Intervals With Longer Rest Periods

If I could do it again, I would do a workout like this:

  • 2:30 minute jog/walk- 45 seconds running at about 90%—do this 7 times.
  • 3:00 minute jog/walk- 1 minute of running at about 80-85%- do this 6 times.

I would start each workout with a light warm up of about 5 minutes to get the muscles warm, or whatever works best for you. Doing interval training like this allows you to get about 25–30 minutes of being on your feet. Even if you are walking during the rest periods, you’re still moving. At the minimum, you are at least running for about 6–7 minutes. Overtime, you will build up to be able to run more and longer.

Tempo Runs

Once you get to a comfortable place with your ability to run, start doing tempo runs. A tempo run is running at about 85% of the pace you think you can run a 5K at, then picking up the pace at a chosen interval. If you have never run a 5K distance, try to run about 1.5 miles when you’re in a comfortable spot. If you don’t know when to pick up the pace, do some fartleks with it. A fartlek is picking a spot to run to that’s ahead and pick up the pace. Occasionally I’ll pretend I’m running away from something when I’m doing my fartlek training.

Many of my tempo runs when I was starting out were on the treadmill. I would set a pace on the treadmill and try to keep it there for that 10-minute period. One of the convenient things about a treadmill is it allows you to set a pace and go. You won’t naturally slow down without realizing that you are.

Photo by Alora Griffiths / Unsplash

Strength Train 2x a week

Strength training is critical for avoiding injuries and building all around strength. If you have not done a lot of strength training, I highly recommend starting with basic kettlebell movements. You can do exercises like this:

  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Goblet Squats
  • Kettlebell Lunges
  • Pushups
  • Kettlebell Rows
  • Kettlebell Shoulder Press
  • Kettlebell Side Lunges

If you have never done any strength training workouts, start off super basic. Even if it’s just doing the seven exercises above for 2 sets each, a little goes a long way. There were times when I lost a lot of my strength training and thought that it would take me 6 months to work my way up. It only took about 4–6 weeks before I noticed I wasn’t feeling as sore, and I was making substantial gains.

Five mediocre workouts per week is better than one great workout per week.

Run 3x week to start

The idea is to get the most minutes running per week as you can to start off. Even if you cannot run a mile without stopping, this plan will help you start getting your footing. I would assume that anyone who reads this can walk a mile in 30 minutes.

Start with blocking off 30 minutes three times a week. You can choose the intervals I offered above, or you can just start run/walking for 30 minutes. The key is to spend as much time as you can moving. Doing the little things like walking further from your car or taking the stairs instead of the elevator may sound cliché but it really does add up over time.

The Day of The 5K

When it comes to race day, remember your training. If the furthest you have run in your training was 2 miles at that point, remember that a 5K is only about 33% further of a distance. That’s not a lot. You can do this. Chunking out the distances in your mind is one of the most critical things to distance running. When I’m at mile 40 of a 50-mile ultra marathon, I don’t think, “I’ve run 40 miles, I’m dead, how am I going to make it?”

I think, “I only have 10 miles left to go, and I’m 80% of the way there.”

This may sound like a small mental thing, but it makes all the difference in the world.