5 Things I Learned Training for a 5K Race

4 years ago

I spent the last few months training for a 5k run. I've run close to half a dozen of them in recent years but I've never actually trained for one before. I'm not saying that I'd just pop out of bed on race day and go run but calling what I did real training was a bit of a stretch. I'd run once or twice a week but really only if I was in the mood for it and I didn't run very far. This spring I decided I wanted to give this whole training thing a proper shot.

Part of my motivation to actually train is that I've spent the last couple of years watching Jenna train for races. She went from having a serious back injury to training for half marathons and in May she ran her very first full marathon. She's shown me what someone can do when they train and I've envied the pride and accomplishment she feels upon starting a race knowing she's prepared for it.

I'd never felt that way. I really wanted to know what it was like to queue up for a race knowing you were prepared.

Image: Shutterstock

I ran this particular 5k race last year and it was a disappointing experience for me. I found it hard. Really hard. While my time last year wasn't a personal best it wasn't bad either. Or at least so I thought until looked at the results after the race and noticed I was the sixth slowest runner in my age bracket. That stung. I knew I wasn't the Flash but I didn't realize I was truly at the back of the pack for my age bracket. Adding insult to injury, I had pushed myself on the course and ended up with a minor post-race asthma attack. The race left me feeling bad about myself, bad about running, and completely discouraged. I kept running last year, knowing that I never wanted to feel that way after a race again.

When I signed up for races this year my goal was to do better. I wasn't aiming for a series of personal bests -- though I'm not going to pretend that I don't hope for faster times -- but better for me. I needed to prove to myself that it's okay to take myself seriously, even if in the end it is something I'm not especially talented at doing. I don't have to be good at everything I do, but I need to feel good about doing it. With this particular race, which is the first of three I'll be running this year, my training goal was to feel better when I crossed finish line than I did last year. This is what I've learned from the process:

Training Plans are Meant to be Broken

I know there are people for whom the training schedule is everything. I am not one of those people. I did follow the plan, most of the time, but I quickly realized that I had to leave some room for flexibility. The very first week of training we went on a whirlwind mini-break. I didn't pack running gear because we were only going to be gone for 48 hours, we were packing light, and vacation for us means we walk everywhere. I decided two days filled with of lots of walking would make up for skipping a run.

I also had some weather-related running delays. I managed to get ahead of some of the thunderstorm warnings but there were days where it just didn't happen. I'm okay running in the rain but running in a thunderstorm while surrounded by trees seems like a Bad Choice. Overall, I crossed off more runs on my schedule than I missed. Even though I didn't stick the schedule, having it helped me a lot. And having those two big and bolded "REST DAY" notes on the schedule stopped me from trying to squeeze in one last run the day before the race.

Cross-Training Helps. A Lot.

Did I mention I'm lazy? I am. And sedentary. As much as I enjoy being lazy (and I'm really quite skilled at it), my body doesn't like it when I sit on my butt. On non-running days, and on those days I didn't go out on my scheduled run, I wanted to do something so I started working in other forms of exercise. I found workout videos were the easiest way to squeeze some extra exercise into my day. I also went to an outdoor yoga class. My husband and I took more walks together. These things made me feel stronger. I started getting muscles you don't get if running is all that you do. Cross-training helped me learn when I could push myself in a race, and when I had to slow things down. Most of all the extra exercise helped my endurance and my confidence.

Slow Your Roll

My brain has delusions of grandeur and wants me to be a much faster runner than I am. I sometimes start out too fast and then run out of steam. This has been on of my biggest problems when I run a race without training -- I start too fast and then get frustrated when I get tired really quickly. I have to force myself to take my pace down a notch. My training schedule really helped me nail down a comfortable average pace for my training runs. During the shorter training runs I played around with bursts of speed and improved my post-sprint recovery time. Knowing my ideal training pace helped me be realistic about my goal time. I'm not speedy and I knew I was unlikely to set any personal records on this race. I wanted to finish feeling strong, which I did thanks to my training. Mostly.

Take Care of Issues During Training

One of the best reasons to train is that it helps you work out your issues. I don't just mean your mental issues, though I will tell you running has been a fabulous way for me to relieve some of my personal stress. No, I'm talking about the physical issues. I encountered two main issues when training and while I worked out one, I ignored the other and that bit me in the butt on race day.

The first issue, the one I actually worked out, was one that many of my female friends have dealt with -- my sports bras sucked for running. I have a small band size and I had trouble finding a good sports bra that was tight enough not to ride up but not so tight that I didn't get stuck in it. Don't laugh. I was really lucky my husband was home that one day I got really, truly, and painfully stuck in a new sports bra. Thankfully I found a few sports bras from Moving Comfort on sale at my local running store and bought them on a whim. They work great for me. Problem solved.

The problem I didn't fix involves my feet. About a month into training I noticed that while on runs beyond a certain time and distance my feet would go often numb. Slowing down to a walk didn't help much. The only thing that really worked was to stop running completely. I thought I had fixed my problem by changing how I laced my shoes and tying my laces much looser. Problem solved! Except not. Right about the mid-point of the race my left foot went completely numb. I walked. I tried running again. I walked some more. I ended up walking more of the race than I ever intended and possibly even more than I did the year before. I hobbled along until the last stretch when I pushed myself to run to the finish line. It was disappointing and while mad at myself for not really fixing the problem, I was happy that I had at least experienced it before race day. I knew how to deal with it in the moment and I did. (And yes, I've since gone shopping for a new pair of running shoes.)

Adjust Your Race Day Expectations as Needed

I tried really hard to be realistic as the race grew near but there was always that part of my brain that said, "What if..." What if I ran faster than I ever ran before? What if I kicked my own butt? When I got to the race I reminded myself my goal was to cross the finish line feeling better about the run than I had the year before. If I happened to finish faster that would be a bonus.

By the time I hit the second kilometre I realized why I had found this race so hard the previous year -- it's hot. The day I ran there was a heat advisory and the humidity was so thick it felt a bit like running through soup. Between the heat and my foot issues, I revised my unspoken expectations. Finishing faster was off the table. I just wanted to finish while running as much of the course as possible under the circumstances.

In the end, despite the heat and my numb foot, I finished feeling pretty good about myself. I had issues on the course but thanks to my training I knew I how to deal with them on the course. Bonus? I still finished a smidgen faster than the year before and I didn't give myself an asthma attack this year! Woo!

I trusted my training. And it felt great.

Karen Ballum is a Community Moderator on BlogHer.com. She also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.