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Do you ever feel defeated when your fitness goals are measured solely by the number on the scale? Me too. That’s why it’s great to instead witness how you progress by pursuing a new skill or physical accomplishment.

If your only health and wellness goal is weight related, at some point your results are bound to fail to match your expectations, and it can be damaging to your mental momentum. For this reason, I urge my clients to choose a variety of indicators to measure their progress — bench press their bodyweight, squat one and a half times their bodyweight, do a certain number of bodyweight pullups. Or, complete a physical challenge like a 5K.

It’s short enough to be approachable (3.1 miles), but long enough to be a true test of strength, speed, and endurance. Plus, 5K events — even virtual ones — are extremely common throughout the year.

Side note: Although the current crisis may have caused large gatherings — including running events — to be cancelled or postponed until further notice, many race organizers are encouraging participants to complete their training and races as planned on their own.

Whether you’re hungry for a new challenge or want to take a stab at setting a new personal record, training for a 5K may not only become a new benchmark to measure your progress, but it could also initiate the next level of advancements to your fitness and health.

Some of you might be thinking, “I’m not a runner. I hate the treadmill and I don’t want to spend hours each week running. Are 5K’s really for me?” My answer: You don’t have to be a “runner,” and you don’t have to spend several hours a week jogging or running, either.

I’ve been running for more than 25 years and have entered and finished more races than I can count. As a trainer, dietitian, and Ironman® finisher, I’ve used 5K’s as my own benchmark for fitness and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

A well designed resistance-training program that also includes some short cardiovascular conditioning elements and flexibility/mobility sessions (such as yoga) can be extremely effective at prepping most people for a 5K attempt.

The muscle stability, mobility, strength, and endurance required to cover five kilometers faster than a brisk walk is very likely to translate to better healthspan and lifespan even if you don’t care much about what your finishing time is.

In fact, even if you hate running, chances are you could actually train for and complete a 5K by doing very little running or jogging. And if you’re fit enough to tackle a 5K, that indicates you have a strong foundation of health to build on wherever your fitness pursuits take you next.  

Ready to challenge yourself with a 5K? Here are my top three tips for approaching the process:

1. Opt for training quality over quantity.

Many people who embark on 5K training programs prepare by walking or running at a steady pace and increase distance over time. This is what I call training for “quantity.” However, by focusing only on one pace, you’re apt to burnout. 

If you want to enjoy your first 5K — or maybe even set a new record for yourself — I suggest focusing on building leg strength and stamina. The most time-efficient and effective way to go about this is “quality” resistance training, interval training, and proper warm-up and cool-down habits.

A  beginner can prepare for a 5K over the course of four to six weeks with three or four quality 20- to 30-minute training sessions each week. If your sessions are well designed and executed, in four to six weeks your fitness foundation will be established, and you’ll have set yourself up for success with more advanced training phases.

Each 20- to 30-minute session should consist of five minutes of warm-up mobility movements, 15 to 20 minutes of resistance exercises, and five minutes of cool-down stretches. Resistance exercises should focus on your legs and core to support the mechanics of walking, jogging, and running efficiently.

Exercise examples: Hip bridges, hamstring curls, lunges, squats, step-ups, planks, deadlifts, and trunk rotations.

Preparing for a 5K can be done effectively with a “minimum effective dose” methodology. But don’t misinterpret the approach — although each training session may be short, they need to be challenging. If you have more time or have already been resistance training regularly, add more reps and weight to your workout.

2. Train hard, but recover harder.

Training and exercising are different. Consider exercise as simply being active, and training as the deliberate process of pushing past your physical limits and then recovering. Both are important, but only deliberate training can dramatically change your fitness capacity.

Training your legs for strength and stamina three times a week with resistance exercises is a tough protocol. However, in my experience, it’s not as physically damaging as it may be to jog or run for the same amount of time. The intermittent nature of lifting in the context of more controlled stress on the joints makes resistance training my go-to mode of conditioning, even for a cardio event like a 5K.

Example of a three-times-a-week program:

Day 1: Include squats, planks, and hamstring curls.

Day 2: Focus on hip bridges, trunk rotations, and lunges.

Day 3: Target step-ups, deadlifts, and treadmill intervals.

Start with three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise, and rest as needed between sets and exercises. Minimizing rest when performing resistance training will challenge your cardiovascular system and muscle strength simultaneously. It’s efficient.

At first, short training sessions may overload your physical capacity. You should feel tired and slightly sore after each session. As time progresses and your fitness level adapts, you’ll be able to increase the number of sets, the amount of weight you move, and decrease your rest.  

What you do with your recovery is extremely important. It’s your chance to repair muscle tissue damaged by resistance training and prepare for the next session. Too often, many people either fail to give their bodies enough recovery time or nourishment to repair.

There’s no magic recipe, but our physical wellbeing and ability to adapt to any training program are dependent on consistently consuming an abundance of produce, adequate protein, essential fats, wholesome (minimally processed) carbohydrates, and enough water. Fill in the nutrient gaps with high-quality supplements and carve out enough downtime in your schedule to truly rest — we all need it.

3. Keep it simple and enjoy the process — with some help.

Sometimes we forget that fitness and health are a process, not a singular event or destination. Building towards a benchmark fitness test, like a 5K, offers a different way for you to enjoy the process of becoming healthy and fit. When you focus on measurable factors beyond the scale or the mirror — like physical abilities and fitness capacity — you have a chance to look at your whole wellness program with a healthier perspective.

Your journey is no longer one battle after another with the scale. Instead, it’s a process of testing or challenging your strength, stamina, and speed (your training sessions) spaced with colorful, tasty meals, rejuvenating naps, and restful nights of sleep as you prepare for that upcoming 5K.

You deserve to recognize that you’re making progress even if you don’t physically see it yet, and following a periodization training program is one of the best ways to get a real, tangible sense of improvement on a weekly basis.

With that said, few people reach or maintain new levels of health and fitness entirely on their own. We all need some form of guidance, accountability, or support to keep us on the right track. We have a variety of free programs to follow through the Life Time Training app that’s available to all Life Time Members, including one I’m designing and following personally.

If this post piqued your interest in doing a 5K but you’d like help figuring out where to start, schedule a time to connect with one of our passionate fitness professionals.   

Keep the conversation going.

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

Paul Kriegler, RD, CPT

Paul Kriegler, RD, LD, CPT, CISSN, is the director of nutritional product development at Life Time. He’s also a USA track and field coach.

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