5K Race Strategy & Tactics


By Rick Morris


Racing a 5K isn't just a physical event. There is also a strategic side to 5K racing. To reach your full potential as a 5K competitor you need to have a solid plan in mind before the start and also know how to react properly to changing conditions during the race. In terms of semantics, strategy is your overall plan for racing your 5K while tactics are the ways that you carry out that plan. Your 5K race strategy is determined before your race and is mostly static in nature while your 5K tactics are more dynamic and may change over the course of your 5K race.


5K Strategy


The lion's share of your 5K race strategy involves your planned pacing. There are a number of various pacing choices including negative splits, positive splits, even pacing, even effort, front running, strong start/middle float, middle push/strong finish and surging The best choice for you depends upon your experience level, fitness level and your specific strengths and weaknesses. For most competitive runners either negative splits or a strong start and finish will result in the best performance. The list below outlines my recommendations for your specific situation.


Beginning Runner - Even Effort

Recreational Runner - Even Pacing

Pacer ( Runs for a time goal) - Negative Splits

Beginning Competitive Runner -  Negative Splits or Middle Push/Strong Finish

Experienced Competitive Runner -  Strong Start/Middle Float with a Strong Finish
























5K Tactics


Once you have determined your overall race strategy you are ready to carry out your plan on race day. Your 5K tactics are the moves and adjustments you make during your race that allow you to successfully carry out your overall 5K strategy and plan. Your race tactics begin with the start of your race.



The Start


Just as with your overall race strategy your 5K race starting tactics will depend upon your experience, fitness level and goal. For beginning runners, recreational runners and pacers the best starting tactic is first to line up in an appropriate spot in the starting grid. If you consider yourself to be one of the faster runners you should line up in the front. If you run a more moderate pace start in the middle of the pack and if you are a slower runner begin the race towards the back of the pack. It's important to follow these guidelines not only to insure a safe and efficient start but also to help you start at the appropriate pace. If you are a faster runner and you line up towards the back you will be held up at the start and will lose valuable time. On the other hand if you are a slower runner and line up at the front of the grid, the faster runners will "pull you along" at a pace that is too fast. You'll end up crashing and burning nicely later in the race.


The First Mile


For most runners the most appropriate tactic during the first mile is to follow your overall strategy. If you planned on even pacing be sure you don't run faster during the first part of the race. If you planned on negative splits, keep your first mile speed at your planned pace. Going out too fast in that first mile can make even pacing, even effort or negative split strategy hard to carry out. The exception to this is with experience competitive runners and some beginning competitive runner


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. Here are recommendations for first mile strategy.


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.


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.


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




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