Beginner 5K: Your guide to finding the right training program

Kelli Santiago

Kelli Santiago, RD, LD

April 28, 2014

In this crazy sport called running, everyone has to start somewhere. Enter the 5K, a classic distance of 3.1 miles (or 5 kilometers) great for beginners looking to get in shape. From fun runs to mud runs, 5Ks come in all different shapes and sizes which require all different styles of training. So whether the goal is to run, walk or crawl your way to the finish, finding the right training program is important. To help you get started, here are some helpful tips and websites to check out.

Where to start:

Find a race

In order to find the right training program, first you must find the right race. Gyms, fitness centers, coffee shops, restaurants, running stores and sporting goods stores are great places to find flyers for upcoming events. Running companies and groups such as Hermes,, HMApromotions and Ohiorunner are other places to find upcoming 5Ks in the area. Not only do you register on them, but they also have entire calendars of events. Last but certainly not least, UH OptiWeight participants are encouraged to sign up for the UH Ahuja Medical Center/UH OptiWeight 5K on Saturday June 21st. Registration is open to the public and walkers and runners are welcome! (Registration coming soon here.)

Ability level

Beginner 5K: Your guide to finding the right training program

Now that you’ve found the perfect race, you can start working on finding the perfect plan. Following a plan is a great way to keep you accountable and you’re twice as likely to reach your goal with one. Finding the right plan can be overwhelming though- especially for beginners. If you’re feeling confused, ask yourself a few questions. Will I run or walk? Is this my first race or have I done a few already? How many miles can I run right now? If you answered: I have no idea, first one ever, and zero; you want to start with a beginner plan. Avoid programs that have you doing “tempo”, “pace” or other types of run you’re unfamiliar with that may cause you to be too overwhelmed (save these for your next 5K). Keep in mind the point of your first 5K is to have fun and finish, not to discourage you from doing more. So keep it simple for now and enjoy yourself.

Find a plan:

There are two places to find effective 5K training programs: phone apps and paper plans (printed from a website). Last year, over 60 participants made the UH Ahuja Medical Center/UH OptiWeight 5K their first 5K, and most of them did it with the help of a training app downloaded to their Smartphone. Phone apps make training easy to follow and offer basic instruction you can listen to over the beat of your own music. Other people find paper plans more useful. Hang it on the fridge, at the office or keep it in your gym bag as a way to keep you on track. Feel free to adjust your plan when needed. Plan a long run/walk for Wednesdays if you know your weekends are too busy. Switch to whatever day works best for you. Better to alter your training plan than skip it altogether. See the table below for an easy break down on where to find the most effective plan for you.

Apps Websites Running groups Walking groups
C25K® Zen Labs LogYourRun: 5K training programs Cleveland Running Company
Saturday group runs
1-2-1 fitness
Monday, Wednesday, Friday
Run a 5K! Red Rock apps couch-to-5K running plan Cleveland West Running Club
Thursday, Saturday, Sunday group runs how to run your first 5K Fleet Feet Cleveland
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday group runs
Monthly pub runs novice 5K training program

Components of a good plan:

Warm up & cool down

A good plan should come with instructions for a warm-up and cool-down. Generally speaking, warm-ups are about 5 minutes long and likely consist of slow or brisk walking. Cool-downs should also last about 5 minutes and consist of a slow walk to help bring the body back to resting state.

Rest days

Beginner plans should have 2-4 rest days per week for the first couple weeks. After this, some will decrease the number of rest days and increase the number of training days leading up to the big day. All good plans, regardless of the distance, should decrease (or taper) in total miles and number of training days per week during the last week. This helps to rest your legs and get you ready for the race.


The number of weeks in your training program will depend on your starting ability level. If you’re starting from zero give yourself some time to get into “race shape”. Pick a 5K that’s a few months away and find a plan that’s a little longer, like 10-14 weeks. If you think you’ll be ready before this, choose a plan that’s about 6-9 weeks long which should have you ready just in time.

Long run/walk

Every plan (no matter the distance) should have one long run per week. Long runs are typically on Saturdays or Sundays, since most of us have more time on the weekend and your race will likely be on a weekend too. Weekday run/walks should lead up to your weekend long run and your plan should include a rest day either 2 days or the day before your long run/walk.

It doesn’t take a super hero or elite athlete to run a 5K. In fact this manageable distance can be finished by almost anyone with motivation and the right training. Remember, if you’re thinking about doing your first 5K this year it’s not about racing the guy next to you as much as it is having fun and finishing. So put down the remote, lace up those running shoes and we’ll see you in June.

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