In August of 2010 I started the Couch to 5K program, a running plan aimed at getting a non-runner to be able to run 3 miles (5K) over the course of nine weeks. The program demands three running sessions each week, each session taking about 30-40 minutes.
As a Couch to 5K “graduate,” I get a lot of questions about the program, particularly from those who are thinking about trying it, but hesitant. I can’t say enough good things about this program: it quite literally changed my life. If you are on the fence about starting or wondering what it entails, I hope that this will answer some questions and give you that little “nudge” to get started.
Where do I start? The Cool Runnings Couch to 5K program website gives a wonderful overview of the program along with a nice chart of each week of the program.
What do I need to begin? The beauty of running is that it is a very simple sport: you need a pair of shoes (I realize that’s debatable, but let’s stick to running with shoes for now) and a little time. Everything else – the fun running clothes, the gadgets that measure your speed and pace, the fueling choices, the water bottles – those are all optional. If you have a comfortable pair of tennis shoes, don’t let the lack of any other equipment stop you. I worked through the whole C25K program and ran my first race in a pair of Hello Kitty sneakers from Hot Topic – certainly not the ideal athletic shoe, but they did the job just fine.
Is there an app for that? Couch to 5K requires timed intervals of running and intervals of walking: for example, week one, day one has you run for 60 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, and repeat again and again for twenty minutes. While you can do this with a watch, it is so much easier to have an app that announces the intervals for you. I used the C25K app and I highly recommend it. It not only indicates when you should switch intervals, it also keeps a log of your progress. The app is $2.99 and worth every penny.
If you don’t have a smart phone, there is a podcast that can help you out. Along with some music, the podcast recites the intervals for each session. A good option if you can’t use the app.
I don’t feel good about my run today, and I couldn’t finish what the program required. Is it okay to redo a day? Absolutely. I had a few days that I had to repeat, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, in doing so you are doing something that is important for every runner of every skill level: you are listening to your body. Even runners who have marathons behind them have their off days where a planned long run turns into something much shorter. The Couch to 5K program is forgiving in its timeline: if you don’t feel good about a day, or you didn’t run as much as the program suggested, take a day off and try again.
Holy cow! Week 5 requires me to run for 20 minutes straight! There’s no way I can do that. I felt that same way. In fact, the main reason I started talking about my C25K endeavor on the blog was because I needed the accountability to push me through the program: I saw that 20 minute run and I thought that would be the end of the program for me. Once I got to the end of the fifth week, though, something surprising happened: I could do it. I could run for 20 minutes without stopping. Sure, I was slow, but I did it. Trust the program. It will get you there. It may take a few tries (and that’s fine!) but it will happen.
My knee/foot/shin/hip hurts. Rest. Running is a high-impact sport, and sometimes your body needs a break. Running on pain can cause injury, and injuries can be serious. The program will be ready for you when you are ready to start again. If you are worried about losing the fitness progress you’ve made, try doing something else active but less stressful on the injured part. In July when I hurt my knee horseback riding, I stopped running for a week and used the eliptical machine instead. I still got a good workout but I did so without aggravating an injury. I was able to jump back into my running, albeit slowly, the following week.
Should I register for a 5K race now? Yes, yes, yes! There’s nothing like a race to keep you motivated throughout your training. Choose a race that’s scheduled for a few weeks after you are scheduled to complete the program just in case you have to repeat a few days. And, about that little voice in the back of your head asking “what if I’m the slowest one there? What if I finish last, or can’t finish at all?” I had that voice too. We all do, beginners like you and I and even the professionals. And sometimes even the people who are runners through-and-through don’t finish a race. Don’t let the thought scare you. Pick a 5K race, sign up, and go there with the intention of enjoying it, no matter the outcome. The excitement of race day is hard to describe but so great to experience.
What’s nice about the 5K is that it is sort of the “everyman’s race.” You’ll see people of all ages and abilities. At my first 5K I saw fit athletes looking to run five minute miles. I saw older couples walking the race hand-in-hand. I saw moms with their children. I saw all body types. And everyone gave it their best. You will fit in just fine.
Plus, it is fun to tell people you are training for a race.
When does it get easy? Or, as a very smart woman worded it: When will the burning in my lungs stop? I’m still waiting for it to get easy. I’m still not fast, I still can’t run 10 miles, it’s still hard. But, I’m faster than I was a year ago. I can run 8.5 miles. And I look forward to the challenges of every run. There are few exercises out there that work your body as hard as running, few activities that offer the camaraderie that the running community shares, and few endeavors that leave you feeling so worn out and so renewed all at once. Running isn’t easy, it may never become easy, but it is worth it.
Any other advice? Sign up for a website like Daily Mile. Daily Mile is a site that allows you to track your mileage, your times and your routes, and it is set up in a Facebook-like layout so that you can “friend” others, participate in challenges and comment on other peoples’ workouts. I love the encouragement of seeing a new comment on one of my workouts on Daily Mile, and I enjoy going back to my old entries to see how much farther and faster I run now. Progress in speed and endurance happens over time, and unless you are tracking your progress it may be hard to see it happen. The Daily Mile has you covered on that, and so I totally recommend it.
Readers: Is there anything else you’d like to know about Couch to 5K? What’s stopping you from giving it a try? Are you in the middle of the program now? How’s it going? Are you a graduate? How do you feel about Couch to 5K?