The benefit of exercise for our physical and mental wellbeing has long been established. In 2006, a Canadian study concluded with certainty that there is a “linear relation between physical activity and health status, such that a further increase in physical activity and fitness will lead to additional improvements in health status”. The challenge for many who are new to physical activity or who have lost their exercise mojo is that they feel intimidated or even afraid of getting going. This is entirely understandable, especially in the era of sports data (e.g. Strava) when many make their exercise competitive and serious. The reality is that if you don’t enjoy exercise or feel confident doing it, you won’t maintain it in the long run. So how can total beginners make the transition to regular health-promoting exercise? There are many ways to ease into activity and build fitness consistently, one way being the Couch to 5K plan.
What is the Couch to 5K plan?
The Couch to 5K plan, also shortened to C25K, is a very simple programme to encourage those who do not regularly exercise to slowly build up their fitness to be able to run five kilometres (just over three miles). The programme is genius because it alternates walking and running to very slowly build up a person’s fitness level. For example, in week one, using the NHS’s C25K programme, you would walk for five minutes to warm up, run for one minute, walk for one and a half minutes, and repeat the run/walk for 20 minutes. And running does not mean sprinting, it simply means running at a speed that is comfortable for you, even if that is only a shade faster than you would walk.
Most programmes run for nine to 12 weeks, with the amount of running compared to walking slightly increasing each week. At the end of the programme, the aim is that you will be able to run for a whole 5km without needing to walk or stop.
Why is C25K so effective for beginners?
This method of alternating walking and running is so effective because it encourages your body, in particular your heart and lungs, to adapt to the demands being placed on it. It is those adaptations week on week which accumulate to make you fitter. Unfortunately, many beginner runners who don’t use a plan such as C35K don’t understand the importance of slowly building up and struggle to build their fitness in a sustainable way.
The programme is also ideal for beginners because 1) the sessions are short initially, and these build up slowly, and 2) it is structured to make sure you make gains. It also encourages proper recovery enabling your body to rebuild itself fitter and stronger for the next session. So many people make the mistake of running too often, getting injured or not making progress, and then stopping. The C25K works precisely because it balances consistency and recovery.
If you are interested in the C25K, there are plenty of resources online. The NHS’s C25K webpage provides a nine-week training plan and a link to some excellent podcasts to listen to. While the plan is gentle and safe, we would also recommend asking your doctor for clearance before getting underway if you have certain underlying health conditions. If you do enjoy the programme and you want to carry on running the same type of distance consistently and socially, consider going along to your local Parkrun; these are free weekly 5km runs every Saturday morning for everyone to enjoy. We wish you the best of luck with whatever you choose to do; just remember, exercise is supposed to be fun!
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