5K Race Strategy

Do you go into your races knowing your 5K race strategy? It has been drummed into our heads that we should always be conservative during the first mile of a 5K race so we are able to pick up the pace in the middle and last miles. But is that always good advice? Maybe not. There is evidence that competitive runners will usually perform better with a stronger start. Scientists at the University of New Hampshire studied 5K pacing strategy of eleven moderately trained women distance runners and found that the best performances were obtained when the athletes ran their first mile at between 3% and 6% faster than their average split times for the entire 5K race distance. Another study from South Africa that studied record breaking performances found that the first and last kilometers of most record breaking races were run significantly faster than the middle miles. Both of these studies seem to support the benefits of competitive runners running the first mile at a slightly faster pace.

First Mile


Runner Type First Mile Recommendations
Beginning Runner Run no faster than planned effort level
Recreational Runner Run no faster than planned pace
Pacer Planned even pace or up to 3% faster
Beginning Competitive Runner Planned even pace or up to 3% faster
Experienced Competitive Runner 3% to 6% faster



Middle Mile


The second mile of your 5K is where you should nearly always settle into your planned pace or if you are running negative splits, begin to very gradually push your pace. An experienced competitive runner that pushed the pace slightly in the first mile may want to settle into a strong float (strong but relaxed) pace for some active recovery in anticipation of a fast finishing mile. Some competitive runners may need to deal with surges at some point in the second mile. If one of your primary competitors throws in a surge you need to decide if you are going to react or not. If you decide to go with the surge be sure you react quickly so you don’t lose much ground. You may also decide to throw in a surge of your own. If so, your move should be strong and decisive. Continue your surge until you create a large gap. Then slow back to your race pace.


Runner Type Middle Mile Recommendations
Beginning Runner Even Effort
Recreational Runner Even Pace or Even Effort
Pacer Even Pace
Beginning Competitive Runner Even Pace or Gradually Increasing Pace
Experienced Competitive Runner Gradually Increasing Pace or Float with Surges


The Final Mile


The last mile of the 5K is where most runners either succeed or fail in meeting their running goal. The final mile should be your fastest. Some runners will continue an even pace through much of the final mile but all runners should complete the race with a finishing kick of 200 meters or more. If you are a competitive runner you will almost certainly be sprinting for final positions in the last 400 meters.


Runner Type Final Mile Recommendations
Beginning Runner Even effort until the final 200 meters. Then sprint as fast as possible to the finish line
Recreational Runner Even pace until the final 400 meters. Then begin your finishing kick
Pacer Steadily increase your pace throughout the final mile. Start your finishing kick with 400 meters to the finish line
Beginning Competitive Runner Increasing pace and surging throughout the final mile. Begin your finishing kick with about 400 meters left
Experienced Competitive Runner Increasing pace and surging in reaction to your competitors. Begin accelerating strongly with about 800 meters left. Begin your finishing sprint at 300 to 400 meters to the finish line





An analysis of pacing strategies during men’s world record performances in track athletics, Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2006 Sep;1(3):233-45


The impact of different pacing strategies on five-kilometer running time trial performance, J Strength Cond Res, 2006 Nov;20(4):882-6