Strategy for the 5K

Spring brings us not only showers and flowers, but as the days grow longer and the temperatures gradually warm up (quicker, please!), it also signals the beginning of weekends full of 5Ks. 

The 5K is the most commonly raced distance out there. It seems that every running magazine and website has countless ways to “Spring Into a Faster 5K!” Whether it’s the newest shoe, the best workout, the greatest fuel, or whatever the latest and greatest may be, you can always find something to unlock that elusive 5K PR. 

5KHowever, what everyone seems to be neglecting in the pursuit of “Your Best 5K Ever!” is how to use a little “strategery” on race day. 

There are countless possible race strategies floating around. Some runners love to go out hard and hang on. Others like to sit back and kick at the end. We are all different; therefore, we have different strengths that we can use on race day. But what I like to teach my athletes is to shoot for an “even pace race” and or a “slight negative split race.”

What does that mean?

An even split race means that your aim is to run the whole race at relatively the same speed from start to finish. This is a great foundational strategy that will set you up physiologically for success. It also allows for easy tweaking should a situation (good or bad) arise.

Why do I espouse even splitting? If you want to get the best possible gas mileage while driving your car on the highway, you set the car on cruise control, right? This minimizes the number of times you have to hit the gas or brakes. Speeding up costs more energy than maintaining the same speed; therefore, if we stay at the same pace, we get the best “energy mileage.”

In a 5K, this “constant speed” strategy allows us to achieve peak performance. Unlike the car, as we increase our speed, our fuel demands change in a couple of different ways. We know that as our efforts increase above our lactate threshold, blood lactate production increases exponentially. This means that a brief period of high intensity effort costs us a lot more than it benefits us. As our bodies go anaerobic, our body produces a free hydrogen ion that causes the cell pH to become acidic (which inhibits cell respiration performance). The excess acidity accumulated during a short burst cannot be eliminated without slowing down considerably. The loss in speed while our bodies recover is more significant than any gains we tried to make by going too fast. In fact, studies suggest that for each second going faster than optimal pace in the first half of a race, you will run two seconds slower on the second half because of premature fatigue.

That being said, even pacing does not mean a nice, relaxing, sub-maximal run. It simply means you are distributing your efforts and energies over the 5K to run out of gas exactly as you cross the finish line.

So how do you do that? 

Here are some ways to help you develop an “even pace” game plan for your next 5K. 

Be an Adrenaline Junkie
I typically tell my athletes not to put any effort into the first couple of minutes of a race. The excitement and energy of race day tends to have everyone all revved up and ready to blast off at the start line. Mix one part race effort with two parts pre-race nerves and excitement, and you've got a recipe for a scorching first half-mile and a miserable middle mile. Let adrenaline take you through the first couple of minutes. By holding back and just letting the excitement of the moment take care of the time, your pace will be in good shape. If you’re going to make a mistake early, it’s better to be too slow than too fast. We can recover from too slow; we can’t recover from too fast. Which leads us us to the next point. 

One Shot
You have one big move in a race. Unfortunately, most people use it in the first half-mile. As we said above, making the mistake of being too quick hurts us more than it helps us. If we use that one move over the last half-mile, we won’t have to worry about the negative consequences… because the race will be over.

Even Pace is NOT Even Effort
One of the biggest mistakes most folks make when they try to run an even pace is that they run even effort. Over the course of a race, you will fatigue, and you will have to work harder to stay on pace. The roughest portion of most races is anywhere between the halfway point to the three-quarters point. You are far enough into the race that you are hurting, but you still have too much of the race left to think about the finish line. This is the portion of the race for which you must mentally prepare. Keep pushing to stay on pace through this difficult section. The last half-mile will take care of itself because, by then, you’ll be able to smell the finish. 

Shorten It Up
Make your race as short as possible. We can maintain our focus for only so long… squirrel! Attempting to keep our minds on point throughout the entire duration of a race is to set ourselves up for failure. We need to find points of the race at which we don’t have to think, places where we can just shut down the brain and run on autopilot. The first mile is (supposed to be) easy. Why waste precious cranial capacity then? The last half-mile doesn’t take much brainpower either, since we can basically see the finish line. That means we can save our mental strength for that tough mile and a half nestled in the middle of the 5K. 

Moment of Doubt
Finally, be prepared for the moment of doubt. Every person who truly digs deep and pushes himself in a race goes through that moment of doubt. It's that moment when we're not sure if we can keep going at a particular effort level. All athletes—even Olympians—go through this. And since we know it’s coming, we need to prepare. When the pain and bad patches come, accept them as a good and necessary step to unveiling another level of success. Do NOT think, “Oh, man. Here I go again…” Instead, redirect your focus to something else. Focus on technique: quicken your turnover for the next thirty seconds, drive your arms back, go through a mental checklist to relax tight hands, arms, and shoulders. By focusing on using your muscles differently, you’ll distract yourself from your doubt, and the moment will pass. By being prepared mentally, you can keep your pace from dragging.

By following some of these simple strategies, you can go into that spring 5K with a little more confidence. Learning how to run an even pace will allow you to tinker with and tweak your race strategy according to your strengths until you finally “Become a 5K Zen Master!” 

Good Luck and Happy Racing!
Coach Cary


Tim Cary is FLEET FEET's Assistant Training Manager, coach of the FLEET FEET-sponsored Runnababez Elite team, and manager of the FLEET FEET Racing Team.  Over his 20 years of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors.  Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.

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