Race day anxiety usually starts a few days early for me. The butterflies roll around in my stomach and my legs begin feeling rubbery and weak, like a baby taking his first wobbly steps across the living room floor. Worst of all, I begin to doubt myself and my ability to run. I run 20 to 30 races each year, and yet this feeling hits me every time.

On race day, I become quiet and surly. My wife and kids are quick to point out that I’m in race mode, which means no sense of humor and even less patience. I try to smile to cover up my neurotic adrenaline, but it ends up looking like a grimace. I hear music playing on the car radio, but I don’t catch the words. In my mind, the race has already begun.

After picking up my race bib and shedding my outer layers, I begin my warm-up routine. The intention is to run just hard enough to break a sweat, but not so hard that I jeopardize my race performance. The warmup run is inversely proportional to the race distance. The shorter the race, the longer the warm-up. 

Jogging back and forth from the starting area gives me a chance to physically ready myself for the challenge ahead. Mentally, it allows me to release my anxiety and tension and visualize how my race will play out over the length of the course. This is also a time to assess your competition. Every runner glances sideways at others considering such things as gait, cadence, choice of racing apparel, running shoes, club affiliation, exertion level, and attitude.

5K Race Strategy

As runners choose their positions behind the starting line, secrets are revealed. A runner’s proximity to the starting line is usually a very good indicator of where they think they will finish the race. Some belong there, others do not. Some will start very fast and fade just as quickly. The ideal starting place is one where I won’t have to dodge other runners to make up ground, but I won’t be pushed to go out too fast.

As runners choose their positions behind the starting line, secrets are revealed. Click To Tweet

With a few brief words and a symphony of high-pitched chirps from GPS watches, the race is underway. I cover the first three hundred meters dodging elbows and finding my place in the long line of runners. My breathing is on the edge of ragged at the half-mile point, and I have to dial in a pace that won’t push me over that fine line.

The first mile is an excellent race predictor. In my experience, a runner rarely moves more than ten places ahead or falls more than ten places behind in a 5K race after passing the first mile marker. I hit my goal pace and take inventory. I check my form, my breathing, and remind myself to be present and mindful.

The second mile of the 5K race requires fortitude and discipline. I catch myself thinking about other things (home renovation projects, the familiar looking person at the last water stop, and banana pancakes to name a few…) and have to redirect my thoughts back to the race. It’s easy to find a comfortable place in line and let the pace drift in the second mile.

I force myself to take 5 quick steps. I catch the runner in front of me by surprise and force myself to take 5 more quick steps to make sure they’re behind me. It hurts. My legs are starting to feel heavy now and my breathing is on the edge of ragged again. This is what I came for.

“There is no satisfaction without a struggle first.” – Olympic middle distance runner, Marty Liquori

Mile three begins less than twelve minutes after the start of the race. I focus my thoughts on the finish line and tell myself not to blow it. I’ve already come this far, I can last 6 more minutes. I think about my winter training on cold snowy roads. I imagine what my 11-year-old son is feeling as he runs his race just a few minutes behind me and draw inspiration from his grit and determination.

As I approach the last quarter-mile of the race, the road rises up in front of me. I have a steep hill to climb and a decision to make. I hear footsteps in the loose gravel behind me. I can give in to the pain and let this runner catch me, or I can dig deep and gut it out. There is no choice.

My legs are wooden, my shoulders ache, my lungs burn, and my arms feel prickly. This is what a 5K finish feels like. I charge forward knowing that it will all be over soon. The clock reads 18:54 as I cross the timing mat. I turn and see the next runner finish 9 seconds later.

I immediately walk over and shake his hand and offer him my congratulations on a great run. He asks me my age, and we both smile as we realize we’re not competing against each other. We part with a fist bump and a promise to do it again next year.

My son finishes a few minutes later, to the loudest applause of the day, as he sprints up the hill to pass a runner twice his height and three times his age. We each grab a bottle of water and a protein bar, and head towards the preliminary results posted on the side of the building by the beer tent. It doesn’t matter what we find out. We’re both satisfied to have struggled courageously against the race course, the other runners, and ourselves.

9 thoughts on “5 Quick Steps: 5K Race Strategy

  1. Nicely written – very visceral. I have done very few 5Ks, tending toward the middle distances. This makes me want to challenge myself with another one.

  2. Agreed – nicely written and an enjoyable read. I’m sure it’s no accident that despite the race being measured in kilometers you describe your experience in miles: is this so you can break down the run and visualise the course as an even spread start-middle-end I wonder?

    1. Craig, Thanks. That’s a really interesting comment. Mentally I do break it into three big chunks. I never really think in terms of kilometers even when I’m running in a 5K or 10K race. I guess I just know the “feel” of a mile better than that of a kilometer.

  3. Lovely read, full of passion and very interesting, I run at the back of the 5k bunch and have a totally different view, my mission is to enjoy, get around…and not finish last, also sprint finish so the person I hear behind me doesn’t get my hard earned place, and then the handshakes, smiles and let’s do this again next year. Interesting comparison x

  4. Great post Jason! I always get so nervous before a 5k I end up drinking a bunch of imodium and psyching myself out and get a slower time than my training runs, lol.

    1. Reese, I understand. I get very anxious when I haven’t raced in a while. Once I begin racing 1, 2 or 3 times a month I find my groove and my pre-race jitters are a lot less severe. Many times, the anticipation of competition and suffering, is much worse than the actual experience. Thanks for commenting! 😀

  5. My thoughts exactly as I approach a race! So well written – but can you please correct the miswritten word in “take 5 more quick steps to make sure their behind me” – it should, of course, be “they’re behind me”.

Thoughts?