The 5K is one of the most popular race distances in the running world.
It’s also one of the most challenging to pace.
There are generally three strategies for achieving a good 5K time – negative splits, even splits, or “starting hard”. Your finish time can vary dramatically depending on the pacing strategy you choose.
And perhaps more importantly, whether the strategy is by design.
We’ll cover each of these strategies in detail below.
The 5km distance brings together runners from a variety of different fields. It’s the meeting point where you’ll find 1500m and 3000m runners (the speed merchants) – as well as those who normally run 10K, half marathon or even full marathon races (the endurance specialists).
If you are wondering how to pace a 5K run, we have to warn you: the 5k race strategy is a tough beast to master. It requires a delicate balancing act between raw pace and mid-distance endurance where the margins between a personal best and a lactic blowout are wafer thin!
Want to know how to run an optimal 5K pace?
Let’s take a look at the three popular 5K running plans:
- What Is The Best 5K Race Strategy?
- How The Course Affects A 5K Race
- How to Pace A 5K Run For Beginners
What Is The Best 5K Race Strategy?
There are three main strategies for the 5K, each with pros and cons:
When running a negative split, you run the first half of your race slower than the second half.
Negative splits are challenging for new runners because they require a good deal of discipline. You need to know your limits so you can run within them.
Most 5K runners using a negative split strategy will aim to run incrementally faster for each 1K, topping out with a fast finish that leaves nothing on the table.
Here’s an example of split times (using a negative split of -5%) for a target 25:00 finish:
- It feels good to work through the field having run within yourself for the first half
- You’re much less likely to blow out, or fail to finish
- Great for building confidence
- Executed well it is highly effective at producing personal bests
- It’s possible to leave too much on the table if the start is too slow
- Very difficult for beginners to judge
- Having to work through traffic can slow you down
We recommend the negative split strategy to intermediate and advanced runners.
Many beginners are likely to find that the best 5k race strategy is simply to set off at a desired pace and hold it for the duration.
If you haven’t run a 5K before, this is the best way to ensure you reach the finish and don’t need a full weekend to recover from an ill-timed sprint!
By knowing what pace you can run at comfortably, you don’t have to worry about calculating when to go hard or slow down to hit your target time. You just settle in to your groove and stay there.
It’s important to point out that there are two variations to this strategy – even pace and even effort.
A course with a lot of hills is going to require vastly different levels of exertion to maintain the same pace throughout. A better strategy for beginners on such a course would be to focus on even effort.
With this strategy, you zone in on a level of exertion that feels comfortable (or as comfortable as a 5K can feel!) and then aim to stay there – on flats, uphills and downhills. The split times will vary, but the effort stays the same.
Here’s an example of even split times for a target 25:00 finish:
- Much easier for beginners to judge
- You can always add a negative split if you have enough in the tank at 3500/4000m.
- Tune out what other runners are doing by fixing your pace
- Not suitable for all courses
- Even pace does not mean even effort!
- Not as effective as negative splits for producing personal bests
We recommend the even pace strategy on flat courses only. It’s a good strategy for beginner runners who aren’t sure what time is achievable (but have a good idea of what pace they can run at comfortably).
Tip: Use our pace charts to determine the average splits required for your target time.
Go Hard and Ride The Pain
Finally, we have the path of the masochists.
The opposite of a negative split strategy is to run the first half of the race faster than the second half.
In reality, there isn’t much ‘choice’ to this strategy.
It’s not that you’re choosing to run the second half slower. The issue is that you’ve expended so much energy in the first half that you physically have nothing left. You’re holding on for dear life.
This strategy can result in some absolutely blistering personal bests – but more often, it results in hitting the 5K wall and slowing down dramatically, thus negating the gains from setting off so strong.
Executed well, this is a strategy favoured by many advanced runners as a brute force means of beating a personal best. The goal is to get ahead of your target time and use the seduction of that PB to help you cling on to the coattails as your average pace begins to slip.
On a good day, the adrenaline and racing gods might align in your favour.
Surging through the crowd and then blowing black smoke over the last 1500 meters is not a particularly graceful 5k race strategy, but it’s a strategy.
One that many beginners adopt accidentally when they get caught in the adrenaline on the starting line.
Use it at your peril.
Here’s an example of the ‘Go Hard’ strategy for a target 25:00 finish:
- Can lead to blisteringly fast personal bests
- Some runners find extra motivation and strength from being ‘ahead of target pace’
- Less likely to encounter traffic from slower runners
- Big risk of failing to finish (or crawling over the line)
- Painful strategy, but sometimes necessary to crack hard targets (like a sub 20 5K)
- No chance to adapt the strategy
How The Course Affects A 5K Race
It’s important to consider the type of terrain that you’re going to be racing on before you start the race.
There’s a big difference between road racing and running off-trail, and this will have an effect on your target split times.
We always advise running a course before you have to race it.
The information will guide you towards a better race strategy. It will help you pinpoint when to pick up the pace, and when to cruise through sections that aren’t going to provide the desired time gains for the exertion required.
Plan Your Splits Carefully
Does the course have a section with lots of twists and turns?
Probably not a good idea to save this section for your fastest split.
What about uphills and downhills?
Don’t forget the old runner’s wisdom that a hill takes out far more than it gives back.
If you try to run the ‘average pace’ of your target finish time on a tough uphill section, you could end up paying the price later in the race.
As a general rule, if you’re on an up-and-down course, it’s going to be much harder to race a personal best than it would be on a flat circuit.
Bottlenecks and Fast Starts
Some 5k races include sections that are not conducive to a fast pace – particularly if a large crowd is running and there’s a lot of foot traffic.
Narrow paths can create a bottleneck that will slow you down in the traffic.
It’s important to study the course beforehand – and run it when possible – to pinpoint any likely bottlenecks.
If you find that there’s a narrow section in the first 1K, it may point you towards a ‘start hard’ strategy with the goal of clearing enough traffic so as not to get bogged down by slower runners.
Likewise, if you know that the final 1500 meters is a nice clean wide straight, you can anticipate that you will likely be running that section faster than your average race pace.
How much faster you can run it determines how much you need to push in the harder sections that come before it.
How to Pace A 5K Run For Beginners
If you haven’t run a 5K previously but you are entering a race and you want to nail the best time possible, the most important thing to we can say is to avoid blowing out early.
Resist the Adrenaline In The First 400 Meters
First timers are likely to feel a ton of adrenaline at the starting line.
You may be so amped that you start out way too fast and then pay for it the rest of the run.
The 5k is a cruel mistress and even seasoned runners with dozens of 5k races under their belts will have experienced the pain of trying to sustain a hot start as the lactic acid bubbles to the surface far sooner than he/she expected.
Some runners argue that the only way to improve on a fast personal best is to get ahead of the time early and use the momentum to slingshot their aching bodies around the last painful kilometres.
While there may be some truth to that mindset, it’s not one you should be buying in to if you’ve never run a 5K in your life!
The first 400 meters of the race is crucial for beginners. Go out too hard and it will be impossible to recover.
It’s a problem exasperated by the fact that everybody else on the starting line is experiencing the same adrenaline. If the entire crowd has set off at a faster pace than it can sustain, then the tendency will be to raise your own pace to keep up.
This is why it’s so important to plan your splits carefully.
Have a time in mind for that first 1000 meters. It’s okay to go slightly faster than anticipated – and sometimes it’s even necessary to avoid bottlenecks – but you don’t want to be running a PB first 1K split!
Get Up To Pace In The Warm Up
The second biggest mistake we see in newbie 5K runners is neglecting the warm-up.
If you are used to running 10Ks or half marathons, you might not need an extensive warm-up to have a good race. Some dynamic stretches and a short jog may be all you need.
For the 5K?
The warm up is essential.
Every successful 5K race strategy is built on the back of a thorough warm-up that gets your muscles fully warmed up before the starting gun. This is not a sprint distance, but it’s also not a long enough race to waste a few hundred meters shaking off the cobwebs.
We’d recommend at least 15-20 minutes running at an easy pace, with a series of strides and accelerations at faster-than-race-pace. Wake those fast twitch fibers – you’re going to need them!
See more: our training pace calculator
Which ever 5K pacing strategy you choose from the options above, it’s just as important to devise a plan for the hour preceding the race. Your 5k times will improve much faster.
Remember: The Work Is Done Before The Race
The best designed pacing strategy is useless if you haven’t put in the hours beforehand to ensure that you can sustain the splits that you’ll be required to run.
This means… the hard work is done before the race.
If you are planning to run 4:30 km splits, your training plan should include plenty of interval training where you run this pace.
A good structure to follow is:
- 1 mile: Race pace (then 2 minutes rest)
- 1 mile: Race pace (then 2 minutes rest)
- 1 mile: Race pace
- Extended 5 minutes rest
- 2 x 400 meters (faster than race pace, rest between sets until HR is recovered)
- 2 x 200 meters (whatever you have left)
The reason this workout is so effective for pacing a 5K is because it embeds the required race pace in to your training. You can feel the exact intensity required.
The additional shorter 400m and 200m sets are great for improving your raw pace, developing anaerobic endurance and ensuring that your race pace – relatively speaking – doesn’t feel like End Of The World Pace.
Knowing you can go faster is a major psychological advantage when the going gets tough.
Which it will.
It always does. 😉
What are your top running a 5K tips?
Want to run the 10K instead? See our sister guide: How To Pace a 10K