Sophie is a freelance writer whose interests in health and fitness stem from her own experiences of trying to improve her overall wellbeing.
What is Couch to 5K?
Tucked away in an online app store is a little programme called Couch to 5K. It's an under-promoted free product from the UK's National Health Service (NHS), as part of their 'One You' campaign, and most people have never heard of it.
C25K, as it is abbreviated, was created to encourage people to get running. The plan was originally designed by Josh Clark in 1996, a novice runner who wanted to help his mum get off the couch and be more active. Each session splits into varying periods of walking and running, building up over 9 weeks until the user is able to run for 30 minutes or 5 kilometres.
The programme links with the BBC through their Get Inspired website and by providing users with celebrity trainers to motivate and lead them through the sessions.
Aimed at everyone, from those who have never exercised to those who used to but have fallen out of the habit, this programme is ambitious in its remit, but can it really live up to its promise of getting you off the couch and running 5K in just nine weeks?
How it Works
The app is pretty simple. You start by picking the trainer you want to guide you through the sessions. These range from celebrity sports personalities to comedians. Next you go to a screen where you pick which run you are on, and you are then asked to choose how you feel as you start your run from a range of five face icons.
Having worked out your mood and chosen your run, you will receive a brief introduction from your trainer and then will be guided through a warm-up period, followed by being told when to run and when to walk, depending on what stage of the plan you are on. The trainer will also occasionally offer tips to help you improve your performance.
Halfway through your run, a bell will sound (its rather like an old-fashioned school bell and the first time it rang it startled me!) to let you know how far along you are. When the session ends, the trainer will tell you to slow down for a five minute cool-down walk.
At this point you are pretty much done. You are asked to assess your mood once again with the face icons and then you can choose to save your run. If you want to you can also pick to be reminded when to run again.
That's pretty much it. Don't expect anything particularly sophisticated, like stats to tell you how far you went or how many calories you burned. This is an app that does what it says - it gets you out there to run, but don't expect any frills.
The Review - Is it for Everyone?
As apps go the C25K is functional and works well, but the infrastructure behind it could be better.
For instance, the NHS website page that talks about the C25K was overloaded with information I didn't want, while the questions I really wanted answered were ignored. The first thing I wanted to know was how long did each run last. This was not covered on the website, though there were plenty of links to 'why running is good for you' and about how the app was developed. After downloading the app, I found the information I wanted under the support button - each run lasts 30-40 minutes.
The website was awkward to navigate too. There were lists of topics which you could click on and some would take you to another list of topics, while others gave you the information you wanted straight up. Often different topics led to the same page of information and, despite being a keen reader, I soon found it all too much. I imagine that many people would simply be turned off by the reams and reams of text you had to trawl through to try and find an answer for your question.
But that was the website, the app itself is pretty streamlined. It is not as in-depth as something like the Fitbit app, which plots distance, time, calories burned, etc. Then again, this is a free app and it really is well polished and straightforward to use. There is nothing particularly interactive about it. You are asked to save your runs after noting your feelings about them (did you feel better or worse after the run than when you began?), yet this does not alter the programme in anyway, you don't get different dialogue from the trainers and there is not even a chart to display your progress. All that really happens is the run icon goes from blue to yellow to show you have completed it. If you like to track things like your distance covered you are going to have to use some other means, like a fitness watch or another app on your phone.
The dialogue of the trainers is a nice way to keep you moving. I chose Sarah Millican the comedian as my coach and her friendly voice and encouraging comments did make a difference. The only niggle is that for the three runs of each week you get the exact same dialogue, so it can get repetitive, especially if you decide to repeat your runs. There is no system within the dialogue to track your progress, so you'll get your trainer saying things like 'you should have completed the runs in week 1 and 2 before starting week 3, if you have, let's go.' I was actually surprised that all the runs are available as soon as you download the app, so you could literally jump straight to week 9. I had expected the later weeks to become unlocked as you completed the earlier runs.
The app itself I cannot fault, even if it is quite basic. My criticisms tend to stem instead from the design of the nine week plan and the lack of relevant information offered in a straightforward format to beginner runners. Let's face it, this programme is aiming primarily at people who have never exercised other than at school and who are likely not aware of the various factors you need to take into account when beginning to run - from warm-up exercises to correct footwear. Yep the app says 'wear a pair of trainers' but is that really good enough? Does that mean a cheap pair of fashion trainers from the local New Look? Great way to wreck your feet and give up on running before you start!
All the way along the programme feels like there has been a lack of consideration for those who are brand new to intense exercise. There is no discussion of hydration, correct nutrition or stretches. Actually, that really bugs me. As someone who does a lot of exercise (yoga, HIIT circuit training, dog agility) I know how important it is to do dynamic stretches to warm up muscles and ensure they are ready to function. All the C25K does is tell you to walk for five minutes before you run. That is not enough. You will soon find plenty of bits of you hurting if you have not done a system of stretches to get your muscles ready (don't worry, there are tips below to help with that).
My biggest complaint, however, is that the programme expects a lot from people who have never exercised. It is a 'one size fits all' running plan, when really it is targetting those people who have never run. Now, I already exercise and I consider myself reasonably fit. I walk for around an hour everyday with my dogs and at least once a week we go for a 5k walk, but I soon discovered on week 1 that things hurt - a lot. I am honestly not sure if someone who had never run, never walked and spent a lot of time inactive would be capable of that first week without feeling terribly overwhelmed. And when people feel overwhelmed, they give up. When I went from week 1 to 2 I noticed the difference and struggled. Friends who are also on the plan said the same. This is not easy and I honestly feel there should have been an extra week in there which had people just walking briskly for 30 minutes, as a preparation for week 1.
The plan also progresses too fast. In week 3 you jump from running 90 seconds a time to running 3 minutes. That's a scary leap when you are not used to running.
That said, I do think this app is a great tool to start you on a journey to running and I highly recommend it. There are a few things to bear in mind when you are starting to run and I have a list of tips below, so whether you are brand new to exercise or just new to running, I can help you get the most out of C25K.
Take Things at Your Pace
My most important advice for you is don't think you have to progress at the pace the plan suggests. Every person is different. If you have to repeat weeks, do so. This is a journey to make a long-term change and, as such, does not have to be rushed.
If you are unused to exercise, I recommend going for three 30 minute walks over the course of a week before you even tackle the C25K. Depending on how you feel after those walks you may wish to go straight into week 1 of C25K, or you could start by doing fifteen minutes of walking, a minute of running, then fifteen minutes of walking to prepare yourself.
Once you start the plan, assess each week if you feel you are ready to progress further, or whether it would be better to repeat a week. Ask yourself the following questions:
How do I feel after running for 60secs, 90secs, etc? If the answer is you ache, you're exhausted and really struggled to complete the runs, then it would be best to repeat that week before moving on.
How do I feel at the end of the full run? Again, if you spend the rest of the day aching or exhausted, you are not yet ready to move on, give yourself a chance to get used to this level of exercise.
Only you can judge how ready you are for progression. Each week of running should challenge you slightly and you should expect to feel tired and a little sore after the first run of a new week (that is your muscles adapting to the new intensity of work) but if you are struggling, take a step back and give yourself a chance to develop. Better to progress slowly and maintain what you have achieved, than to go too far and give up.
You may find you need twelve weeks, eighteen or even thirty to reach 5K, that does not matter. This is your journey and should not be forced into an arbitrary number of weeks. As long as you reach your goal in the end, that is all that matters.
Let's Talk Clothes!
There are two things to bear in mind when running - freedom of movement and the impact on your feet. If either of these are restricted you will hurt.
Running clothing should be loose to enable you to move and flex. Anything that is too tight around the legs or under the arms could cause chafing and soreness. At the same time, trousers should not be so loose around the ankles that you could get your feet tangled in them. Jogging bottoms or, in summer, cropped running trousers are ideal.
Good footwear is essential. Your feet are going to take a pounding and if they are not well supported this will impact on them, your legs and your spine. Running trainers with an instep are vital as these will support your feet. They are the most expensive piece of kit you will need for this challenge, but worth it. They will save you from cramp, blisters and enable you to run without pain. Fashion trainers rarely have insteps and will cause your foot to over-extend, potentially resulting in damage and pain.
Always wear socks (cotton trainer socks, for instance) to avoid shoes cutting into your feet and causing blisters, and don't be tempted to switch to sandals or flip-flops in summer. Flip-flops especially are trip hazards. Running bare-foot is an option if you have clean beaches near you. Running bare-foot on pavements is not ideal as there can be glass or other dangerous rubbish lurking to cut open feet.
Get Yourself Warmed Up
As I mentioned in the review, the only warm-up advice offered in the app is to walk for five minutes. This is not sufficient. A complete warm-up should include exercises to stretch/move the ankles, calves, thighs, hips, lower back and your torso. There are many exercises out there and lots of different warm-up routines. Here's one I really like by coach Joe LoCascsio
It is best to avoid prolonged stretches of muscles (traditionally taught for warming up) as these have been found to reduce performance. Stretches need to be dynamic, meaning they are moving stretches, rather than holding the muscle in one position for a given length of time.
Because I suffer from tight hip flexors and sciatica, I always perform yoga before a run. In particular, I focus on pigeon pose to open my hips and prevent pain in my back. Pigeon pose increases blood flow to the hips by briefly cutting off the circulation (you'll feel mild pins and needles as you do it). I perform this pose on both sides for three minutes each.
I also suggest doing side stretches before a run to prevent getting a 'stitch', that sharp pain running up the side we all remember from school sports lessons. Stand with your feet hip width apart, clasp your hands overhead with your arms straight. Now lean your shoulders and arms to the left, pushing your hips to the right, hold for a second and then repeat on the opposite side. Do these a few times and hopefully you won't get any muscles spasms in your side.
Are You Feeling Hydrated?
Hydration refers to your body's fluid levels. When a person is dehydrated they have not consumed sufficient amounts of water to enable their body to function properly. Most of us are mildly dehydrated and do not notice it. Intense exercise causes us to sweat and lose water, along with salt. If we are not properly hydrated before that exercise, we may lose too much fluid for our body to continue to function.
Dehydration causes our physical and mental performance to suffer. It can make us struggle to perform an exercise, especially in hot weather. At its worst, dehydration during exercise can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. It is also thought that poor hydration can cause muscle cramps.
The solution is not to consume huge amounts of water just before you exercise, or even during. Your hydration levels need to be increased over time. It is best to start the day before you plan to run by drinking around two litres of fluid, this should be mainly in water, either plain or as part of tea or coffee. Alcohol is not suitable for hydrating the body, so should not count as part of the two litres.
Knowing if you are suitably hydrated is difficult. You should not force fluids into yourself if you really cannot bear to drink more, or are feeling bloated or swollen. Space your consumption over the day, maybe a cup of tea per hour, or sip from a 2L bottle of water. Adding squash to the water can not only help the body absorb it, but make it more palatable. Though I recommend avoiding squashes that contain artificial sweeteners.
Another means of assessing your hydration levels is to look at your urine. If it is straw-coloured or darker, you are dehydrated and need more fluids. Ideally urine should be a very pale yellow or clear. You will find the more you exercise, the more fluids you have to consume to keep your hydration levels up.
You might also like to drink a hydration solution before running. Unlike plain water, hydration drinks include salts and minerals which your body naturally loses when active. They can help performance, especially the salt which is vital for proper muscle function. Low salt may contribute to muscle spasms and cramp.
Lastly, always consume fluids after a run to replenish your body. It can be easy to forget this part, but it will make a difference and help your body to recover.
Are You Hungry?
At the end of your run, your in-app trainer will suggest you have a snack to restore your energy levels. They don't tell you what to eat, other than saying you could have some fruit.
Running takes a big toll on the body. There are three things your body needs after a run to help replace lost minerals and energy; Carbohydrates, protein and eletrolytes. So what foods are good post-run snacks?
Fruit - Bananas are popular as a post-run snack as they help replenish potassium levels, which in turn maintains electrolyte balance after a run. But any fruit is good and you can mix it up by adding low-fat yoghurt or seeds and nuts. Cherry juice is supposed to be very good at preventing post-run pain.
Chocolate Milk - yes, that's right! Chocolate milk has been shown to be a great recovery food as it mixes carbs with protein. You might like to go for chocolate soya milk rather than dairy, or pick skimmed. And you only need to drink a small carton, not a large bottle.
Yoghurt - full of protein, try low-fat or Greek, or go for a flavoured variety. You can add granola, fruit or honey to make a perfect post-run snack.
Peanut Butter - Peanut butter contains protein and carbohydrates and is a popular runner's snack. Though it does contain fat, it is unsaturated which lowers cholesterol, and the protein levels help with muscle recovery. Just avoid brands with added sugar.
You should aim to have a post-run snack within 30 minutes of a run to get the full benefit.
Above All, Enjoy!
I really hope you take up the Couch to 5K Challenge. It is a great way to kickstart a new you. Running is a cheap means of exercise. It will help you lose weight, improve your health, strengthen muscles and even increase bone density which helps prevent oesteoporosis related injuries.
This could be a life-changing experience and really worth the effort if you want to get fitter. Mix up a great music playlist, take a deep breath and go for it! You know you can do this!
© 2018 Sophie Jackson