How I Finally Succeeded at Running 5K (after years of trying…)

This article is for anyone who might have failed trying to run their first 5K, for those that feel like they will never be a “real” runner, and who might be on the cusp of giving up.

I’ve personally always had a love-hate relationship with running. The love comes from the almost guaranteed high after it’s done – the rush of endorphins, the tremendous feeling of accomplishment, and (I’ll be honest) feeling like I had really earned that candy bar, if I wanted it…The hate part of it came from the pressure of always improving my speed or time, the awful feeling of failure if I wasn’t able to do hit a goal I had set for myself, and the dread that came with continually pushing myself so hard.

Quick recap: I’ve been running on and off for about a decade, without following a strict training schedule. At first, I would ultimately just run at what felt like a challenging pace until I was tired, and use that as a bench mark. My mindset was that each week I should be progressing with speed and distance, without exception. Week after week I felt that I absolutely had to beat that the speed, time, or distance I had set for myself the week before.

Unsurprisingly, there was always a point where I would burn out, and call it quits for a few months. Towards the end, right before I plateaued, it was pretty common for me to be mentally berating myself, or openly in tears mid run. By the end of even short runs I felt like a train wreck. Worse is that I could never seem to make it to the 5K mark, running non-stop, even when I thought I was taking it slow, and setting reasonable milestones for myself. I would eventually pick it back up again, but all the while believed on the inside that I was just not meant to be a runner. Maybe it wasn’t for everyone.

After my most recent hiatus, I started up again, and sure enough started to feel the all-too-familiar fatigue and dread. I decided that this couldn’t be normal. I decided to put a little more thought and research into what I was doing, before I injured myself.

While perusing training suggestions, I found it frustrating not knowing where to start, and finding such drastically different plans for beginners. Some plans assume you can already run for 10 minute chunks, and others start you off with as little as 30-second spurts. The more I researched I started realizing that even the plans that seemed super-easy were actually too ambitious for me, once you broke it down. For example, a common bench mark is working up to 5K, in 30 minutes, after a few weeks. Don’t get me wrong. This might be an achievable goal for some people…But, it wasn’t for me. It was accepting this that allowed me to make tremendous progress.

To put it in perspective: hitting 5K in 30 minutes translates into a running speed of 6.2 MPH. However, according to Healthline (which aligns with other stats I’ve seen), the average speed for a 30-34 year old woman to run 5K is over 38 minutes! This translates into a speed of under 5 MPH. If you don’t currently run, this might not mean anything to you, but it’s a huge difference, and made me feel a lot better with myself.

It totally surprised me, and suddenly I felt like I had permission to slow right down. I decided to err on the side of caution, and start with the 30-second interval stuff. It felt like it was laughably easy at first. And I felt silly stopping after 30 seconds, when I wasn’t tired or sweating. But, I forced myself to stick with what felt like painfully slow increases, week by week, and held myself back even when I was dying to go faster or longer. I am confident that this is what allowed me to go farther and faster, in the long run.

I started realizing that I was actually being way, way too hard on myself in the earlier years, without even realizing it. For my next several runs, I dropped right down to just under 5 MPH. Having previously pushed myself much harder than this, it felt almost comical. As an aside, I strongly recommend the movie “Britany Runs A Marathon” – I will always treasure the scene where she realizes that the people around her are walking faster than she is running. That’s exactly what I felt like.

But I stuck with it. And sure enough, I noticed that every time I made a new goal for myself – whether it be a slight increase in speed, time, or distance, I did. Not. Fail. You have no idea how huge this was for me.

Of course, scaling back physically was only part of my solution. I also made serious adjustments mentally. Drawing on self-compassion, I started to gradually adjust my attitude. If I was feeling particularly dread-y before a jog, I would pause, and give myself permission to fail. I told myself that all I had to do was try, and give it my best effort. And if that meant I could only run for 5 minutes today, so be it. I actually meant this, but have so far never stopped after 5 minutes. You’d think my brain would catch on and that this little trick would lose its effectiveness, but it didn’t. Instead of obsessing about beating my time, my speed, or running for a set time and distance, I was compassionate to myself, and surprisingly accomplished more than I ever did the “old” way.

I’ve also tossed the self-defeating talk. It still comes up (it’s just the way I’m wired), but when I notice it creeping in, I shift my attention. If I start to hear a negative inner dialogue, I start using some of the techniques I’ve developed in working on mindfulness. I start to focus on my senses, to distract from my thoughts. I’ll name the sounds I can hear (my breath, my feet hitting the pavement or treadmill, the chatter – the possibilities are endless). I do a “body scan” and check in with myself physically. Am I tensing my shoulders, clenching my jaw? I can actually find peace and comfort in the discomfort. I can acknowledge that my lungs might be burning, that my calves might be aching, and that I’d rather be on the couch eating chips. But so long as I don’t think I’m at risk of injuring myself, I remind myself that it’s temporary, that I’m proud of myself for even starting this workout, and that I’m honoring my body and my mind by challenging it. It sounds cheesy, but it works.

The bottom line? At 34 years old, after years of trying, I finally crushed 5K. I am confident that I was able to do this by being kinder to myself. That it was by forcing myself to go slower, that allowed me to go farther and faster in the long run. That it was cutting myself some slack, that would allow me to push myself further than I previously thought possible.

If you find yourself struggling with something other people consider an “easy” milestone, please know that you are not alone. There might be some people who can hop off the couch and run 5K without even trying. But I am not one of those people. This accomplishment is huge for me, and I’m so glad I saw it through. I’m not sure what my next goal will be, but I know that I have a better relationship with running, and don’t see myself calling it quits any time soon!

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