As a new runner, it can be difficult to know where to start. What run distance should you target, and how do you build up to that mileage?
Five kilometers (3.1 miles) is a great benchmark to aim for as a beginner. It’s long enough that you feel you’ve run a good distance, but short enough that the end is always in sight.
Follow these ten steps to get you from complete beginner to running 5km on Zwift or outdoors.
Step 1 - Run 1/3 mile (500 meters)
As a beginner, it is very important to start slowly. New runners often get injured by trying to do too much too soon. Everyone has to start somewhere, so start small and build gradually. Get your running gear on, get outside or log in to Zwift and jog very slowly for 500 meters. That’s it. If you are out of breath, leave it there for the day.
Step 2 - Run 1/3 mile (500 meters), rest 5 minutes, run another 1/3 mile (500 meters)
This is where you need to start listening to your body. Depending on how you felt after your first 500 meters, you may be able to run again the same day, or after 24 or 48 hours. In this next session, you will add 500 meters, but you will rest for approximately 5 minutes in between the two sets of 500. Ideally, walk slowly for the rest period.
Step 3 - Run 1 mile (~1500 meters) with 5 minutes rest between each 1/3 mile (500 meters)
The frequency at which you do each of these steps depends partly on how you feel after each one. However, your body takes time to adapt and build new muscle tissue. It will take at least a couple of weeks before you see the effects of your training. Before moving up through the steps, you will likely repeat previous steps a few times.
Step 4 - Run 1.2 miles (~2000 meters) with 4 minutes rest between each 1/3 mile (500 meters)
Now, as well as increasing the distance, we will start reducing the rest period in between each set of 500 meters. Keep listening to your body. New runners will often feel minor pain or tenderness in the knees, shins, or iliotibial band (IT band).
The IT band is a tendon on the outside of the leg stretching from the hip to the knee. IT band tightness is often felt on the side of the leg just above the knee.
If you feel any tenderness in these areas, stop and rest until you can run again without pain.
Step 5 - Run 1.5 miles (~2500 meters) with 2 minutes rest in between each 1/3 mile (500 meters)
Depending on how warm it is where you are running, you may or may not feel the need to hydrate. In general, you should not need to drink during these sessions. As long as you drink as required once you have finished, your body should already have plenty of fuel and fluid stored to see you through 2500 meters of running.
Step 6 - Run 2 miles (~3.2km) with 4 minutes rest after each 2/3 mile (1km)
After a few weeks, you will have repeated each step enough times to feel comfortable and ready to move on to the next stage. In this session, you will run your first kilometers without stopping but the rest period is increased. The advice here is not set in stone. Feel free to increase or decrease the rest period between each kilometer depending on how fit and confident you feel.
Step 7 - Run 2.5 miles (4km) with 3 minutes rest after each 2/3 mile (1km)
You may notice your leg muscles becoming more toned and your resting heart rate is lower. That’s progress!
Once you start to run longer distances, it’s important to warm up appropriately beforehand. See this article for tips on stretching and gradually increasing your heart rate in preparation for the main part of your session.
You are now up to 4km of running with a rest period after each kilometer. By now these rest periods should be a brisk walk, allowing your heart rate and breathing to slow.
Step 8 - Run 3.1 miles (5km) with 2 minutes rest after each 2/3 mile (1km)
This is it. You are going to run your first 5km! But you are still going to take things very slowly. You are still listening to your body and modifying your training in response to what you’re feeling.
In this session, start thinking about pacing. As your runs get longer, you might find you are running the early kilometers at one pace but as you tire, the final kilometers get slower. Ideally, we want each kilometer to be the same pace. This is more efficient in terms of energy consumption and muscle fatigue.
If you find you are slowing down over the course of the run, the solution is simply to make a conscious effort to start slower.
Step 9 - Run 3.1 miles (5km) with 5 minutes rest after 1.5 miles (2.5km)
This is a great session in which to practice and monitor your pacing. You are going to run 5km in two sets of 2500 meters with a 5-minute rest in the middle. See if you can run each half in a similar time. Modify the rest period to your needs, but if you find it needs to be longer than 5 minutes, it might be worth going back a step and building a little more general fitness before moving forward.
Step 10 - Run 3.1 miles (5km) without stopping
Just a few weeks ago you were tentatively jogging 500 meters and you may have been exhausted after that. Now here you are, about to run an entire 5km without stopping.
You might have repeated Step 9 a few times, reducing the rest period each time. You should only move on to this step if you are feeling confident in your ability to complete it. If not, go back a step until you feel ready.
Have water with you if you feel you need it. Warm up before starting. Make sure you are dressed comfortably and appropriately for the environment in which you are running, be it indoors on Zwift or outdoors! Try to pace each kilometer evenly, so your last kilometer is the same pace as your first.
Looking for a 5k on Zwift? See the list of upcoming run events.
Running your first 5km is amazing and you should be very proud of yourself. More importantly, give yourself a pat on the back for having the drive and determination to get out there and get the training done. Putting those running shoes on is often the hardest step!