Want to run a 5k in 3 weeks? Here’s how I did it! A beginner runner’s tale.

2019. New Year, new me, right? We all say that, with every disappointing January that passes.

But without fail, and sometimes through no fault of our own, those well-intentioned New Year’s Resolutions fall invariably by the wayside. We go back to our same old habits, as the normality of the back-to-work grind begins again.

It was always this way for me; and over the years I began to despise New Years’ celebrations, because of the inevitable pressure and disappointment the next month would bring. That stockpiled chocolate from Christmas? Forget about it, I gained so much weight over the holidays! Those tempting price-reduced treats in the January sales? I’m already broke after buying all those gifts, and barely clinging on til my January paycheque!

This year, I realised that I was tired of being disappointed in myself, and I decided that for once, I just wouldn’t let myself slip up. Previously, I had looked around my workplace and had seen that many people there were fitness fans, and as a sedentary and geeky kind of person, this bewildered me. I had always shied away from fitness in all its forms, thinking that it wasn’t for me, and that I “wasn’t a runner” and I “wasn’t an athlete”, even though I was beginning to get tired of a flight of stairs making me puff for breath.

Well, I reasoned with myself. why am I not a runner? Why am I not an athlete? What judge has ruled that I’m unworthy of gaining these titles? I slowly figured out that the only one pressing this mould of this identity of ‘not a runner’ onto me was ultimately, myself. Wasn’t it time, after all these disappointing years of broken resolutions, to cut myself some slack and re-frame my mindset to help me achieve something better? Instead of focusing on the fact that running was difficult and not for me, I could cast a vote for a new identity for myself as a runner, and as someone who doesn’t give up a resolution.

So I decided to invest in some good running shoes, dust off that old running belt to keep my phone and car keys in as I ran, and buy myself some nice, tight-fitting running leggings with an elasticated waist so I didn’t have to worry about them falling down mid-run.

I’ve now been running for about a month, and I can tell you that all it takes is a little consistency. I had resolved to try and run 5k three times a week, which turned out to be a pretty challenging feat, but as the days went by, something unbelievable started happening. I actually started looking forward to my next run, to see what progress I would make this time around. I had gone from not being able to run the length of myself, to being able to run nearly halfway round the park near my house, which was a neat 1.6k a lap, and my running buddy was the exact same. I was exhilarated. This was something I never thought I could do, but it had all been because I had locked myself into a silly stereotype. I was getting fitter, healthier and hardier and all because I was running a consistent distance, at consistent times each week; consistently pushing myself.

It was then that I discovered a community led, free-of-charge timed run that went on every Saturday in this same park that I as training in. I decided to give it a go, and I was surprised at the difference that having people around you made. I’m naturally quite competitive, and so I managed to achieve my best time yet on this run.

However, all was not quite well. At the end of the first two weeks, I unfortunately managed to give myself a shin injury, and I was ‘out of the running’ for at least another week because of that. I was frustrated, as my friend who I’d started running with was still doing 5k runs three times a week, and I invariably felt like I was being left behind. However, I spoke to another friend about my aching shins and he gave me some really great tips about gait, which I tried, and just this Saturday, after only three (ish) weeks of running, I completed my first 5k Park Run, where I ran the entirety of the distance, albeit very slowly. I was amazed and so, so pleased — I was a runner.

So here are a few tips from me, with a few silly stories from my short time as a runner.

  • Go running with someone — If you want to stick to something, especially something as beginner-unfriendly as running, you have an ‘accountabili-buddy’. Ideally, this would be a friend who also wants to get into running, who is maybe a little competitive. I can honestly say that if I hadn’t had my friend beside me on my first run of this year, I would have given up at around the 1k mark, and the mental barrier to running 5k would never have seemed attainable. But she kept me going, saying that she wanted a baseline time for a 5k run that she could work on for the rest of the year, and I found this extremely encouraging. This run might be the slowest and most difficult it will ever be. The only way is up.
  • Run slowly, it’s not a race. When you first begin, running is hard. I’m not going to sugar coat it. But what makes distance running even harder and ultimately self-defeating is you racing off from the starting point at top speed, and tiring yourself out before you even reach 1k. That’s when you give up and get frustrated, because it feels like you’ll never be good enough. So even if you feel like you’re doing a Baywatch run, or running in slow motion like your grandad, try to maintain a comfortable speed and not go to fast. It’s important to give your muscles and bones time to build up the stamina they need for distance runs, and it’s important to get past that mental barrier of 5k being an insurmountable distance. And walking is okay if you get too out of breath — just as long as you do start running/jogging again!
  • Get a running tracker, diary or journal, and fill it out after each run to see your progress. This was super important for me, so that I could see my overall pace and other statistics. There are plenty of great running apps out there that will track runs as you’re actually out there, running. My app of choice is Strava, because I can see friends’ activities and it gives me interesting graphs that I’d never be able to get on my own. I also have a dedicated notebook I use as my ‘Running Journal’ to write down observations and things I should remember, and how I was feeling.
  • Stretch, before and after a run. So it seems that the cause of my unruly shin pain was tight calf muscles, but you can get a lot of detrimental and unpleasant injuries if you run with un-warmed up muscles. The worst of these can be shin splints or micro-fractures, so as one aspiring athlete to another; please do stretch and stop running if it’s unnecessarily painful! Leg stretches are an essential part of the warm-up and cool-down routine, and should never be skipped, and arm stretches can help to loosen muscles that have been held rigidly in place for a while.
  • Get your gait measured and keep an eye on how you run. Again, one of my main problems starting out that unfortunately led to my early shin injury, was my gait. This is how you hold yourself when you run, and where you land on your feet. You can get this measured at any professional running store, and they can give you recommendations for shoes based on your personal gait.
  • Take small steps and focus on correct form. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not good for someone who is just starting out to run too fast. In the beginning, I would get frustrated that I wasn’t moving fast enough, and so I would extend my stride in order to move more quickly and cover more ground. This was a bad idea. I ended up injuring the tendons on the front of my leg, so here’s the advice my friend gave me that helped immensely. Try to land on the middle of the foot that you are setting in front of you. This ensures that your weight is distributed evenly through your foot and no unnecessary stress is placed on muscles or tendons that you shouldn’t be placing stress on.
  • Join a weekly community run, such as Park Run. Park Run is a weekly, volunteer led, free community running event, where local people show up to parks and participate in a timed 5k run. It’s not a race; it’s simply a load of people with a shared passion showing up to encourage each other in a healthy hobby that’s shared by people from all walks of life. Personally, I’ve found that having other people around me makes me try harder than if I’m on my own, and my first non-stop 5k was a Park Run just this week. The atmosphere is brilliant, and as it usually takes place quite early in the morning, you can start your day really feeling like you’ve achieved something.
  • Run outside if you can — Treadmills are boring, and used to be used as torture devices. (citation needed)
  • Just do it. Seriously, this is the most important bit of all. Instead of bellyaching about whether to go for a run tonight because it’s dark and you’re tired from work — don’t think about it. Just do it. You’ll feel so much better after your short half an hour run than you would have if you stayed on the couch eating a candy bar, and you’ll have attained so much more. Make sure you have the right equipment (i.e. if it’s dark, wear reflective gear and a head torch), but don’t give yourself room for excuses. Carve an hour out of your day and set it aside for running. It only has to be once or maybe twice a week, since you can do Park Run on a Saturday — there, that’s one less run to think about!

Now that I’ve been running for a (very) short while, I can definitely see why people like it, and also why people hate it. But I would say, give it a proper go before you decide it’s not for you, and remember, there are a few advantages to this sport that aren’t really obvious:

  • It’s giving me the freedom to eat more of the things I wanted without some of the guilt of uncontrolled weight gain.
  • It’s giving me the freedom to try a new hobby and see through the eyes of the fitness fans in my office.
  • It’s giving me another interesting thing about myself to talk about!

So, believe that you can be your best self this year. It’s never too late to start.

Win the race to be your best self