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Three people looking ecstatic as they cross a running race finish line.

After a long winter, when the weather warms up and the sun makes longer appearances, many of us get excited to spend more time outdoors.

In the spirit of staying active and changing up our seasonal workout routine, people often use these months as an opportunity to sign up for and participate in athletic events, particularly run events and races.

If you’ve never done a formal race before, a 5K event is a great place to start. From my experience with clients, completing a 5K for the first time in that atmosphere is an amazing milestone in any fitness journey. You may enjoy the drive the comes from competing with others, or you may just do it as a goal for yourself and forgo the competitive aspect. Either way, there’s an indescribable excitement, a rush of adrenaline, and a feeling of accomplishment that you get when crossing the finish line on race day.

Whether you’re brand-new or returning to running, here are some expert tips to taking on a 5K successfully.

1. Pay Attention to Your Running Form

Your gait — or your pattern of movement, rhythm, and form during running and walking — is an important piece to preventing injury and making the most of any run training plan.

That being said, many novice runners try to aim for perfection or get stressed out by all of the advanced tips, tricks, and strategies often discussed in the more seasoned run community. I’ve had clients fearful to partake in running at all out of fear of doing it wrong.

Rather than getting tripped up by perfectionism, focus on these key points:

  • Keep your arm swing at your sides and from the shoulder. Check that they aren’t crossing in front of you. Your wrists should be slightly lower than hip height.
  • Un-shrug your shoulders and relax your hands.
  • Run tall with your eyes on the horizon. Do your best to avoid gazing downward during your run.

If needed, have someone take a quick video of you jogging so you can see if any of these foundations need to be tweaked.

2. Take the Guesswork Out of How Hard to Run

When it comes to run training, you might picture all-out, sweat-dripping, breathless effort as being what’s necessary to make the most of your time. Thankfully, this level of intensity is not typically needed to succeed at a 5K.

There’s a sweet spot of running intensity that helps maximize your ability to recover from bouts of exercise at an all-out effort, increase your overall tolerance to running, boost fat burn, and support heart health. And luckily, it does not add the undue stress to your system that often results from higher-intensity efforts. This sweet spot is called “Zone 2.”

At Life Time, we’ve long been passionate about using a five-zone profile for heart-rate training, with each zone corresponding to a different intensity that incurs unique metabolic and performance benefits. In Zone 2, your breathing is a little heavier, yet you could still hold a conversation with a running partner. It’s a form of aerobic conditioning that any aspiring 5K runner should be familiar with.

While you can estimate what your individual Zone 2 is yourself, the best way to truly determine your Zone 2 intensity — for both heart rate and pace — is through an Active Metabolic Assessment, which is an objective test that measures your oxygen and carbon dioxide gas exchange at various exercise intensities. This can pinpoint the exact speed and beats per minute to target during the majority of your 5K training time.

For more information about the testing or to learn how to estimate your Zone 2 yourself, read: “The Active Metabolic Assessment: The Most Accurate Test for Cardio Training.”

Once you have your Zone 2 confirmed or estimated, aim to spend 80 percent of your running time in it throughout the duration of your training. Having this foundation in place will make race day feel much more comfortable, especially since adrenaline and excitement often kick in and push the pace a bit higher.

3. Commit to a Solid Plan

As the saying goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” A successful 5K completion is not going to happen from a haphazard training approach.

Find an expert-backed 5K training program that gives you at least eight weeks of targeted workouts to help prepare you efficiently over time. You’ll want to make sure you’re running at least three days per week, ideally with a mix of slow and steady longer runs, moderate runs at a pace that’s slightly faster than easy, and an occasional interval run to push your speed.

One word of caution: Most generic or canned 5K training plans out there provide a framework to follow, but often neglect two crucial areas to bolster success in the plan:

  • Targeted muscle activation prior to each run
  • Strength training to stabilize joints

These are critical inclusions to help round out your plan, improve your overall fitness, and prevent injury.

60 Days to Your First 5K

If you’re a Life Time member, you have access to a complimentary 60day to 5K training plan delivered digitally that includes all of these essential components, plus access to a coaching team to answer your questions or provide additional support.

The training involves three time-based runs each week that vary in intensity, a progressive strength routine to do twice per week, and three benchmark runs to check your pace at the beginning, middle, and end of the program.

For maximum benefit, you’ll want to enroll in the 60day to 5K training plan nine weeks before your dedicated race day.

If you’re a Life Time member, open the Life Time Digital app and click “Weight Loss and Training.” Select “Explore Programs,” and you’ll be able to choose the 60day to 5K program to enroll in. If you’re not yet a Life Time member, you have the option to join as a Life Time Digital member, and then can access the program — along with a number of others — by following the same steps above.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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60day to 5K

60day to 5K

The 60day to 5K program by Life Time delivers an eight-week training and nutrition plan tailored to get you event ready — and it kicks off December 6!

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