Once you’ve signed up for a 5k race (3.1 miles) and done the necessary training, the next thing to consider is how to execute on race day. Knowing how to pace a 5k running race can make the difference between a celebratory finish knowing you’ve fulfilled your potential and a painful slog just to get it over with.
In this article, we’ll discuss various race strategies for a 5k and help you to find the best approach for yourself. Specifically, this article will discuss:
- How to pace a 5k run
- What should your 5k pace be?
- Common mistakes made with pacing in a 5k run
- What does 5k race pace feel like?
- What should your heart rate be in a 5k running race?
Pacing Strategies for a 5k Run
There are generally three approaches to pacing a 5k run: running the second half faster than the first half (negative splitting), running the same pace throughout the race (even splits), or starting fast and hanging on (the “hold on for dear life” approach). We’ll discuss each of these strategies below.
Negative splitting means pacing so that the second half of the race is faster than the first half.
For example, a 5k runner may negative split a 25-minute 5k by running the first 2.5 kilometers in 13 minutes and the second 2.5 kilometers in 12 minutes.
Negative splitting is an advanced technique, and many elite runners have used this strategy to set personal bests and records. For example, at the Chicago Marathon in 2022, Emily Sisson negative split the marathon to finish in 2 hours, 18 minutes, and 29 seconds, setting the United States national record.
For more novice runners, negative splitting can be difficult. To execute it well, you need to have a clear pacing plan and expectations of how you can finish. Creating and executing this plan requires a few skills that new runners need time to develop:
- Great discipline. Keeping an easier pace at the beginning of the race when adrenaline is high can be very difficult.
- Sense of pace. While GPS watches can help, a good negative split race requires a runner to have a great internal sense of how fast they are running.
- Dialed in race pace. While many elite runners can accurately predict precisely how fast they’ll be able to run in a race based on years of training data, beginner runners often need time to determine their running capabilities.
An even split pacing plan is similar to a negative split plan, except that instead of getting faster as the race progresses, you hold the same pace throughout. For example, a runner aiming to finish in 28 minutes should run as close to 9 minutes per mile (or 5 minutes, 35 seconds per kilometer) as possible.
Like a negative split plan, an even even pace requires good discipline to lock into your goal pace, a great internal sense of pace, and knowledge of your abilities.
The “Hold On for Dear Life” Plan
Finally, the “Hold On for Dear Life” 5k race strategy is the most common (but ill-advised) approach for new runners.
In this approach, you run hard from the moment the race starts and then dig deep to hold your pace as the race progresses.
The “Hold On for Dear Life” plan is high risk/high reward. If you start hard when the gun goes and can maintain your pace or limit the decrease in speed, you may be rewarded with a personal best or a finish time that exceeds your expectations. However, if you start too hard, you may blow up early and struggle with the remainder of the race.
What’s the Best 5k Pacing Strategy?
Studies have shown that for most runners, the best 5k race strategy leading to the fastest race times, occurs when runners execute either an even split or a slight positive split (where the second half is just a bit slower than the first half).
With this approach, you’ll need a good sense of your personal anticipated race pace. To find your 5k pace, consider the paces you’ve held comfortably in 5k training during some of your faster interval workouts. For example, if you can complete a workout of 3 x 1 mile at a 9-minute per mile pace, aiming for a 9-minute mile or even a bit faster in a 5k race would be reasonable.
Once you have a 5k goal time in mind, you can use our pace calculator to determine your race pace:
Aim to start the event at or just a bit quicker than your goal pace but still at a controlled effort.
For example, if your goal race pace is 9 minutes per mile (or 5 minutes, 35 seconds per kilometer), aim to start at around 8 minutes, 55 seconds per mile, or 5 minutes, 30 seconds per kilometer. You'll beat your goal time if you can maintain that pace for the entire 5k run. If you slow down a bit, you’ll likely still match your goal.
Common Mistakes Made in Pacing a 5k
Starting Too Fast
By far, the most common pacing mistake many runners (including experienced runners) make is starting the 5k too hard.
A successful 5k race effort should be just below your lactate threshold. Your lactate threshold is an exercise intensity at which your muscles produce more lactate than the body can clear.
Once you exceed your lactate threshold, things get much, much more difficult. In particular:
- Your breathing becomes labored
- Your muscles begin to burn
- You start to feel like your legs are failing
- The effort feels much greater
- Your pace declines
Many beginner runners start 5k runs so quickly that they exceed their lactate threshold within the first five minutes. It soon becomes difficult to breathe, the muscles become very fatigued, and the runners have to slow down or walk. This is not an enjoyable way to complete a 5k!
To avoid this outcome, it's always a good idea to hold back a bit at the beginning of the race. A good way to think of a 5k is to break it into three segments:
- Start to Mile 1 (or Start to Kilometer 2): Hold back a bit, gradually building effort. You should be working hard, but your breathing should be controlled, and you should be confident that you can increase your pace.
- Mile 1 to 2.5 (or Kilometer 2-4): Hold your race pace, working hard and finding a rhythm, but still feeling under control.
- Mile 2.5 to finish: Go all out, run as hard as possible, and hold on for dear life.
Starting Too Slow
A less common pacing mistake is starting too slow. This may happen if you’re faster than you thought you were, you're nervous about the distance, or you just got caught up in the crowds.
If you start a 5k too slow, you’ll likely finish wondering if you could have had a faster time. No worries! Find another 5k to enter, and see if you can start a bit faster and still finish strong.
The best way to avoid the pacing error of starting too slow is by knowing and trusting your abilities before you start the race. In your training plan, incorporate some faster intervals and see how your body handles certain paces. You’ll almost certainly be able to hold a faster pace in a race than during training.
Also, to avoid the crowds in the first few minutes of larger events, get to the starting area early and position yourself closer to the starting line as you feel comfortable.
What Does 5k Pace Feel Like?
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: 5k races, done right, are painful!
For a 5k race, you should run almost all of your race just below your threshold and then finish strong enough that when you hit the finish line, you’re not sure you could run another minute.
That said, you don’t want to (nor could you) run the entire 5k at your maximum effort. A 5k effort should:
- Feel relatively easy for the first few minutes, like you’re holding back
- Start feeling harder by the 1k mark
- Be difficult between 1k and 4k as you breathe hard and feel the burn in the muscles, but feel like “controlled speed” with your running form staying smooth
- Hurt a lot for the last 1k, as you run your fastest to finish strong
What Should Your Heart Rate Be During a 5k?
If you watch your during a 5k race, you should see it rise fairly quickly in the early miles. Once you reach about 5 minutes into the race, your heart rate should settle mostly in Zone 4. As you reach the finish, you’ll likely see your heart rate rise to within ten beats of your maximum heart rate.
There’s no doubt about it, a 5k race is a challenging endeavor. But if you nail the pacing in your 5k, you’ll be able to finish knowing that you maximized your potential.
In this article, we discussed:
- A few different pacing approaches
- The smartest pacing strategy for most amateur runners: starting a bit faster than your goal pace and holding on
- How to find your goal 5k pace
- Some of the most common 5k pacing errors
- What your heart rate should be during a 5k
Before lining up for your first 5k, it’s a great idea to sit down and plan out your race. Then, use your discipline, experience, and technology to follow that plan. Trust us, there’s nothing better than crossing a 5k finish line knowing you executed the race to the best of your ability!