How to pace a 5k for beginners – by a leading over-55 runner

Don’t rush off like a hare, nor should you amble around like you would at the supermarket. Here’s how to find the perfect 5k pace.

If you’re a beginner, learning how to pace a 5k is all about understanding that first 30 seconds of your run. You know, the 30 seconds when you still feel incredible, the adrenaline is coursing through your blood and you’re dreaming of glory. You’re still full of running

After that, real life – not to mention physiology (what’s happening inside your body) – will tap you on your shoulder and suggest that just perhaps you’ve gone off a tad too fast!  

You only need to watch the London Marathon on TV to see it occur every year, as crazed runners burn off all their fuel in the opening mile or two.  

So, here we are – ready to help you get your 5k pace spoton, so you’ll enjoy that post-run coffee (other celebratory drinks are available). 

Group of smiling runners enjoying a 5k runCredit: Shutterstock / Ground Picture
You’ll complete a 5k comfortably when you find that perfect pace

Expert tips on how to pace a 5k

Elspeth Turner is 58 years old and one of the fastest Parkrunners ever. 

She still races regularly and proves that age is no barrier, running her fastest ever marathon last year – 2hrs 56mins 04secs in the Eindhoven Marathon.

She currently leads the 2023 UK Over 55 Age Group rankings in Half Marathon (81mins 44secs) and Parkrun (18mins 04secs), and was recently first woman home in the Gatwick 10k in Crawley, crossing the line in 37mins 40secs.  

Turner is also passionate sharing her expert advice with others. She told Saga Exceptional: 

 “My motivation for running is simple – I love to run and it makes me feel great. But frequently I ask myself, as well as enjoying it, what do I want to achieve next?”

If the answer to that question for you is ‘figuring out how to pace a 5k’, we asked Turner to share her top tips.

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What’s your goal?

This is the first thing to do when considering how to pace a 5k. What’s my goal? Is it to finish, or, quite likely, is it chasing a time? In this respect, running has so much to offer, as no matter what level we are, we can all can set a personal goal.

Is it realistic?

Breaking the 35-minute, 30-minute or 20-minute barriers can be hugely satisfying, but be realistic. Pipedreams can come later.  

Find your pace

If you’ve never seriously run a 5k before, a good starting point is to time yourself running the distance with a ‘moderate’ effort, in order to estimate a realistic finishing time. ‘Moderate’ involves an effort of six out of 10, knowing that you could go a little further and a bit faster.     

You can then use that time to calculate a baseline target pace, by dividing it by five. For example, a 30-minute 5k involves running at six minutes per km.  

It’s not an exact science and very much based on personal feel. No initial time is too slow, rather it’s your starting point and something to work from.

Elspeth TurnerCredit: Elspeth Turner
Elspeth Turner has found that perfect 5k pace on many occasions

Practice with pace sessions

Next comes the fun part – using your target pace to create an action plan.

Jot down a running training plan covering six to eight weeks, with one ‘pace session’ per week. Other runs should still have a purpose; they may be an easy ‘recovery’ run, or a longer run to give you confidence that you can easily cover the distance of 5k.

In the weekly pace session, gradually increase the distance you run at target pace. Always begin the session with a gentle warm up of 1km or 2km and start out cautiously with paced distances of 300m or 500m. Run several ‘repetitions’ at target pace, taking a gentle walk or jog after each section to recover.

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How to monitor time and pace

Fitness/GPS watches (such as the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5) are useful companions for judging pace, but alternatively you can use a regular watch and a measured section of 500m or 1km – or even run around a 400m athletics track. Tracks are not only for the super-fast, they can be really helpful for anyone learning to judge any pace.     

Find your own distance

If you can’t manage the target pace, reduce the distance of the repetition. The total distance of the repetitions should be in the range of 2-3k in week one of your plan, working up to 5k in the final week. For example, 8 x 300m working up to 5 x 1,000m. 

The key is being able to cope with the pace for the number of repetitions in your run. It may feel fast at first but over time it will become easier.  Then, you’ll be able to sustain it over longer distances until on race day you can run 5k at target pace. 

Put it all together

Come race day your body will have become accustomed to running at target pace – even without the walking in between. Boosted by the adrenalin of the race environment and by sticking to your race pace in the first half, you may well surprise yourself. Just do what you have learned in training pace yourself.  

Pacing a 5k – three things to think about

Don’t be afraid to walk

Early on in your quest to complete your perfect 5k (three miles, 188 yards), it’s all about having the confidence to walk. The key is to plan your walking into your route using a technique known as Jeffing. Run a lamp post, walk a lamp post, run two, walk one and so on. The pace isn’t vital at this stage, but you’ll quickly get the drift as to what is comfortable.

A great rule of thumb, which works all the way to Olympic level, is to run at a pace you can comfortably hold a long, detailed conversation at. Indeed, running beyond 50 is all about social speed; not just because that’s fun, but because that’s physiologically better for you!  

Lean on your mental resilliance

As older runners, we’ll also be a touch stronger mentally than our younger rivals. That is also a huge advantage when it comes to deciding on that speed. Coaches often use an imaginary distance of 10 miles (16.1k) – as in, imagine you had to carry on for 10 miles. That’s the pace we want. Mentally strong runners (who have experienced everything life wishes to throw at us) will quickly determine that and be more realistic than youthful rivals. 

Learn to slow down

This requires a fair bit of skill, otherwise it’s all going to be over early. No matter how great you feel, decide on a pace you can maintain – and then go slower! Chances are you’ll be feeling amazing early on, but hardened runners will tell you, after that first kilometre, things get pretty tough. But not if that first kilometre is nice and easy. In fact, get that right and we promise you’ll start passing those who weren’t quite as wise.  

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Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Updated:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.