Preparing for and finishing a 5k race is one of the most rewarding experiences for a beginner runner. How long does it take to train for a 5k? Your goals, background, and existing training base are all factors that come into play.
In this article, we’ll answer the following questions:
- How long does it take to train for a 5k race?
- How much should you train for a 5k race?
How Long Does it Take to Train for a 5k Race?
Although a 5-kilometer (or 3.1 mile) race is a big challenge, it may surprise you that most people can finish a 5k run with little to no training. Think of the most popular type of 5k race: the local "5k Turkey Trot". Often, entire families will participate in this annual Thanksgiving Day tradition, with some family members having done little to no run or walk training since the previous year’s Turkey Trot. Some will run, some will walk, but everyone will finish the race.
Most readers of this article, however, have bigger aspirations. Perhaps you’re hoping to run your first 5k continuously without walking. Or, you’re hoping to run in the fastest possible time on race day. A training schedule to complete a 5k in this more competitive manner will take anywhere from one to six months for most runners, depending on your athletic background and goals.
How long you need to train for a 5k race depends on two factors:
- Your goal for your 5k race
- Your background in endurance sports
We’ll look at these factors a little closer and then use a few hypothetical examples to show how long the preparation will take.
Your 5k Race Goals
Unsurprisingly, the bigger your goals for your 5k race, the longer it will take you to prepare to meet them. A runner who aims to run a 5k at a comfortable pace will not need to train as long as a runner who hopes to push their limit and finish quickly. Taking it even further, a runner whose goals include competing at an elite level and winning races may need to devote years to gradually increase their speed and stamina.
Your Athletic Background
Your background with running, and sports in general, will also affect how long you need to train.
Let's say you have no athletic background and are going from “couch to 5k” (a very worthy goal!) In that case, your preparation will involve first learning the basics of running (check out our Learn to Run article for that) and then building up your running time and mileage gradually and carefully. It will likely take several months for your body to adapt safely to your new routine.
A beginner runner with a modest fitness background, such as someone who played a sport like soccer in high school or regularly does cardio work at the gym, will likely adapt to running quickly. These athletes can start to specifically prepare for a 5k shortly after they start running and will be ready to race in just a few months.
Finally, those athletes who have competed at an elite level in other endurance sports, like cycling, rowing, or swimming, will likely have a very easy transition to running. These athletes already have very strong aerobic engines from years of training. They will likely have the fitness to be ready to run 5k in a matter of weeks.
Example Athletes and How Long it Takes Them to Train
By using the following calculator and entering these two factors, we can find the suggested times for training for a few examples:
From the calculator, we get the following suggestions for a few hypothetical runners:
- A beginner runner with no sports background who aims to simply finish should expect to train for at least three months to be ready for a 5k
- A beginner runner with a modest sporting background who wants to finish strong should train for at least nine months to prepare for a 5k
- A new runner with elite-level sporting background* whose goal is to compete for a top finish needs six months of training to be ready for a 5k (*see the next paragraph for specific info)
Special Concerns For New Runners with Elite Endurance Backgrounds
While new runners who have competed at a high level in other endurance sports often adapt to running quickly and show promising speed, they have unique challenges to overcome.
Usually, these elite athletes will have excellent cardiovascular fitness. However, if their original sport is non-weight-bearing, like swimming, their musculoskeletal system (or their joints, tendons, ligaments, and bones) will take longer to adapt to the pounding of running.
It is common to see former elite swimmers begin running and immediately find that they can run far and fast without much cardiovascular effort. These athletes understandably become motivated by their early success, run longer and faster because their superior aerobic fitness allows them to, and then spend a lot of time dealing with injuries. This often happens in triathlon; former elite swimmers like Lucy Charles-Barclay or Lauren Brandon, had excellent early success when they add cycling and running to their routine but then spend a few years battling running injuries as their bodies take time to catch up to their cardiovascular engines.
The advice for elite endurance athletes or beginner runners is the same: when in doubt, take more time learning to run and allowing your body to adapt gradually to the load and reduce the risk of injury.
How Much Do You Need to Train for a 5k Race?
For a beginner looking to complete their first 5k, how long it takes to train, in terms of days, and miles, is fairly minimal.
For a first-timer, two to three days of running each week is enough to get you to the finish line. If your schedule allows, an added day of strength training is a good idea, as that will help you to avoid injury and run more efficiently. Altogether, most beginner runners can expect to devote just two to five hours of exercise a week to training for the 5k.
However, 5k training plans for many athletes will contain more days and hours of running than this. The actual hours, or mileage, per week of running required for a 5k varies based on two main factors: your goals and your current fitness level.
Your goals for the 5k will be a major factor in determining how much you need to train. An athlete aspiring to race as an elite runner, or even win the race, will need to run much more, overall, than someone just aiming to finish the 5k race.
Elite 5k runners will often run five to six days a week, sometimes with multiple runs on the same day, while incorporating plenty of strength and cross-training. Beginner runners, on the other hand, who want to cross the finish line feeling good, but don’t have aggressive time goals, can prepare adequately with much less of a time commitment. For them, two to three days a week of running, with just a few miles covered at a time, is a good starting place.
Your Existing Fitness Level
To avoid injury, it’s important to build the training volume very slowly to give the body time to adapt. Plenty of research shows that with each running stride (or each time you land on the ground while running), your body will absorb a load of 2 to 3 times your body weight. This repetitive force can easily lead to injury if you’re not careful about gradually building your tolerance to running.
Because of this, a beginner runner starting from scratch will need to begin with much lower weekly mileage than an athlete who has been running regularly for some time. Your best bet, regardless of your fitness level, is to avoid increasing your weekly mileage by any more than 10% per week. In other words, if you’re currently running 10 miles a week, next week, try 11 miles. Build your running time slowly and carefully, and you’ll be much more likely to finish your 5k without injury.
Whether you’ve been running for a while or just getting started, a good training plan will help you to prepare to reach the finish line. We have designed 5k training plans to help beginner runners comfortably finish a 5k and even reach the finish line in a faster time.
You can look at an example training plan below or get a personalized 5k training plan for free with our run training app.
Training for a 5k race can be a major commitment, but for most beginner runners, the time required is very manageable. If you’re consistent with your training and cautious with the increases in mileage and intensity, you should easily be able to complete a 5k within a few months.
In this article, we discussed:
- The general amount of time it takes to train for a 5k
- The factors that determine how long it will take to train for a 5k
- The amount of training per week you should expect to do in preparing for a 5k
- The importance of gradually building your training
As the old saying goes, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Give yourself a few months to prepare for a 5k, and be careful about how much you build your training, and you’ll cross that 5k finish line with a smile!