Last Updated on June 10, 2018 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
A note to my readers: Though many long time fitness fiends become frustrated with the New Year resolution crowd and all of the influx of “beginner” advice, I love it. Fitness has absolutely changed my life, more specifically, running has changed my life. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to becoming giddy when beginners ask for advice on how to become a runner. Therefore, you may have noticed an influx of beginner advice here on the blog over the past month. I’m rolling with the new year, gladly sharing my advice and experience. Besides, I can’t blog about the monotony of treadmill training everyday while we are in the middle of this sub freezing cold spell.
If you’ve toyed with the idea of starting to run, or have a friend who has recently taken up running, chances are you’ve heard of the Couch to 5K program. But if you haven’t: the Couch to 5k is a wildly popular training program that is designed to take a non-runner from a sedentary lifestyle to running a 5k distance race in just nine weeks. Designed by Josh Clark, and originally published on the training website Cool Running, the Couch to 5k program has claimed to help thousands of people become runners and has blossomed into a running movement of its own. The training plan consists of just three days of training sessions per week, for a total of nine weeks. Each session consists of running and walking intervals, measured by time or distance, progressing forward with the final goal of running either a 5k or 30 minutes, without walking. If you are thinking of using the Couch to 5k program to help get you started on your running journey, consider the following pros and cons to this plan.
Does the thought of running for more than a minute terrify you? Then this training program is perfect for you. The Couch to 5k program starts off with short intervals of running combined with generous walking breaks, which is an ideal introduction to running both physically, and mentally (for example, day # 1 includes the following: “Brisk five-minute warmup walk. Then alternate 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes”). Josh Clark states in his training program: “Too many people have been turned off of running simply by trying to start off too fast. ” Having specific, short distance or time goals prevents the participant from doing too much, too soon, which in turn prevents mental burnout and injury.
There has always been a bit of a stigma behind walking vs. running, but don’t let it bother you. Studies show that a combination of running and walking has been shown to help prevent injuries while building physical endurance and running distance, as well as helping to prevent muscular fatigue. So you are not any less of a ‘badass” for taking walking breaks; quite the contrary, you are a smart runner!
Further, some amazing athletes are well known for their run/walk methods. Ultra runners (we are talking the people who run 100 + miles at once!) are notorious for it. And most famously, this style of training has been made very popular by former Olympic runner Jeff Galloway, who uses the run/walk method to train participants of all levels to run distances up to a marathon and beyond. The Couch to 5k program is variable in the sense that participants may choose to follow the plan by either distance or time. Each training session lists running and walking intervals by time or by distance, depending on the participant’s goal. This is helpful for those who are unable to measure the distance they run, or who may have time constraints on their training sessions.
Though the creators of the Couch to 5k program claim that it is for almost everyone, it might not actually be for everyone. Depending on many factors, such as health conditions, or even previous fitness experience, many beginners may find the couch to 5k training program too aggressive. Many beginning runners may find certain weeks include an increase in running distance that proves to be too difficult, and that week may need to be repeated. For example, on training day number three of week five of the program, participants are suggested to run two miles straight without a walk break. This is a significant increase from the three quarter mile interval run, with half mile walk breaks, the session before. The Couch to 5k program encourages runners to repeat a week if necessary. However, the claim of getting participants off of the couch and onto running a 5k in only nine weeks may become frustrating to some who find they need to repeat a week.
On the other hand, some beginning runners may find the Couch to 5k program not aggressive enough. The Couch to 5k program discourages participants from skipping ahead, which can also prove to be frustrating for those who feel they are capable of doing more.
Overall, the Couch to 5k training program is a very basic training guide that can be utilized by almost anyone. Even if the full nine week training program is not ideal for all participants, the Couch to 5k program may prove to be a useful starting point for someone looking to start running. The training plan can be found free on the Cool Running website and through the Facebook support page. In addition, Couch to 5k apps are available to download to your smart phone or tablet, to help you keep track of your training.
Remember, this plan is a general outline and may need to be modified based on your current fitness levels. Do not become frustrated if you must repeat a week, or alternatively, if you feel a session is too easy. The first week is always the worst week when it comes to starting a new fitness plan; your body might rebel and you feel weak. Trust me when I tell you, it gets easier. Think about the big picture, and remember even the most experienced athletes must be patient and learn to trust in their training. If you find the Couch to 5K program to be simply too hard, or on the other hand, painfully easy, consider looking for alternative training plans or hiring a running coach to design a plan specifically for you.
*Please consult your physician before beginning a new workout routine to ensure your body is healthy enough for exercise
Have you ever used the Couch to 5K program? Know anyone who has? Let’s hear some first hand success stories (or, any complaints you may have!)
Follow up post: What to do if the Couch to 5K program is too difficult.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.
John (Daddy Runs a Lot)
I’m a #c25k graduate — but suffered a sprained ankle about 1/2 way into the training, and then really pressed myself to running a 5k at the end (fortunately, I didn’t over-exert myself, injure myself again, or burn myself out), as I only signed up for c25k after I had, already, committed to a 5k race.
The biggest gripe I have with the program isn’t one that I shared – but one that several others have mentioned, to me — and that the program gets you to running 30 minutes, not necessarily 5k. Me? I’m 6’3;” Even when I was 100 pounds heavier, when I’m “running”, 10 minute miles are, almost, second nature. But for those of shorter stature and coming from a sedentary lifestyle – well, 12 or 13 minute miles are commendable. But then, when you run your first 5k, and the training you’ve done ends, and you still have more than half a mile to run? It’s rough.
That’s a very good point John. 30 minutes is a relatively “fast” time for some people, never mind a beginner! I can see the benefit of training by time, but I do agree it is also worthwhile to “go the distance” before the race to mentally prepare. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Jen Rawson, RD (@PrettyLilGrub)
I know a lot of people who have had success with this program. Yes some had to repeat a week or so but it got them there and they found a love of running. I always recommend it to new runners.
Pretty sure C25K was either not around or too small for me to have heard of it when I started running, but it would have been PERFECT for me. I started myself off with 2 min run / 3 min walk back in the day which is a similar ratio to what C25k starts you with and for me it was great. And it’s nice to start with something that actually knows what level ‘beginner runner’ is and doesn’t expect you to run more than a minute or so!
Exactly! I’ve seen some “beginner” training plans that were ridiculously hard. Couch to 5K seems to be on par for a TRUE beginner!
Sam @ The Running Graduate
I used the couch to 5K program about a year ago to start running again after a 4 year hiatus. I loved having a set plan that would get me running gradually so I wouldn’t become discouraged. I do agree, it was frustrating following the plan and not moving ahead when I felt I could. However, it helped me from getting hurt (I’ve been an injury prone athlete since I was a kid). While couch to 5K didn’t lead me to run my fastest 5K ever, it made me fall in love with running and now I’m up to running 5 days a week and have completed a half marathon since doing the program. I would definitely recommend it to someone who wants to run but is apprehensive about it!
What a great success story, thank you for sharing Sam!
Amanda - RunToTheFinish
I think it’s nearly impossible to create a basic plan that is for everyone, but I think they have done a pretty darn good job as I know a bazillion (technical term) runners who have gotten started thanks to this program.
I’d second that technical guess of a bazillion 😉 I’ve seen so many people become full blown-crazy-marathon-running-runners after graduating from c25k!
Such a great and helpful post Heather!! I’ve heard so many people who’ve had success with this program. I kind of wish that it was around when I started running!
Cynthia @ You Signed Up For WHAT?!
I hear great things about Couch to 5K! I feel like I did something *like* that before it existed when I started to exercise and then run.
Lisa @ Healthy Nibbles & Bits
I’ve never done a couch to 5K training plan before, but I did research training plans to prepare for my first half marathon last year. Although I exercise quite a bit, I don’t usually run, and even when I do, it’s short 3 to 4 mile runs. I quickly found that I couldn’t keep up with the training schedule (which generally required running 4 times a week) because I would rather do some other type of workout. So I reduced the running schedule to 2 runs a week, sometimes 3 runs. I probably didn’t finish the half-marathon as quickly as I could, but I felt like my modified training schedule was something I could actually stick to.
I’ve never done couch to 5k but it sounds like a great program for getting started. If I was new to running it would be nice to start with a tried and tested program.
I’ve never used C25K but have heard great things about it. Excellent review.
Will be starting on week two. So far I have found that this has been a good beginners way to begin running. I have actually enjoyed the runs so far.
I started this last year sometime. Finished weeks 1 and 2, started week 3 day 1 and quit in the middle. With my low iron and overweight physique I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t run the 3 minutes straight. But I have started back up again. My best friend and I are signed up to run a 5k in April. I’m concerned because even if I didn’t repeat any weeks I would be cutting it close for this. Also because as a previous post stated, I’m a slow runner (and I mean SLOW), I’m ok with that, I don’t need to be fast, but it’s important to me to finish. And because I’m slow, running 30 minutes is not going to put me at the end of the 5k. It’s way too fast. Today, I finished week 3 day 1. In the middle of the second set of 3 minutes I slowed to a quick walk but kept going, and on the next 90 second run, I did run and I finished it. I’m upset about it I would have liked to have run the whole thing, but glad I didn’t give up. It’s a good program for those looking to start, but try to research and take advice from others out there. Pace yourself and repeat weeks as needed. You’ll get there.
Hi Tish! Thank you for your honest comment. I’m glad to hear that you have started the C25K program back up again. I think the biggest thing to focus on is the fact that you KEEP GOING. Just because you couldn’t run the entire 90 seconds, you kept moving forward. That is seriously all that matters! Best of luck with you training, keep up the awesome work!
Hi. Thanks for the blog. I’m on this too. The NHS do a podcast. I am exactly the person who could run fast or 2 mins and thats it. I’m in week 8 and my stamina has improved greatly. I’ll be honest, I had convinced myself that I would loose pounds or inches. I’ve done neither.
I started this program in January – a NY resolution thing – and found it great for getting me running. However, I just did week 6, day 3, which was supposed to be a 22-minute run, and ended up running for 30 minutes, so I guess I finished C25k based on time? Anyway according to Google Maps I only ran 4.3km instead of 5, so I am going to keep up and try to increase endurance and/or pace until I hit 5k, and enjoy doing a couple of Parkruns or something.
I think the reason I was able to do 30 minutes “suddenly” is that when I started, it was January, summer here, and it was really hot, and the day I was supposed to do the 22-minute I went out really late and it was much cooler, so running was more enjoyable rather than torturous. However, I think that depending on your fitness, C25k possibly overestimate the difficulty of going from a 22-minute run to 30 minutes – seems like if you were feeling good about each run, you could so the 22-minute then just one workout each from weeks 7 to 9, i.e. a 25-minute, a 28-minute, then a 30-minute. Just my totally unprofessional and non-medical idea based on personal experience, though.
Anyway, thanks for encouraging us NY resolution people! 🙂
I did c25k a little over a year ago and finished week 3 (I did the program for 5 weeks bc I had to repeat a couple weeks) and was actually seeing results. I didn’t graduate and stopped running, ironically enough when I started going to the gym. I got so distracted by the machines I wanted to use at the gym and I’ll run later at home and then tweaked my already bad knee and stopped running all together. Now, I’m starting all over again from the beginning. Also I had tried to do it without my knee brace before, and all was fine until I tweaked it, so this time I’m not even going to chance it and I’ll wear the brace each time. I just want my runners high back from 6-7 years ago.
Started couch to 5k about 7 weeks ago. According to the plan next week should be 25 minutes of continuous running. I am very sure that is not doable for me. I am certainty stronger than week 3 but cant run 5 minutes without walking.
Open for advice.
week 2 for c25K and on day one on second 90 second jog felt right calf go tight. I carried on through program but calf was tight afterwards. Had rest day but again on 2nd run same thing happened but now a lot worse as I had to stop completely. any advice gratefully received. I used to run 10k and half marathons years ago but never had problem with calf.
is there a set of written instructions for people to follow? I am profoundly deaf and recordings of instructions are of absolutely no use to me
Hi Patricia. I have only just started day 1 week 1 but had the app on my phone. The instructions are pretty minimal and we’re readable on the app – in big letters (helpful when running!) – brisk walk – jogging – walking – cool down. That was it! It would work fine for you providing you could see your phone.
I just finished week 8 of the program. I do believe that some of the “jumps” from week to week are a bit much for a beginning runner. Having said that, I had no problem repeating some of the weeks just to build strength. Day 3 of Week 8 had me jog 28 minutes this morning. Very doable, but tough. I have been away from running for decades, and only got back into it when I found some running shoes that would provide the cushion that would protect my knees, which was a problem for me in the past. I am thinking ahead to the next phase, 5k to 10k? By the way I am a bit overweight 71 year old male. However, the weight is falling off very quickly.