3 Months to Your First 5K

Competitive running doesn’t require superhuman athletic ability — just a willingness to train and a realistic plan. Here’s how to make it to the finish line for the first time.

Close up cropped low angle photo of shoe of female athlete on the starting line of a stadium track, preparing for a run.

In three months, you can go from nonrunner to 5K finisher. Three months. Twelve weeks. Ninety days (give or take). One season.

Three months works because it’s long enough to let you make physical and mental changes, yet short enough so you don’t give up along the way. Three months is the perfect time frame to make you a 5K runner, because it’s just enough time to get you into shape — without trying your patience.

So what exactly will it take to get you to the finish line? Lots of overwhelming workouts? No. Runs so long that you collapse exhausted on the road? No. Weekly mileage that will give you blisters? Thankfully, no.

That’s the beauty of the 5K. You can train for it and still have a life. Sure, some workouts will be tougher than others. You’ll run farther per day at the end of the program than you did at the beginning — but by then it will feel easier. And your weekly mileage will rise from single digits to low doubles. Meanwhile, you’ll get to experience the miracle of athletic adaptation — the process by which your body changes from that of a couch potato to that of a budding athlete.

A 5K is eminently doable, even if you have little or no athletic background. You just need a good pair of shoes and comfortable running clothes. Then follow my First-5K Survivor Schedule below. The goal of the program is simply to finish the race without walking, but my book 3 Months to Your First 5K (Perigee Trade, 2007) also includes schedules for those looking to run the race in 34 minutes, 32 minutes, 30 minutes or 28 minutes. Good luck. By the time you hit the tape, I hope you call yourself a runner. ˙

Assess Your Running Form

Everyone’s running stride is different, and different quirks work for different people. That said, there are still some general rules of running that apply to form. Here they are, from head to toe:

  • Head up and gaze forward to avoid undue neck strain.
  • Mouth open. Breathe through both your mouth and nose.
  • Lips loose. Having relaxed lips means having a relaxed upper body.
  • Lean your body gently forward to engage gravity, reduce effort and take strain off joints (don’t bend, lean).
  • Shoulders straight. Square but not tense.
  • Arms and hands relaxed. Arms loose and swinging from your shoulders, which should be unhunched, to your elbows, which should be at a nonrigid right angle. Hands closed lightly, like you’re holding an egg in each palm.
  • Chest relaxed. Running isn’t a bodybuilding contest.
  • Hips aligned. Pelvis aligned beneath your shoulders, tucked very slightly in (your back should not be arched).
  • Knees forward (but not up). Avoid the exaggerated knee lift.
  • Ankles loose. Your ankles should stay limber and relaxed.
  • Feet relaxed. A lack of tension is the first key to a solid foot strike. The second is to land near the back of the ball of the foot.

Ready to Race

The following articles (see Related Articles below as well) can help you prepare for race day, whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned veteran.

Ready, Set, Race (March 2006): Get the scoop on everything from finding and registering for your ideal event to preparing for race day and celebrating your first finish.

Gradual Is Good (March 2007): Once you hear about all the benefits of a thorough warm-up and cool-down — such as better performance and lower risk of injury — you’ll be far less likely to skip them.

Lean Into It (October 2006): If you’re plagued by chronic injuries, it might be time to try ChiRunning, an intuitive running style that works with your body.

Dave Kuehls is a contributing editor for Runner’s World and the author of 4 Months to a 4-Hour Marathon (Perigee Trade, 2006). This article is adapted from his book 3 Months to Your First 5K (Perigee Trade, 2007).

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