What you should know before you start running: A guide to the Couch to 5k program

So you want to start running, but have no idea where to actually start? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. This week we caught up with one of our long-standing Couch to 5k community admins for his expert tips to anyone interested in running for the first time. In his original post, our admin outlines step by step details on what to expect and what to avoid when starting the Couch to 5k (C25k) running program – which I highly recommend you read. (Link to that at the bottom). But for now, I’ve summarised some of the main points for you below, in a Q&A format. Enjoy

For anyone who’s never heard of Couch to 5k before, can you explain what it is in a nutshell?
“The NHS and One You C25k programme is a training plan for absolute beginners, or those who have not run for many years. Its aim is to get you running for 30 minutes non stop, which for some will be 5k, using a programme structured over nine weeks and working out, ideally, three times per week. Don’t worry, you are in control of your progress and many do not hit 5k in 30 minutes at graduation and many take longer than the nine weeks to complete, but they have transformed their lives and their future health prospects. You start with walking and slowly build up, so don’t be put off. The plan is duration based and never asks you to run any specific distance or pace…….you are in control.”

What does the program entail?
THE LINK BELOW HAS A WARNING ATTACHED and will take you to a spreadsheet view of the training plan. Some people get very worried knowing what is coming up. If that is you, don’t look, but if you are like me, and would not even want to start without knowing what is in store, then click away. It is a useful reference. What I can tell you is that by the end of the the plan you…..yes YOU, will be running for thirty minutes.

If you are very unfit, have any underlying health issues or are concerned, then please consult your GP before starting the programme. Some people find they need to do some regular walking before they start the plan, easing into gentle exercise before they move onto C25k. “

Who can join the Couch to 5k program?
“There is no age limit to this plan. In 2017 we had an 83-year-old graduate and many children have done this alongside their parents, although it is the parent’s responsibility to make sure of the suitability for their child and the virtual graduation badge can only be issued to forum members, who have to be over 16 years of age. Many starters are overweight, many have other conditions, but remarkably they all seem to benefit from this very simple method of building their fitness. A number begin by saying that they have never liked running (school memories often to blame) only to find that within a few sessions they are loving the feeling they get and can see real benefits in a very short time. The biggest surprise for most are the mental benefits. Running changes the chemical balance in your brain, makes you feel good and ultimately turns you into a run junkie.”

Do I need special running clothes and trainers if I want to join?
“Find yourself some loose clothing to wear, suitable for the time of year and some trainers, if possible. Dress for five degrees warmer than it actually is, you will warm up. For anyone with breasts, I am advised that a good sports bra is essential equipment. Any shoes will do for the first few weeks, but if you persist beyond Week 4 then you really do need to invest in some proper running shoes. In my opinion, it is best to go to a specialist running shop and have a gait analysis done. This will assess what sort of shoes and support you need to keep injury risk minimal. This post discusses running shoes in more detail.”

Where do you recommend people go running?
“C25k can be run outside, which provides fresh air, vitamin D from sunlight, a constantly changing environment and for me, the real joy of running. Treadmill running is fine for those who prefer to be indoors. It is recommended that you set the treadmill to an incline of 1 degree, at least, to simulate running outdoors, otherwise the transition to outside running can seem extremely difficult, when the glorious day comes, although you may want to continue running on the treadmill, which is fine. Running is running, wherever you do it.

If doing your training outdoors, try to plan a safe route beforehand, preferably avoiding steep hills and crossing too many busy roads. You will hear a bell when you are halfway through, so you can turn round and head back home, if doing an out and back workout. If you want to minimise the strain on your joints, running on grass or trails will reduce the impact.

Each C25k workout starts with a five minute warmup walk. This is to get the heart pumping and muscles and joints warmed up ready for the exertions to come, so it needs to be at a brisk pace, but not so fast that you cannot hold a conversation. Your trainer, on the app or podcast, will tell you when to start walking and then when to run, so you do not have to worry about timings. Just follow the instructions and enjoy yourself.”

What should I avoid when starting out?
“The commonest mistake by those starting this plan is to go too fast. You will be told to do your running intervals at a gentle jog, which means you should still be able to hold a conversation, not just gasp the odd word. If you are gasping or panting you are going too fast and with short breaths, you are not going to get enough oxygen into your body to supply the demands of your muscles and you will tire quickly and you will also suffer more aches and pains because of stress on your legs. This is called your easy conversational pace. It will be different for each runner and will get faster as you get fitter. This is the pace at which even elite athletes spend as much as 80% of their training time……….. although considerably faster than most of us. The body of a new runner will adapt perfectly adequately at a nice gentle jog. There is no such thing as too slow, as long as you are maintaining a running action, with both feet simultaneously off the ground on each stride, although you should aim to be as fast as possible, while still being able to talk. Even if you feel you are reasonably fit and have good cardio health, if you have not run before, or not recently, then please take it easy and allow your body time to develop. Speed will come later, when your running body is stronger.”

Why do I need a rest day between running?
THE REST DAY FROM RUNNING IS NOT NEGOTIABLE, which means you should not, as a new runner, run on consecutive days, but does not have to be spent back on the couch again. When you run, unlike other exercises, you actually damage your muscles and the rest days are when they repair. Any non impact exercise, such as swimming, cycling, weights, Pilates or yoga will be beneficial to your overall fitness and to your running and will aid the repair and strengthening of muscles. The NHS Strength and Flex exercise plan is perfect to do alongside C25K”

What is the hardest part of getting started?
“Getting started, actually going out of your front door into the exposing view of neighbours and total strangers, is probably the hardest part of the entire programme for many. What you rapidly realise is that as soon as you are out jogging along, you become invisible to nearly everyone. You are far more likely to get positive comments from people who notice you, than negative ones. After a few sessions, you will be enjoying yourself so much, and your confidence will be such that you really won’t give a damn what anybody thinks.

At times the demands will be tough. You may find that you cannot complete a workout. In that case, have a rest day and try again, maybe running even slower. Repeat that workout, not the whole week. If you complete, then move bravely onward. Each run is building your body, so be patient …….you will get there. A positive attitude is important and how to deal with the mental challenges is addressed in this post explaining that there is no such thing as a failed run. You can only fail this plan if you permanently head back to the couch.”

When should I be concerned with aches and pains?
When anyone, however fit, starts a new physical training regime that they are not used to, they will suffer aches and minor pains initially. This is unavoidable but should you be in real pain, then your body is telling you to stop……so do just that.

If your aches and pains persist or recur frequently, then head to your GP or a sports physio to get a professional opinion. Often the advice will be to rest up and that again needs to be taken seriously. If you take sensible precautions, wear good shoes, follow good training plans and don’t attempt to do more than is sensible for your level of experience, then injury is by no means inevitable, but running does figure quite highly amongst sports for the number of injuries, so take care.

Illness, and other parts of life, can strike any of us at any time and annoyingly, it stops us running. The big question is when to start back and, if you are in the middle of the programme, where to start back. Only you can know. The advice about colds is that if it is above the neck, you can run, below the neck do not. I am a wimp and like to enjoy my running and through experience I have learned that it takes longer to recover enough to manage physical exertion, than it does to get back to everyday routines. Performance and enjoyment may be below par, even when you feel almost fully better. Give yourself a rest and come back fully fit. If you have missed anything up to two weeks of regular running, you are unlikely to have lost much condition, so pick up where you left off and gauge how that run goes. If you miss longer, just drop back a run or week and see how it goes

One of the best ways to reduce injury is and avoid carrying muscular tension into the next run is to make sure you stretch immediately after each and every run, while muscles are still warm and supple. Stretching before a run should be dynamic stretches, because muscles are not necessarily warmed up.”

Will I lose weight on this program?
“Many come to C25k as part of a weight loss journey. C25k will make you lose inches……measure yourself before you start and then again half way through the programme…….but it is, by itself, unlikely to make you lose weight, simply because a 30 minute workout does not burn a significant amount of calories. However, as you tone up, feel fitter and feel better about yourself, you may, like many before you, find that you don’t crave rubbish food and want to eat to maximise your running efficiency. If you are already eating a good varied diet, there is no need to change it for running C25k workouts. If you move onto marathons, that is a different matter.”

What can I eat while on this running program?
“You want to eat a good nutritious diet as a runner. Eat a broad range of things, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Cut out processed foods, biscuits, cakes and sweets from your daily diet and reduce alcohol, keeping them all for special occasions. Do not be tempted to reward yourself for your exertions with that “naughty” treat. Counting your calories may be helpful and many regulars here have had great success with My Fitness Pal, either online or as an app, used alongside C25k.

Whatever time of day you run, it is best not to do it on a full stomach. While one man’s large meal is another man’s snack, the general guidance is that you should wait two to four hours after a large meal, before you run, and thirty minutes to two hours after a snack. My favourite running time is first thing in the morning, with half a banana for 5k and a whole banana for 10k run and a pint of very diluted 1:6 apple juice immediately before I go out of the door. It doesn’t work for everybody, so experiment, but if you ate normally the previous day, you don’t need to fuel up specially for C25k workouts.”

How much water should I drink before/after a run?
“Hydration, or fluid intake, is crucial to being an effective runner. When you run, your heart pumps blood to supply muscles with the oxygen, essential to the rapid contractions being demanded of them. If you are not fully hydrated, your blood will be thicker and transport of oxygen will be impeded, leading to heavy legs and tired muscles, as well as stitches and headaches.

The NHS recommends different amounts of fluids in different places, anything from a minimum of 1.2 litres to a minimum of 2 litres per day, both of which seem extremely low amounts for someone who is partaking of physical exercise. I drink between 2.5 and 3 litres per day, whether I am running or not.

The important thing is to drink often, like frequent showers, rather than drought and flood. This way the body can utilise the fluids most efficiently. Hydrate today for tomorrow’s run. If well hydrated, there should be no need to carry fluids with you on any run under an hour duration, unless it is extremely hot or you have a specific medical condition. It is important to replace the fluids lost while running, soon after you stop.”

What about safety and running?
“Safety has to be considered when running, from many aspects. Firstly if running on roads, even pavements if you are going to have to cross roads, then make sure you can be seen. Wear colourful clothing and in the dark use either head-torch with front and rear lamps, a body-lamp front and back or at least wear highly reflective or fluorescent clothing. If running on roads with no pavement, run on the side of the road so that you are facing oncoming traffic ( the right hand side in the UK), except possibly on the inside of blind bends, when it may be safer to be on the outside of the bend. If you have headphones/earbuds then make sure the volume is down when running on roads, so you can hear traffic. Consider taking one earbud out. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back, if possible. I always carry a phone in a waist belt, even for a 5k across the fields, because on some of my Devon routes you could lie injured for a week before being found. You never know when you might twist an ankle or discover the secret of the universe.”

Run where you feel safe, carry an alarm, if it makes you feel safer, or use an app enabling your loved ones to track you. Many people proudly post the stats from their latest run on the forum, along with a map of their route. I have pointed out to many that they have potentially just showed the whole world roughly where their house is, where and when they run and when their house is possibly empty. Some are happy to broadcast this sort of info to all and sundry, others are horrified at their own thoughtlessness. It is up to you, but do think before you post.”

Last bit of advice before we start running?
“You may start C25k with the naive thought that you are just going to do a little bit of exercise…….be warned, running is addictive. Within weeks you may not recognise the new you. You may find yourself getting out of bed at previously unheard of hours……to go running. Your wardrobes will fill with garish lycra that you would not have been seen dead in previously and you may find yourself fitter and happier than ever in your entire life. Be warned, this training plan may change your life……….but don’t blame me. Time to run. Keep running, keep smiling.”

*This Q&A is based off the Couch to 5k admin’s original post on the community on HealthUnlocked. He also has a selection of other useful FAQ type posts, which covers specific topics in great detail. Head over to the Couch to 5k community to check them out. And if you found this useful, please do share with your friends and family.

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