Coach Mike Mead

Starting a Running Program - Part IV - January 2005
(NOTE: This is the fourth of a four-part series of articles for the beginning runner. I originally wrote the articles in 1996 for a now defunct monthly publication.)


In the last three or four days before your inaugural race, cut back on your runs in both time and intensity. Many folks like taking off the day before they race. I tend to take off the Thursday before a Saturday race so that I don’t feel stale going into the race by getting in a light run on Friday.

Get plenty of rest (sleep) the last few days before you race, particularly the night before the night before racing (say Thursday night before a Saturday event). Drink plenty of fluids –preferably water -- at least 24 hours before the race, especially during the summer months. Eat smart. Do not eat something you have never tried. A 5K does not require the carbo-loading that you may have heard distance runners do before racing. If you must experience carbo-loading, spaghetti with a meatless sauce is one of the best pre-race meals.

The morning of your race, get up at least three hours before the start, unless you’re racing in the afternoon or evening. If you must eat something before racing, try a banana, plain toast, or plain bagel. Avoid the usual breakfast fare on race morning. The general rule I like to follow is no heavy foods within five hours of racing. Also be certain to continue drinking plenty of fluids, but avoid caffeine drinks because of possible dehydration. Some runners claim that drinking coffee before a race helps them “clean out their system.” Just be cautious.

If you must drive more than 30 minutes, allow plenty of time to drive to the race site, register and/or pick up your race packet and for ample warm-up time. Depending on the weather, you should get a warm-up run of at least 15 minutes. About five minutes before the scheduled start time, run four “build-up” sprints of about 30 meters each. This will help get your body ready for the start of the race.


Depending upon the size of the race field, you will want to find a comfortable starting position. If this is your first race, DO NOT toe the starting line! I’ve seen too many inexperienced runners get on or near the starting line and create a hazard to themselves and the faster runners around them. If you are uncertain where to start, go to the back. It’s not where you start that’s important, but where you finish. Get out comfortably at the start. Just like driving in heavy automobile traffic, you will have to run according to conditions. Keep your balance and watch those elbows at the start.

The best way to handle your first 5K is to gradually increase your running pace. If you have properly trained, you should feel pretty strong through the first mile. Where most novices and less prepared runners get into trouble is in the last half of the race. Run conservative through the first mile and try to slowly increase your speed over the last 2.1 miles.

Try picking out someone around you and stay with him or her as long as you can. If you find the pace too easy, run with someone else. Pacing with someone will make the race go by much faster. Most races will have water stations on the course – use them. Inevitably, you will feel discomfort or more likely some pain. Try to focus on the race and its positive aspects. If you’re still hurting, slow down, relax, and try to resume your pace.


Once you have caught sight of the finish line, try to gradually pick up your pace for a strong finish. As you approach the finish line, maintain your running form and run through the line strong. Do not slow up right at the line; rather imagine the finish line about five more yards beyond. I’ve seen plenty of people get passed at the line because they slowed up. It can mean getting an age group award, or going home empty-handed.

Once you have completed the race, be certain to follow instructions as far as reporting your finish place. If you are handed a finish car, fill it out promptly and turn it in at the designated location. It’s wise to look or listen for your finish time since many road races do not provide immediate results.

Finally, be sure to take in plenty of fluids after your race. Be sure to walk, jog, or slowly run for about 10-15 minutes after the race. Once you’ve regained your wits, be sure to spend some time doing light stretching to avoid sore muscles later.

If you do the proper base training, with some speed thrown in, and run a steady, conservative pace, your first road racing experience should be fun and rewarding. After running your first race, review your strengths and weaknesses. Adjust your racing goals and gear up for your next competitive race.