Couch to 5K: my experiences

I’d normally be going for my Tuesday lunchtime run about now, but I think I’m getting a cold so I’m going to skip it in case the exertion makes it worse. So I decided the next best thing would be to write a blog about running instead… maybe I’ll get slightly fitter by osmosis just from thinking about exercise? … OK, maybe not, but I’m going to write this anyway.


I started the Couch to 5K plan back in late May, in the hope that regular exercise might help me not to feel so tired all the time, as well as a vague sense that it would be nice not to be dying from preventable health problems before I hit 60. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, it’s a beginner’s running programme designed to do exactly from the title says: get you from not running at all to being able to run five kilometres, in the space of only nine weeks.

The programme appealed to me, firstly because by the sound of it it’s designed to be achievable for people even less fit than I was at the start; secondly because I could do it outdoors and wouldn’t need a gym membership (I find gyms expensive, uncomfortable and boring… I’d much rather brave the weather, even in Scotland); thirdly because I could do it myself with the aid of just a phone app. I wouldn’t need to join a group or anything, which I didn’t feel like doing yet – I didn’t want that level of commitment or pressure.

So I downloaded the NHS Choices Couch to 5K Android app to my phone and got started. The app is designed to be listened to on headphones while you’re running, with someone called Laura telling you what to do (nothing like my normal life, then… har har). I believe you can also get the programme in the form of MP3s that you can listen to, but the app has a few advantages, such as being able to track how many runs you’ve done, and showing a countdown clock on the screen so you can easily see how long you’ve got left in the current run.

The app mostly seemed pretty good, though I think it must have been pretty new when I started, as there were a few quite major bugs: the countdown timer ran at the wrong speed when the phone screen was off, so to begin with I had to run with the phone in my hand and the screen on the whole time, needlessly draining the battery. Then later on, the app started to crash every time I completed a run. To the developers’ credit, they did fix both of these issues within a few days, and it seemed a lot more stable after that.

But enough about the app… how was the actual running? Surprisingly painless, actually. As I was pretty unfit, I’d expected Couch to 5K to be much more of a struggle than it turned out to be. I think the level of build-up must be set just right as I didn’t have serious trouble with any of the weeks, not even week 5 where the length of time spent continuously running suddenly jumps from 8 minutes up to a very daunting 20 minutes in one go. At first I thought it was strange that the programme reaches 20 minutes with a full four weeks still to go and then ramps up to 30 pretty gradually after that… at the beginning I thought, “surely once I can run 20 minutes non-stop, 30 minutes can’t be that much harder, so why take a full 4 weeks to get there?”. But I think it does make sense; the purpose of the programme isn’t to get you to struggle through a 30 minute run once and then collapse in a quivering heap moaning “That’s it, I’m never running again!” – it’s to make 30 minutes actually seem manageable and give you some confidence in your ability.

The most difficult bit was actually finding the motivation to go out running three times a week and not getting distracted by other things. Once I was actually out there and got going, I almost always enjoyed it. Overall I managed to fit the runs in around the rest of my life quite well, even though I was doing a lot of travelling over the weeks of the plan – I ended up doing runs in Berlin, Glasgow, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Ghent as well as at home. The only thing that majorly disrupted me was an illness that struck when I had nearly finished (I think I had just started week 8) and then dragged me down for several weeks before I was finally rid of it. At that point I did what the instructions suggested and backtracked a couple of weeks, but I was able to build my momentum back up reasonably easily, and then went on to finally complete the programme. Since then I’ve managed to keep up running for around 30 minutes three times a week, a big improvement on the level of exercise I was getting previously.

Overall, I was pretty happy with Couch to 5K, which succeeded in getting me running greater distances than I would have imagined possible. I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in my general fitness – at Alton Towers, a few of us decided to sprint uphill to the Nemesis queue line to try and ride it one last time before it closed for the night, and a few months ago I know that by the time I got there I would have been doubled over and feeling like I was about to die. But as it was, I felt fine, not even particularly out of breath.

One slight disappointment is that I haven’t lost any weight since I started running, though it’s only a slight disappointment because weight loss wasn’t really my motivation for doing it. I suspect that to lose weight I’d need to actually cut back on what I eat as well as exercising – I’ll probably get round to it one day, but for now I’ve decided there are other priorities, and that I’d rather be slightly overweight than be hungry and irritable all the time (which was what happened last time I made a real effort to lose weight). Anyway, weighing 100 kilos but being able to run 5km has surely got to be an improvement on weighing 100 kilos and not being able to run at all.

This is a very minor, nit-picky point, but I think the programme would be more accurately named “Couch to 30 Minutes”, because it actually measures the time you run for rather than the distance, and I’m not convinced I can actually quite run 5K in 30 minutes – if my rough Google Maps measurements of my normal running routes are accurate, I’ve been doing closer to 4K. But that’s splitting hairs really, because I suspect most people who’ve managed to complete the programme would be capable of running for 5K by the end, even if it takes them a little longer than 30 minutes.

I haven’t decided where to go next with the running. I definitely want to at least keep it up at around this level. Maybe I’ll try doing an actual organised 5K run soon, and then try to build up to a 10K? That seems a daunting prospect, but nowhere near as much as going from nothing to 5K did.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in starting running. It starts with a nice gentle introduction but builds you up to being able to do some serious distances, which is all you can ask really. But be careful with your choice of route: ideally you want somewhere with not too many obstructions (so that you don’t have to keep slowing down or stopping), not too many hills (unless you like a challenge!), but most of all, no concrete or tarmac paths! I made the mistake of running round the neighbourhood on the pavements for one of the early runs, but my legs hurt like hell after a few minutes of that. Gravel paths or grass are much, much easier on the shins. I tend to just do laps of my local park. The wooded hill nearby is a nicer location, but the steeply sloped paths add an extra challenge so I have to be feeling energetic for that.


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