In this article I'm going to explain what Couch to 5k is and tease out whether it's a good choice for you.
There's no question that this program is very popular and has worked wonders for getting millions of people active and fitter.
However, in my opinion, couch to 5k does have some (potentially serious) draw backs. In fact, I've worked with many runners that started their running adventure with the couch to 5k program. Unfortunately, some of them got injured whilst doing it and were put off running for a while as a result.
The main reason for the mishaps experienced by those runners I believe is because - One size does NOT fit all. I'll explain more about what I mean by that later in this article. But first lets cover the basics...
What is Couch to 5K?
Couch to 5k - often abbreviated to C25K or Cto5K is a nine week training program that is designed to take someone from doing no running at all (a couch potato) - to being able to run 5K (that's 5 kilometres). Whether that's taking part in an organised race, park run or just completing the distance solo or with a group.
There are now many derivative versions around to choose from, many of which use mobile phone apps to deliver the training plan - with built in reminders and many include in-app purchases too. They can be quite different in their structure and duration - but all adhere to the principle of taking someone from being a non-runner to being able to run 5k over a set time period.
In the UK the most popular Couch to 5k program is the NHS version. This is the main version that I will refer to throughout this article. It also adheres quite closely to the original Josh Clark version.
How far is 5K in miles?
1 km is 0.621371 of a mile. So, 5 x 0.621371 = 3.10686 miles; 3.11 miles to two decimal places or 3.1 miles to one decimal place. Basically, it's just over 3 miles.
It's a decent distance to aim to run continuously, enough of a challenge for a beginner to sink their teeth into - without being overwhelming. And "should" be doable within a few months. Much more realistic and achievable than aiming for a marathon as a first race.
5km is also a very popular race distance and there are many organised 5k events all over the UK and indeed the world. Most of these races are open to the public to enter without having to be a member of an affiliated running club. You generally have to pay for the privilege to race - but you usually get a medal, t'shirt or other momento for your efforts.
Then there is the park run. Which is a weekly organised, timed and FREE community run event and it takes place on Saturdays in various locations all over the UK and in many other countries worldwide too.
Is Couch to 5K Difficult/Hard?
My answer to this question is another one of those classic - "It Depends" type of replies.
If any of the potential flaws noted below are of concern to you, then you may well find it too hard - and I suggest that you look elsewhere.
On the other hand if you're not phased by any of the things I mention below - then crack on. Get your running shoes on and give it a go.
But seriously - if you're relatively fit and well. Then go for it. But I would suggest also getting someone to look at your running technique, and add some strength & conditioning to the mix and don't just run. And be prepared to repeat weeks if you need to - there's absolutely no shame in that.
10 Flaws of the Couch to 5k Program
As a running coach, I've worked with many beginner runners and I can't think of any two runners that were exactly the same when they started with me. Whilst there are many similarities between many of them - I never treat them the same - I always adapt the training I give them to match where they are with regards to fitness and ability.
Some have reached the point of being able to run continuously for 5k or more within a matter of weeks. Others have taken several months to reach that point. But they got there and without getting injured, they enjoyed the process and they formed lifelong healthy habits in the process.
As I mentioned in the introduction it's not ideal to just give out a generic program and hope that it will fit everybody. There are always exceptions to the rule - we as humans are all as unique as snowflakes after all 😉
With our human uniqueness in mind, I've noted the 10 main flaws of the couch to 5k beginners running program as I see them:
- No baseline check/assessment of current level of fitness. The very first session for c25k is 1min jog/run with 1:30 min walk recoveries (repeated 8 times). This may be too much for some. Especially those that are over 40 that have not done any exercise since they were at school and are considered overweight/obese. Being unable to complete the very first session can deliver a severe blow to your morale and motivation. Resulting in some quitting before they've even really started.
- No information or guidance on good running technique. In my experience, most people that start running after a long period of being sedentary, approach running as an extension of walking and their run becomes a sort of fast walk. This leads to bad mechanics with straight leg swing, over-striding with a heavy heel strike in front of the body. This technique is clunky, inefficient and can potentially lead to injury. As it does not utilise the bodies in-built shock absorption systems and instead the ground impact forces are transmitted straight from the heels to the hips - ouch!
- Not enough (used to be NONE) emphasis on strength & condoning or mobility work/recovery. Once you get past the age of 40, regular strength training is a must as it helps combat the bodies natural decline in 2 key hormones = HGH & testosterone (important for women too). It also helps avoid potential injury from the repetitive stress that running puts on the body. Running alone is not enough. But strength training doesn't require an expensive gym membership or use of heavy weights either. A decent program of body weight exercises that target the main muscle groups of running will suffice.
- No mindset training or habit forming - there is some scant advice, it's about 2 sentences in length from memory. That may not be enough for those that struggle with motivation and keeping up with their good intentions. So, if you're the sort of person that abandons your new-years-resolutions by the end of January. You may struggle with c25k too.
- No accountability - unless you decide to do it with friends as a group. There is the option to post comments on the NHS website. But that doesn't really amount to a high level of accountability, as there is no guarantee that anyone will respond quickly or even at all.
- No nutrition/lifestyle advice. Getting physically fit is a great thing to do. But, it requires more than just moving your body. What you put in your body as fuel is also a hugely important aspect. As is knowing when you fuel - especially if you go on to racing longer distances like the marathon.
- Inadequate warm-up & cool down information. Again these are key areas to get into the habit of doing right from the start to help avoid potential injury. They are an essential element - not a nice-to-have or after thought.
- Linear progression - many get to a point where a newbie runner can't progress to the next level (usually around week 3 - see note below). They should stay at that point and repeat that weeks training until they adapt to it and can get it done, before moving on. The most recent update of the c25k program does mention repeating weeks if need be. But, if you have to do this - it's no longer a 9 week plan. So if you've booked a race at the end of the 9 weeks and don't progress as per the plan - then you'll most likely end up walking at least some of the race.
- There are significant step-changes in the amount of running (volume) from week 3 on. This is the stage that those I've worked with started experiencing problems and I'm not surprised. I've written a blog post about why this happens - you can read it by clicking here.
- No instruction on breathing - many beginner runners I work with have issues being able to breath when they run and can panic and stop running sooner than they need to.
I'm currently adding the finishing touches to my own beginners running program. It's very different to the classic couch to 5k program in several key ways:
- It's an 8 week program (hence the name) - so one week less than the traditional c25k
- There is no set distance to be able to run at the end. It's more about getting started with running the right way and setting a healthy habit that you can continue to improve on. So, it's much more about setting a solid foundation in running/fitness that you can build on.
- It includes instruction on good running technique and running specific strength & conditioning exercises - to help you steer clear of injury.
- It includes mindset/habit forming as well as basic nutritional guidance.
- It's flexible/adaptable - so you can match the right start point to your current fitness level.
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