The Case Against 'Couch to 5K' (and What to Try Instead)

The Case Against ‘Couch to 5K’ (and What to Try Instead)


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The “Couch to 5K” program has gotten tons of people started with running. It starts off light, has a structure that’s easy to stick to, and you graduate with the ability to finish a common race distance. But the plan also has its drawbacks, and it’s not the only way to start running. If you’ve tried C25K and it hasn’t worked for you, maybe you should try something else.

What is Couch to 5K?

Originally published on now-defunct website coolrunning.com, the best place to read about Couch to 5K now is this NHS website. You can download an app or a set of audio tracks that will guide you through each workout.

Basically, it’s nine weeks of walk-run workouts. In week 1, “you will begin with a brisk 5-minute walk. After this, you will alternate 1 minute of running and 1-and-a-half minutes of walking, for a total of 20 minutes.” By week 4, some of your running stints are five minutes. By week 6, you’re doing 25 minutes of running without any walk breaks.

The last week is a 30-minute run, which is enough time for a fit beginner to cover about three miles, or five kilometers. If you’re slower to start with, 5K will take you a few minutes longer, but by the time you can run 30 minutes, it’s a good bet you can do 5K just fine.

The good parts of Couch to 5K

I got started with running myself with a timed walk-and-run program; it was before the days of Couch to 5K, but the idea was very similar. The best thing about Couch to 5K is that it’s approachable. If you’ve tried to run before, and pooped out within a minute or two, no worries! The first week’s workouts only ask you to run for one minute. You can do that.

The timed rest intervals help, too. You’ll quickly find out that you can’t sprint all-out for a minute and be ready to go again after a minute and a half. So you’ll learn to tone down the speed. Ideally, this program will teach you proper pacing. (That’s not always what happens, but we’ll save that critique for the next section.)

The gradual ramp-up also gets your body used to running. Running is harder on some tissues, including tendons, than walking is, and beginning runners often get achy shins or knees if they ramp up their mileage too quickly. The run/walk plan is a reasonable way to increase running volume while building the habit of running consistently (every session is 30 minutes or so, three times a week).

Another big plus is that being on a program switches your focus from “How fast am I?” or “Am I really a runner?” to “Okay, just gotta get through this next run.” You have to trust the process if you want to progress in anything, and being on a program—any good program—gives you a concrete way to do that.

The downsides of Couch to 5K

Now let’s talk about some common pitfalls.

You might turn the runs into interval training

When you have to run and then walk, it’s easy enough to sprint the runs and recover on the walks. People often assume that the program is about increasing your cardio fitness so that your sprint pace on the first day becomes your long run pace at the end.

But that’s not how it works! Your cardiovascular system doesn’t adapt that quickly. The way you make it through the 30-minute run at the end is by running slower than you did for those one-minute bursts. And if you don’t learn to slow down (every beginning runner needs to slow the fuck down), you’ll just be beating your head against the metaphorical wall.

Browse any C25K forum and you’ll find people talking about how they had to repeat certain weeks, or how they “couldn’t” do all the running intervals of a given week, even week one. This is what happens when you don’t learn to slow down.

If you truly sprinted your first one-minute run on W1D1, you won’t be able to recover in time to do the next one. It’s not that you can’t, it’s just that you rushed it. And maybe you made it through the first three or four weeks by running intervals, but that strategy stops working when the runs get longer. If you keep failing or dropping out of C25K, this is likely why.

You might think of walking as failure

Since C25K aims to get you running more and walking less, people start paying attention to whether and how much they’re walking during a run. And judging themselves for it.

In real life, nobody stops people as they cross the finish line of a marathon to ask how many minutes of it they walked. If you covered the distance at a running or jogging pace, you ran the distance, even if you needed to stop to walk when you got to a big hill or when you were taking a sip of water.

You can’t tell the difference between a race and a training run

So the program gets you from completely untrained—sitting on the couch—to running a 5K, or about three miles. Cool. But a concept that’s lost on many of C25K’s devotees is that when runners speak about “a 5K,” they mean a race. And a race is different from a training run.

Here’s the difference. Let’s say you’re a casual runner. You can do an easy five-kilometer training run any time you like. Let’s say that usually takes you about 35 minutes. After doing a bunch of those you might sign up for a local race, a 5K. You pay an entry fee, get a T-shirt, maybe raise money for charity. You line up at the start, and since it’s a race and not a training day, you push yourself to go faster than your usual training run. Your heart rate soars, you’re huffing and puffing, your legs are burning as you pick up the pace to surge over the finish line. Time: 30 minutes. Hell yeah! What a good race you had.

That is running a 5K. That is what a runner means when they say they run a 30-minute 5K. They do not mean that they routinely cover five kilometers in 30 minutes every time they head out for a training run.

But C25K runners (and many beginners, to be honest!) often focus on the 5K distance, and their time for a 5K distance, as a measure of their training. You should not treat your training runs like races. That would be like trying to get a better grade on a test just by taking tests over and over. Students need to crack open a book and study; runners need to run training runs at training paces.

If you didn’t like Couch to 5K, you’ll think you don’t like running

This is probably my biggest beef with the popularity of C25K: It’s become synonymous with learning to run, and even with running.

Many C25K runners’ sense of progress is tied to the app rather than to running in general. If you tried C25K and couldn’t get past a certain week, or if you graduated and are sad that you’re still a “slow” runner, you may think that you just hate running or that you aren’t destined to be good at it.

But C25K is just one of many running programs out there. You can get started another way. (More on that in a sec.) Furthermore, when you’re finished, you can ditch it.

I see too many people finish C25K and then figure that the next step is to run C25K again but running faster, or to look for a similar run-walk program that gets them up to a 10K. But gradually progressing run-walk intervals are not the only way to train! And covering longer and longer distances is not the only way to progress.

Sure, it’s cool if you conquer the 5K and then decide that you want to do a 10K and a half marathon and a full marathon. That’s a fine pathway if you love distance running. But what if I told you you could stick to short runs and just get better at 5Ks? There are plenty of runners, including collegiate and professional runners, who specialize in short and middle distances. They don’t run C25K over and over; they use other training programs that are a better fit for their goals.

Alternatives to Couch to 5K

Okay, so what else can you do?

First of all, while programs are great, it’s okay not to be on one at first. You may absolutely just head out for half an hour (or whatever timeframe feels good to you) and run and walk as the mood strikes you. We have a post here explaining this as “intuitive running,” but plenty of runners got started with something like this without ever giving it a name.

You can run on your own, and read up a bit about running, and decide what you’d like to do next. Hopefully you’ll encounter the idea that the key to running sustainably is to slow down enough that you don’t get out of breath constantly. Remember how I said I got started on a C25K-like program? After a month or so—and I assure you I was not fit and not athletic at this point in my life—I realized I was running slower and slower, and I wondered if I might be able to make it down my usual running route without stopping to walk if I jogged slow enough. I did, and shocked myself by running for 20 or 30 minutes straight when I had never previously gone more than five minutes or so.

Once you unlock that little epiphany, you can run on any schedule you please. And if you need a walk break every now and again, just take one. My first race was a 10K, and I had a ton of little 30-second walk breaks in there, just to catch my breath when I realized I’d been going too fast. I still finished with a respectable (to me) time.

Alright, are you ready for a program? Good news, there are a ton out there, and you can choose the ones that make sense for your schedule and your goals. Hal Higdon’s plans are free (or available on a paid app, if you prefer). Here’s his Novice Base Building plan, which would make a great alternative to C25K. The first week has two runs of 1.5 miles, one 30-minute walk, and two 3-mile runs. This is what our managing editor Meghan Walbert started with when she wanted to learn to like running. You can add as many walk breaks as you need to the runs.

Or maybe you’ve graduated from C25K and want the next step. This intermediate 5K plan adds some speed work (fast laps on a track, with rest breaks in between), while keeping most of the runs short and easy, and lengthening one run on the weekend (it gets as long as 7 miles by the end).

There are countless other programs out there. If you have a fitness tracker like a Garmin or a Fitbit, it probably has customizable running plans you can follow. Apps like Runkeeper and Nike Run Club also have virtual coaches and one-off workouts.

And don’t forget about local running clubs. Your local Road Runners’ club or running store probably has a group that trains together. They may be able to hook you up with a coach or provide you with a written program you can follow. Spending time with other runners is also a fantastic way to learn the ins and outs of training as a runner, rather than having to figure everything out yourself when you’re starting from scratch.

   



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