It’s a crazy world. The Couch to 5K program was invented by Josh Clark the founder of a design agency. No sports science degree, no coaching experience, yet he came up with a running program that’s helped millions of people around the world become runners.
The brilliance of the program lies in it’s slow build up. It really is a schedule that can turn even the most reluctant runner into a total convert.
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What Is The Couch To 5K Program?
Josh Clark posted the original Couch to 5K plan on a blog called Cool Running back in 1996. Sadly the blog no longer exists.
The original running program has been copied and modified by thousands of running blogs. There are 6 week and 12 week versions but the original Couch to 5K plan goes from zero to running 5K non-stop in just 9 weeks.
This 9 week plan is such a successful exercise motivator it’s been adopted by the UK NHS – part of their bid to tackle obesity and boost health.
So what’s in the program?
The plan is really simple. Not surprising really when you think about how it came about. Josh Clark just scribbled down the run-walk schedule and gave it that terrific name.
You have to wonder. If he’d called it Run-Walk To 5K Plan would it have been anywhere near as popular?
Yet there’s nothing wrong with simplicity. The power of the schedule is you just have to alternate running and walking for set time periods.
For the first week you’re alternating 60 seconds of running, (he called it jogging), with 90 seconds of walking for 8 repetitions. That’s just 20 minutes of exercise plus a five minute warm up walk completed three times a week.
It’s interval training in it’s most basic form and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most people instinctively start running this way – I know I did.
Intervals are a terrific way to get better at running and just about all runners who want to get faster will work intervals into their training schedule.
But fair dues, Josh Clark made up a schedule, stuck it on the fledgling internet with a kick-ass name and the rest as they say is history.
How Do I Start Couch To 5K?
The best way is to download the NHS app. It’s free and it’s going to give you tons of motivation to help you stick to the plan over the next 9 weeks. You don’t need to be in the UK to join the program.
If you prefer a US version, Active Network has taken over from the original Cool Running blog and you can buy their app for $2.99. A small fee to transform your fitness.
I found the original Couch to 5K Program here. Just print it out and get started. There are three workouts a week so take a rest day between workouts and an extra day off at the end of your week.
It’s best to still be active on your rest days. Walk or cycle for 20 minutes. Strength training or swimming is also good. Anything that keeps you moving.
The schedule goes from walk-run intervals for the first 6 weeks to continuous running, (jogging), for the last 3 weeks. In a way it’s a shame those last weeks abandon interval training but more on that later.
Do Couch To 5K Programs Work?
This is the big fat question! Just because Couch To 5K works for a lot of people it doesn’t mean it’s going to be everything to everybody.
The problem is not everyone doing Couch To 5K is at the same starting point and not everyone has the same goals. It’s like having a sticking plaster that comes in one size only. Know what I mean?
So here’s a few reasons why the Couch To 5K Program may not work for you:
1. It’s Just Too Hard
The great strength of the Couch To 5K Program is it’s gradual build up but you’re still launching into running in the first week. Those intervals of 60 seconds run, 90 seconds walk will just be too hard for some people.
If you have a big weight problem or you haven’t exercised in years, don’t try and run. It’s just a short cut to getting disillusioned or injured or both.
I don’t get all those Biggest Loser type programs where really out of shape people are suddenly duped into running. What happened to don’t run before you can walk?
Some people will be better off starting with a power walking program. You can switch out the running sections of the Couch To 5K Program with fast paced walking. Or just build up the length of daily walks until you can walk 10,000 steps a day.
2. The Build Up Is Too Fast
For some people it’s better to take a couple of weeks preparing to start the Couch To 5K Program. Go out for fast paced walks and try a little easy running. That way, when you start the program, it won’t be such a shock to your body.
Be prepared to repeat weeks if you’re not ready to move on. The program should be do-able not demoralising. If you find a session is too hard drop back a week or switch out some of the run sections for walking.
There isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to running. As long as you’re making progress, running further or faster, feel free to adapt the program. 9 weeks to 5K or 18 weeks to 5K. It doesn’t matter. The aim of the plan is to get fitter and build a lifelong habit of exercise.
3. It’s Just Too Easy
Yes you read that right. It may not be fair but not everyone’s starting at the same fitness level.
Some people will find Couch To 5K too easy – especially if they’ve run in the past, walk regularly or do other types of fitness workouts.
One solution is to skip ahead with the program or find a more demanding training plan. This 7 week beginner plan may be ideal.
Another option is to set yourself a target such as running 5 miles a day, and build up to that level slowly. Maybe alternate walk one mile, run one mile for the first few weeks.
Listen to your body and make sure you don’t over do it. Getting injured will just send you right back to square one.
4. You Don’t Lose Any Weight
A lot of beginner runners start off with the goal of losing weight. Some of them fall in love with running and keep it up anyway, some lose weight and for some weight loss just doesn’t happen.
So how can you not lose weight running? The problem is exercise is only one part of the equation. If you want to lose weight you have to watch what you eat.
You need to run 35 miles to burn just one pound of fat. Even by week 9, the Couch To 5K Plan is only 90 minutes of running per week. For most beginners, that’s less than 9 miles.
There’s a lot of different factors at play here, your weight, gender and metabolism. The Couch To 5K Program will help you lose weight but eventually you’ll need to control the calories you eat.
Unless you have a very high metabolism – think growing teenager – you can’t eat everything in sight and expect to lose weight. Which is a problem because running can make you really hungry!
You can read more here about how to lose weight running but the best advice is to hydrate fully after your run and swap out sugary treats and high fat foods for fruit, vegetables and lean protein.
5. It’s Not Varied Enough
The last 3 weeks of the Couch To 5K Program are just steady running. The distances get slightly further but you’re no varying your training.
Now maybe you’re running these sessions harder and faster, but I suspect most runners are just running at a steady slow pace.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that but it would be good to add some speed play. Runners call this fartlek, it’s the Swedish word for speed play.
Think of it as free form interval training where you run harder for a minute or two then back off to an easier pace. Keep repeating, tuning into your body to know when to push and when to ease up.
Try making one of your weekly sessions a fartlek session in those last three weeks of the Couch To 5K Program. It’s a good way to up the intensity and make sure your running is still improving.
6. There Are No Strength Sessions
Building strength is important to avoid injury when you’re a beginner runner. It’s also a short cut to getting the body you always wanted.
These essential exercises work well. Yoga for runners is also a great way to build strength and avoid muscle imbalance. Try and make time for one strength session every week. You’ll soon start to see the benefits.
What Comes Next After Couch To 5K?
Hopefully the Couch To 5K Program will make you fall in love with running. and at the end of the program you can complete your first 5K race.
It’s fun, exciting to be running with other people and you’ll feel a terrific sense of achievement. Once you’ve got your first medal around your neck, what happens next?
Parkrun is a fantastic movement that started in the UK providing free to enter timed 5K runs. They take place every Saturday morning and there’s now an event in almost every town throughout the UK.
It’s a great way to keep up your new found enthusiasm for running. The Parkrun movement is spreading worldwide with a rapidly growing number of US locations. Find out if there’s a venue near you.
The Couch To 5K Program is just the first step on your running journey. You don’t want to lose momentum. The real aim is to stay fitter for life.
Running is a huge part of my life. It’s taken me on adventures all over the world and I’ve made really close running friends. Good cardio and keeping in shape is just an added bonus.
I made the effort to take up running when I was just 15, alternating walking and running in the local woods where no-one could see me. At times it seemed it would never get any easier, but it does and the rewards are definitely worth it.
It’s a 9 week running program invented by Josh Clark in 1996 and adopted by the UK NHS to keep improve fitness levels. The aim is to take beginner runners from zero to running their first 5K.
Couch To 5K has helped thousands of people around the world take up running. It’s been proved to work for many beginner runners. It doesn’t work for everyone. Some find the program too hard or even too easy. Others are disappointed when they fail to lose weight. If you want to lose weight on the Couch To 5K Program you need to improve your diet and keep a check on the number of calories you eat.
Hopefully Couch To 5K will help you grow to love running. The next step could be joining a running group or club, entering Parkruns, trying to improve your 5K time or training for a 10K race.