Run with Doug

Race Selection

Selecting a 5K Race

Whether you are new to distance running and racing or have a few races under your belt, it is important to know how to select a 5K race to run in.

There are great 5K races and there are some very bad ones – run long enough and you will be a part of both. This article assumes you want to run as fast as possible – you are seeking a personal record (PR) or you simply want to keep track of your metrics and improve over time.




So - what makes a great 5K race? Well, here are the top criteria

The distance is correct! You would be surprised to know how many races have an incorrect distance, even though they are “USATF Certified” courses. This can happen for a variety of reasons but in my experience it mostly comes down to placing the turnaround cone in the wrong location on an out and back course. The distance for a USATF Certified course should be very close to 3.10856 miles which is 3.11 miles rounded up. That said, I am pretty happy if I run a course and it is 3.12 miles and pretty unhappy if it is something around 3.15 and higher. The longest certified 5K course I have ever run was 3.3 miles at the Chaska Turkey Trot in Chaska, Minnesota in 2014. The race organizers fought hard to tell me I was wrong, but I proved to be right in the end as I showed them that the turnaround cone had been misplaced and it added nearly .2 of a mile. That added between a minute and two minutes to most runners times – not insignificant. They did correct that error and the course was right in 2015 and 2016, the last times I ran it.

For every 1/100th of a mile that a course is too long, several seconds get added to your time. Try to find courses that are USATF Certified and you can personally verify the length somehow (a friend, commercial digital measuring wheel, etc).

The time is correct! Most of the time the chip-timed races do a great job of getting your time correct, down to the 1/10th of a second. However, if you run in enough races you may run in an event that is not chip-timed and you finish in a running chute. These times can be off by several seconds. Most races are now chip-timed and even if the initial time is incorrect the race organizers will do their best to fix the problem and get you your correct time.

The course does not have a crazy number of turns and switchbacks. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The more turns you have in your race, the more time you add to your total. If your race is considered an “out and back” then you will have a switchback, 180 degree turn around a turnaround cone, and that slows you down. The fastest races I have been involved in had just a few very rounded turns and no switchbacks.

The course is relatively flat or it has a net negative elevation change. If you are running in a 5K race and the first ½ mile is uphill with 80 to 100 feet of elevation rise, you are going to get overly tired early in the race and you may never get your wind back. Additionally, it is better if the course does not have steep downhill slopes as you may be breaking to slow down rather than being able to continue your natural stride.  

The course is run on pavement – either asphalt or concrete. If you want to run fast, don’t run on a soft sand beach as you will not get any of the downforce energy returned into your forward stride. The shoes we have today are designed to return as much energy as possible and if that energy is absorbed by the surface you are running on you will not have the fastest time possible.

We have covered a lot of ground here. In summary, when you are looking for a good 5K race to run in, look for a course that is USATF Certified, chip-timed, relatively flat with just a few turns and hopefully no switchbacks on a paved surface. If you can find courses like this you will be ahead of the game and your attitude will be better than if you don’t follow these tips.

Have fun!