Head to any park with a runners’ lane and it might seem like some people are just born to run. In their sweat-wicking singlets, these athletic specimens are swift, speedy, and (shockingly) smiling. But not everyone is built for the open road (or treadmill), and the hopes of running that next big marathon might be a wee bit lofty— especially considering the dust collecting on those running shoes.

Illustration by Shannon Orcutt

So where to start? For the newbie roadrunner, training for a 5K (that’s 3.1 miles) can be a more manageable goal. And the good news is, when paired with a healthy diet, running regularly can help reduce blood pressure, improve mood, and keep excess pounds at bayEffects of exercise, diet and weight loss on high blood pressure. Bacon, S.L., Sherwood, A., Hinderliter, A., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC. Sports Medicine 2004;34(5):307-16Exercise in weight management of obesity. Poirier, P., Després, J.P. Department of Pharmacy, Laval University School of Pharmacy, Sainte-Foy, Québec, Canada. Cardiology Clinics 2001 Aug;19(3):459-70..

But to hit the ground running (and running well), we first need a plan. Enter: Andrew Kalley, decorated triathlete and elite endurance coach at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York City. Here is his beginner-friendly 4-week training program, plus some essential training tips to cross that 5K finish line in your Greatist time.

On Your Mark — Getting Started

  • Gear up. While those go-to kicks might be great for everyday wear, that doesn’t mean they’re right for distance running. “It’s always good to try multiple pairs and jump on the treadmill for a minute or two if you can,” Kalley advises. Also, consider going with a second pair of lightweight running shoes for an added edge on race dayRun Anyone?… Everyone! McInnis, W.P. Canadian Family Physician 1974 Apr;20(4):55-7..
  • Team up. Staying motivated can be tricky when flying solo. Grab a friend, neighbor, or join a running club for extra encouragement to go the distance.
  • Sign up. Sure, there are plenty of 5Ks to choose from, but when has procrastination ever really worked in our favor? It never hurts to sign up early and keep that eye on the prize!
  • Warm up. To stave off injury, dynamic stretching is must before every run. Try walking lunges, straight leg marches (a.k.a. Frankensteins— yup, just as awesome as they sound!), and leg swings, which engage more of the body than static stretchesFour-week dynamic stretching warm-up intervention elicits longer-term performance benefits. Herman, S.L., Smith, D.T. Department of Sports Medicine, Rochelle Athletics Center, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2008 Jul;22(4):1286-97..
  • Master the form. “People don’t like running because it doesn’t always feel good,” Kalley admits. “But we can change their technique to make running more efficient— and in turn easier.”To get started,learn the proper fore-foot foot strike and the basic head-to-toe running formRun Anyone?… Everyone! McInnis, W.P. Canadian Family Physician 1974 Apr;20(4):55-7.Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Lieberman, D.E., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W.A., et al. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, 11 Divinity Avenue, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Nature 2010 Jan 28;463(7280):531-5..
  • Cross-train. Variety is the spice of life— and a great way to keep from running in circles! Try mixing it up with a weekly team sport, weight lifting session, or kick-butt Zumba class.
  • Listen to your body. Running isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t mean it should be painful. If anything feels like more than a 6 out of 10 on the pain scale, consider taking caution, Kalley says. “Just remember that running is high impact exercise, so it’s natural to feel winded and for the body to ache and hurt a little bit.” That should all eventually go away!

Get Set — The Program

For healthy, injury-free individuals, 4 weeks should be enough time to get fully prepped for competition, Kalley says. So pick a day (and why not today?) to get started with this custom program, tailor made for your first 5K:

Need an Adjustment? If these workouts feel like a breeze, try looking for more challenging running routes with hills, and eliminate all the walking breaks. Kalley says adding more speed intervals into the program will also step things up.

Trouble catching your breath? Take slightly longer walking breaks, and consider eliminating the interval day and incline day on weeks 2 and 3. Taking an extra week or two to prep could also do the trick.

Go!!! — Race Day

Before those race day jitters set in, consider these helpful tips from Kalley and Radenko Miskovic, exercise specialist at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers.

  • Arrive early. No one wants to be frantically running around on race day (at least not before the gun goes off!), so aim to arrive at least an hour before race time to sign in, warm up, stash your stuff, and use the restroom. “You’ll also want time to relax and analyze the environment around you,” Miskovic says.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t let the sound of the gun send you flying. Starting out more conservatively and aiming to negative split (i.e. get faster each mile) will avoid burnout, Kalley says. So plan your pace in advance and bring a stopwatch to keep track.
  • Do you. While it’s natural to want to run with the pack, remember that every runner has different abilities, experience levels, and goals. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to race your race. Everything else can be used as motivation— whether that’s training toward getting faster or moving yourself higher into the corral,” Kalley says.
  • Finish strong. To achieve your best time, “imagine there are 10 meters more to go when you see the finish line,” Miskovic says. While one or two seconds might not seem like a big deal, it can mean clocking in at 29:59 rather than 30:00 minutes flat.
  • Cool down. Don’t pop the bubbly just yet— after crossing the finish line it’s key to keep the body moving. So while a few snapshots are totally in order, be sure to properly cool down with an easy 10-15 minute jog. Then, it’s celebration time!

Tell us which race you’re signing up for, and the Greatist Team will be sure to cheer you on (at least virtually, that is)! As for me, I’ll be running The Annual Terry Fox Run for Cancer Research on October 15 in Central Park, NYC. See you at the finish line!

Share your training and race day tips in the comments below, or tweet the author at @jshakeshaft.

Need an extra push? Then check out our super comprehensive (and fun!) How to Run Your Best 5K (Ever) Guide!