How to train for a 5k

Get fit for this distance with just three runs a week. We show you the perfect running week and how to train for a 5k.

Let’s face it, 5km – or just over three miles, for those of us who prefer good old-fashioned imperial measurementsis a fair old way. Completing it is worthy of a medal, for sure.

But you can learn how to train for a 5k, and you’ll likely find the distance is surprisingly achievable.

Runners training on the grassCredit: Shutterstock/WoodSPhotos

Running 5km is the perfect distance to discover the beauty of the sport. It’s very rewarding, and once you’ve done it, there’s plenty of the day left to celebrate. Unlike a marathon, you’ll recover from even the toughest run in an hour or two, and be ready for your next challenge. 

As a running coach (and runner myself), I’ve helped lots of people train for 5k. To get you going, I’ve devised a six-week running training plan, specially created with the over-50s in mind. It takes everything into account, from how often you should run, to extra elements you might like to add, such as Pilates or yoga. But first, some basics. 

Before you start

Training for a 5k over 50: advice for getting started

A great starting point when you’re thinking about training for a 5k is to not use distances, and instead to use times. For instance, aim for a half-hour run once a week, a 45-minute run once a week and, if you feel great, an hour-long run too. If you need to stop and walk (a technique called Jeffing), no problem. If you fancy running a bit quicker every now and then, also no worries. 

Be realistic but confident. If you’re 50, for instance, your body potentially will be much stronger and have better flexibility than a 60-year-old’s, so you need to take that into account.

Keep in mind strength training for runners; this will prove invaluable, but you might also like to add a bit of light speed (a few sprints or surges in a run) to your week. On the other hand, less flexible runners will benefit enormously from a Pilates or yoga session with perhaps just a 10-minute jog beforehand to warm up. It’s all about mixing it up a little rather than doing everything at the same pace. 

Don’t rush into things like a 20-year-old and hope for the best. Remember, too, muscles shorten, and even if you work hard, they will decrease in power. Take all that into account – along with diet, stretching, hydration and sleep – and you’ll be fine.  

Share the work to make it easier

Joining a like-minded group is also a fantastic way of making it all so much easier. Organisations such as RunTogether offer nationwide social running gatherings where everyone is welcome. “A run with someone can just be so powerful,” says Sue Bennett, a Run Leader Mentor. “Even when it’s been a dreadful day, getting out and running a few miles can do so many amazing things.” 

Remember, too, kit is hugely important. Feeling and looking good plays a key role in helping you achieve your goals. Lightweight, breathable running shoes and clothing can help with everything from maintaining an optimal temperature to train at, to allowing your body and muscles to move as they should. 

The six-week plan

A six-week 5k training plan for over-50s

At the core of this plan is a basic formula that will see you improve rapidly. It’s simple and just requires a bit of planning: head out the door three times a week and you’re halfway there; make one of those outings short, one long, and one longer, and you’re pretty much all the way! 

There are a few basic principles to bear in mind to help you improve:

  • Run three times a week. The schedule has four days but feel free to miss one. 
  • Change the pace for some runs; go slower occasionally, go quicker when you feel good. 
  • Don’t forget form. Concentrating on a perfect stride and body position, even for just a couple of minutes a week, really pays dividends over time. 
  • Learn to love hills.
  • Don’t be frightened to rest. Improving is all about mixing rest with training. If you feel tired, or something is niggly, take a day off.

At this point, it’s important to stress that getting ready for a 5k is a very individual process, and what works for one, won’t necessarily be right for another. Training plans should adapt as training goes on. 

Week one

Establish a routine that works for you

Monday Easy run, discover what does and does not work in terms of distance. Seasoned veterans head out for 45 minutes running; newbies mix and match, say 20 minutes walking and running
Tuesday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Wednesday Up the pace a little; short jog followed by a series of light sprints. Not tiring, work on form
Thursday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Friday Day off
Saturday Hills! 10 x 20 seconds, run up (20 secs, not hugely steep), walk back down slowly. Simple. Pace is up to you – but do not run full pelt
Sunday Your longest run of the week. No more than an hour; walking and running is fine. If you feel great, pick up speed for the final 15 minutes

Week two

Add a little pace to your week

Monday Easy run, as week one
Tuesday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Wednesday Easy run (15 minutes), then mobility work (stretching, getting everything moving) followed by three runs of three minutes, and walk for two minutes for recovery. The pace is your call, but do not go full out
Thursday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Friday Day off
Saturday Warm up for 10 minutes, then run fast for 20 minutes. Or perhaps take part in a Parkrun, the free-to-enter 5km up and down the country every weekend
Sunday Your longest run of the week. No more than an hour; walking and running is fine. If you feel great, pick it up for the final 15 minutes

Week three

Back off a little this week

Monday Keep your run light today; no more than 20 minutes
Tuesday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Wednesday As Monday, keep it light. Mobility work afterwards is good
Thursday Day off
Friday Day off
Saturday 30-minute run – after a slow jog to warm up, go fast for two minutes, then walking for one minute; repeat for 20 minutes
Sunday Your longest run of the week. No more than 45 minutes; walk and run is fine

Week four

Add a bit of distance

Monday Up to an hour running as you feel
Tuesday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Wednesday As Monday, light. Mobility work afterwards is good
Thursday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Friday Day off
Saturday Warm up for 5-10 minutes with some jogging, then 3 x 5 minutes at your 5k speed (imagined is fine!), with 90 seconds rest between each effort
Sunday Your longest run of the week. No more than 80 minutes; walk and run is fine. If you feel great, pick it up for the final 20 minutes 

Week five

Time to freshen up

Monday Run for 30 minutes but pick it up for the final five minutes
Tuesday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Wednesday 45 minutes, nice and easy
Thursday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Friday Day off
Saturday Hills! 8 x 90 seconds. Aim for more of a slope, which means you’re working on form at pace rather than trying to run your fastest ever time. Walk recovery
Sunday Your longest run of the week. No more than an hour; walk and run is fine. If you feel great, pick it up for the final 15 minutes

Week six

Time to test it out

Monday Light jog, 20 minutes max
Tuesday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Wednesday Light jog, 20 minutes max
Thursday Rest or yoga or Pilates
Friday Day off
Saturday Light jog for 10 minutes
Sunday Fast 5k. Go for it!

John’s story

How I trained for a 5k after a heart transplant

We asked John Fisher, a 61-year-old who is now 23 years post-heart transplant, how he trained for a 5km, aged 45, after years of barely being able to walk. 

“I decided I wanted to exercise and get fit again after my heart transplant, and I set a realistic goal and a distance that was worth going out to do – three miles [5km]. I guessed I could walk a mile in 20 minutes, so a three-mile walk would be one hour of exercise. But my aim was to be able to run it in a time. 

“After a couple of weeks walking my route, I decided to start jogging part of it. I’d do a 10-minute walk then jog (slowly) between lamp posts, then walk between five lamp posts and jog (slowly) to the sixth. 

“Recording the time of each trip was great encouragement and gave me a new target/time to beat. I had a halfway marker (the BP petrol station) and the time it took to get there, so I’d know how I was doing.”

John Fisher running the Great Wall of ChinaCredit: John Fisher
Since John Fisher has had a heart transplant, he’s taken up running – and loves it!

“I set goals as I ran”

“Every week or so I would add a lamp post to the jogging part. I started by walking for 10 minutes every time to loosen up, then jogged between lamp posts, walked for four lamp posts, then jogged slowly for one. 

“I would decrease the number of lamp posts I walked until I could jog the whole route. There were obviously good and bad days, but seeing the time getting better and better was a great incentive.  

“Then came the BIG day… I wanted to jog the whole distance and not start by walking.   

“Sadly, I failed… I had to walk part of it. I set off too fast, being full of energy at first, and then ran out of steam and had to walk.”  

Don’t expect to smash it every time

He adds: “But this was part of the learning curve and served me well in later days, when I was finally ready for my first half marathon, which was followed by a marathon, and then even longer!  

“Those early walks/jogs always come to mind during a long run and remind me how far I have come. 

“Completing my first three-mile non-stop jog was a major achievement and gave me the confidence to aim higher, and I have even run an ultra-marathon [56km/35 miles], the Two Oceans in South Africa, home to the world’s first heart transplant.  

“For so many reasons that was a very special event for me.” 

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.