The best 5K training plan for beginners is simple, and addresses the hardest part about doing it: Yourself.
If you’re not a runner but you want to run a 5K, there’s a multitude of training plans you can follow over 8-12 weeks to get ready. The most popular is Couch to 5K, where you follow a run/walk approach 3 days a week and build up to running 3 uninterrupted miles by week 8.
Almost every beginner plan has you run 3-4 days a week, every other day. As I mentioned in a recent post, what derails you on these plans is (somewhat ironically) the scheduled days off.
Intended to help you recover, the days off instead tempt novices back into their old habit of not-running, and prevent running from becoming a repeatable, sustainable habit.
It ironically takes more discipline to maintain a half-time running schedule over time than it does to maintain an every-day running habit. Though starting an everyday running habit is more of a grind in the short run, you more quickly ingrain running as a repeatable habit. It becomes easier to continue training.
Meanwhile, if you’re taking a day off every other day, not to mention a full weekend off each week… it’s very easy to forget or give in to temptation, and skip the next workout.
And the next. And eventually quit running.
This is because you’re not building a repeatable habit. You do a workout one day, but then do no workout the next day.
Imagine if instead of brushing your teeth every day, you brushed them three times a week. Chances are pretty good you’d forget to brush your teeth a lot more often doing it three times a week. However, brushing them everyday quickly ingrained the action as a habit, and you do it without a second thought.
This is the power of habit. And it’s the key to conquering your inertia towards exercise, let alone towards training to run a 5K. The key isn’t just to train yourself to run 3+ miles without stopping. The key is to build the habit of running so that it’s easier to get you to do the workouts you need.
Believe it or not, when training as a brand new runner for a race like a 5K… the actual distance you need to run is a secondary concern. Sure, eventually you need to be able to run the distance. But, without drowning you in all of the science behind how it works, the key to building a beginner’s running capacity is to run as often as possible, even if the distance is not that long.
Most beginner running plans schedule days off because their scheduled 1.5-3.0 mile runs beat up beginning runners, and most need the rest after such workouts.
I think those plans ask for too much running out of the gate. Beginning runners often go out way too hard/fast. They’re gassed within a mile, and with more miles to go the workout suddenly seems a lot more arduous than it needs to be.
It’s like asking someone in their first gym workout to try and bench press their bodyweight in barbells, or to do a fast paced circuit workout of pushups, burpees, sprints, etc. Even if they can do it, they don’t have the aerobic and muscular capacity to comfortably handle all that work. If they avoid getting injured, they’re still probably sore and it’s going to take time for them to bounce back.
Honestly, this is why most people new to working out quit so soon. They do too much for their capabilities right away, whether on their own accord or because a coach or training plan told them so.
Ever worked a job that was overwhelming and not fun or immediately rewarding? How did it make you feel? Did you want to keep going in the long run?
Yet most beginning training plans do this to new runners, and we’re surprised that people struggle to stick with running, let alone train consistently while avoiding injury or burnout. Even when everyone’s intentions are good in doing so, it’s not healthy.
Imagine instead that a beginner’s running plan started you at 1 mile, a shorter distance that is fairly easy to do and to bounce back from. Your runs would not take longer than 15 minutes to complete. Would it be all that hard to go and run 1 mile again the next day? Probably not. In fact, you might finish that mile feeling like the workout was too short, and you could keep going.
That’s definitely a much better place to be than overwhelmed, sore, beat up, and searching for the willpower to finish another long workout in 1-2 days.
Plus, though beginners should always start slow and work on building comfortable, repeatable form… even if a beginner ran 1 mile harder than needed and ended up a bit sore, they could easily run a mile the next day (albeit a bit more slowly). You effectively could practice what’s called active recovery.
Strangely, exercising at an easier level can more quickly help you recover than if you had taken the full day off. The blood flow and hormone production from another workout can help speed along recovery, even if the next workout wears you out a little bit more.
Plus, running every day would more quickly spur aerobic and musuclar development, aka make distance running more comfortable, and possibly even improve your speed.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s easily possible for most beginners to run every day, and easy to add mileage to workouts each week without risking burnout or injury. The only limit is making sure you get into your running clothes.(.. unless you don’t need them, of course!)
Below I’ve outlined what I consider the simplest and most effective Beginner 5K Training Plan. This can get a total beginner 5K-ready in 8 weeks.
Like any plan, it’s a bigger pain in the butt in the short term because you’re not used to running. But over the long term it will more comfortably get you in the habit of running consistently, and most importantly get you ready to run 5K, than other plans.
The Working Class Runner’s Beginning 5K Training Plan:
Run: All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other at a pace faster than a walk. Think more of a jog than a fast run. Go as slow as you need to comfortably run without stopping.
It’s okay now and then if you have to stop for a moment and walk, but try to resume an easy jog as soon as possible. Bear in mind that if you have to stop to catch your breath, you’re going too fast. For now, go slower than you think you need to.
Your three goals for every training run:
- Cover the distance or time listed.
- Seek to do it without stopping, or stopping for as little time as possible.
- Finish the run in good enough condition that you can run tomorrow.
If you want to time yourself, great. But how long these runs take isn’t all that important right now. Maybe someday you get in the shape where running faster becomes a goal, but for now your main goal is getting in the shape to run without stopping.
Note for treadmill runners: For all sorts of science reasons, running on a treadmill is a bit easier than running outside. If you set the incline on the treadmill to 1.0, however, it should provide roughly the same challenge as running outside.
Try to work out at the same time each day. Or if there’s particular different times each day that give you free time to run, always try to work out at those times. Doing the same thing at the same time helps build the running habit. Many people like to run early in the morning, or immediately after work.
A mile may seem awfully short to many people. Do not run longer than the distance listed. No matter how easy the workout seems, stop once you’ve finished it. You’ve done your job today. It’s a good sign if the run is too easy.
If the run is challenging, that’s great too. Starting with one mile should challenge many new runners, but still leave them enough in the tank to go out and do it again tomorrow.
Eat a healthy dinner and get to bed early. Good sleep and good diet are important to the recovery you need between workouts. If your diet and rest suffers, your ability to work out every day will suffer as well.
Every week you add a little bit of distance. If you’re not on a treadmill (which will tell you exactly how far you’ve run)… don’t worry. You don’t have to get out a tape measure or measure out the exact distance on Milermeter (though you can if you want to).
Figure out roughly how much farther you need to go each week using some easily measurable landmark, like an extra block along your route. Close counts.
The Saturday workout says ‘Run 30 minutes’. Instead of a specific distance, you run as far as you comfortably can over 30 minutes. You’ll need a watch or your phone for this.
This is not a race. Don’t try to run this workout as fast as you can. Just run easy and let your natural running ability determine how far this run goes. It definitely will be more than a mile, as you can walk more than a mile in 30 minutes. But it will be the longest run you do most weeks, so take your time and focus on running for the full 30 minutes.
The easiest way to do this workout is to run in one direction for 15 minutes, then turn around and run back. But if you know a route that you know you can run in 30 minutes, feel free to run it. Many who run by time will find a loop they can run repeatedly (like a park trail, or a few neighborhood blocks they can circuit), and can just run that as much as they can in 30 minutes.
The Sunday workout is always 1 mile, or 30 minutes of walking. Even as the other workouts get longer, Sunday serves as an easy ‘active recovery’ day. If you’re feeling a bit worn down from the week’s running, you’re given the option to just take a lengthy walk instead. Walking is super easy and still develops some aerobic ability. You don’t want to walk too often (you are training to RUN a race, after all!), but if you need a break then take the opportunity to use a walk as an active ‘break’.
But if you’re up for a run, then just run the 1 mile. You may be surprised how easy this mile feels after a few weeks!
No matter what you decide to do, try to do it at the same time of the day each week. You’re building an exercise habit.
When it says a range like ‘Run 1-2 miles’… this period is where the mileage starts to jump for the average workout, and the regular workout distances may be a lot for some. The jump to 2 miles during Week 4 in particular is bigger than the jump from previous weeks, and future weeks will also have these big jumps. Thus you’re only expected to run a full 2 miles every other day (and 2.5-3.0 miles in future weeks).
During the middle days, you’re allowed to run anywhere from 1-2 miles. If you’re tired or sore on those days, you can just run 1 mile and call it good. But if you’re feeling good, you can run a full 2 miles. Or you can run a distance in-between.
Just make sure on these days to run at least 1 mile, and not run more than the max distance. And of course make sure you can do the full runs on the surrounding days. If you can do the max distance every day without too many problems, you’re in good shape!
Why is Week 5’s distance the same as Week 4’s? After the big mileage jump in Week 4, Week 5 gives you a ‘steady’ week of time to acclimate to the extra distance. Week 4 may be hard for some, but doing the same work in Week 5 instead of adding more will help your body catch up.
For those who handled the growing mileage of the first 4 weeks easily, Week 5 is basically an ‘easy’ week to give your body a bit of a break before the work in weeks 6-7.
The final week from Monday to Thursday is all ‘Run 1-3 miles’. By Week 8 you’re as trained as you’re going to get for the 5K, and it’s all about maintaining your new fitness while also making sure you’re rested up for the 5K.
You run whatever distance is comfortable for you, between 1-3 miles. Some people may want to keep running the full distance to get comfortable with it. Some people will want to just do 1 mile each day to help rest up and recover for the race.
You are free to run whatever distances in-between, based on what’s comfortable. You run whatever you want to each day within 1-3 miles.
On the Friday before the race, you only run 1 mile. This is what’s called ‘tapering’. You’re staying active to stay sharp for the race, but also taking it easy to help your body heal up and get ready for the race.
If your 5K is Sunday, then just repeat the 1 mile run on Saturday.
Whether the race is on Saturday or Sunday…
Have fun at the 5K! If you follow this full training plan, you will absolutely be able to comfortably run the 5K.
… and one note for race-day: Start towards the back of the starting corral. The faster runners up front may tempt you to run a lot faster than you comfortably can. Let them go on ahead, let any faster runners go past you, and take your time. Run at the pace you’ve been running throughout training.
The hard part about this plan is not the actual work. It’s taking it easy, and getting yourself out there to run every day. When you’re not used to running regularly, getting yourself dressed and running seems like a chore. If you do it every day, it will become less of a chore and more of a repeatable habit. That’s the goal, and the key to getting you fully trained to run 5K.
Also, the other challenge is slowing down and not trying to run too fast. Most beginners run much faster than they should. Again, your ideal pace for now is probably slower than you think. All you have to do is jog for it to be a run.
But it’s important on every run that you do what you can to run without stopping. The key to doing this is to slow down as much as you need to in order to finish that day’s distance without having to stop.
I hope this plan pays dividends on your goal to run your first 5K. Best of luck.