I was approached by a journalist from Woman & Home magazine a little while back and asked to be a guest expert for an article she was writing about the NHS Couch to 5k program.
The finished article (scroll to the end of this blog post to see it!) is just one page and therefore quite short and condensed, so I thought I'd share the questions I was asked for those of you who might be thinking about embarking on their own running journey and are keen to know what to expect!
Why is couch to 5k such an effective running plan for absolute beginners?
If you don’t currently run, the thought of putting on a pair of trainers and heading outside can be quite daunting for many people. The couch to 5k programme is an ideal starting place, allowing you to break things down in to manageable chunks both physically and mentally. It encourages you to start introducing small segments of running in to a walk basically and then gradually builds on the running part, whilst reducing the walking. Starting to run this way can mean far less overwhelm, meaning you’re more likely to look forward to it and stick with it!
Any tips for beating the fear of starting?
The fear of starting anything new is very common. We all lead busy lives and it’s easy to find excuses not to do something. You might not have done any physical exercise for a while and are worried about whether you will be able to cope. You might feel intimidated and worry about what people will think. Some women for example might have taken a career break to raise a family and the prospect of doing something for themselves seems like a strange one! Changes in health or low self esteem in women going through menopause might also be a cause of fear if they're thinking of starting to run and I work with a lot of women in this demographic, helping to overcome any boundaries they may face.
My advice is to think of the many benefits of physical activity and more importantly the reason you want to start in the first place. You might want to keep up with the kids without getting out of breath, may be you want to lose weight, you might want to improve your mental wellbeing.. you might just want to take some time out of the day for you!! These are all great reasons for starting to run but try to visualise how you want to feel once you’ve achieved these things.. find your ‘WHY’ and it will not only help get you get over the fear of starting but it will also help keep you going.
What benefits might you notice when doing couch to 5k
Running is a great activity to improve cardiovascular health and those who start running on a regular basis decrease their risk for heart disease by 35 to 55 percent.
As you progress with your running and your fitness levels improve you will notice that it feels like less effort. Your stamina increases and you’ll be able to keep up with kids without running out of steam!
Running is a great way to lose weight if that’s one of your goals, burning more calories that many other types of exercise. And different types of running, at a higher intensity can burn calories even after you’ve stopped!
You will find that starting to run will have a knock on effect in other areas of life. Most people find that they have more motivation in life in general once they embark on their fitness journey. Try starting your morning with a run - it can leave you feeling totally energised and really set you up for the rest of the day ahead!
It’s now a well known fact that running can play a vital role in improving our mental health. Often practitioners now prescribe it before they do medication, to help reduce anxiety and depression. Many runners enjoy the benefit of simply having some ‘me time’ and as busy people this is something we should all prioritise.
Will you get sore muscles? Is this a sign of improvement?
As with any new type of exercise, you will likely experience some soreness. This is known as DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness). This shouldn't be excruciating pain*, I’m talking general tightness and an aching feeling in some of your muscles, particularly in your legs. It’s not a sign of improvement, it’s more a sign of your body adapting now its moving in a new way. Once your body adjusts and becomes more used to running you will find you ache less.. this is your sign of improvement! *if you do experience pain then do not ignore it - seek professional medical advice.
What’s the best way to avoid getting injured when starting out?
There are several ways you can reduce your risk of injury. The couch to 5k is a great way to ensure you don’t do too much too soon, however whilst being a great program to help you increase your running gradually it fails to include any strength training. I always recommend my athletes try to incorporate exercises that will support their running and will strengthen their muscles and joints. By doing this you will become a more robust runner and you will also feel that it makes running feel a lot easier too.
Other ways in which you can prevent injury is ensuring you warm up effectively before you run, including a few simple moves to activate your muscles and mobilise your joints as well as finishing your run with a cool down walk and some static stretches. Stretching after a run can also help to reduce the DOMS previously mentioned.
Varying the surface you run on and not always ‘pounding the pavements' is also a good idea if you want to keep injuries at bay.
Low impact activities such as Pilates and yoga are great for runners as they can help improve strength, mobility, balance and alignment thus reducing the risk of injury.
When it comes to kit, what are the most important buys? (a supportive sports bra, decent trainers etc)
Running can be a relatively affordable hobby… on the other hand if you are the sort of person who likes the best trainers and all the fancy gadgets you will soon realise that you can end up spending more than you first envisaged! When first starting out however there is no need to go crazy with kit! Make sure you have appropriate clothing for the time of year, as we are in winter now it’s good to have several light layers rather than once big bulky one. You will warm up as you run and light layers can easily be removed and tied around your waist if you need! Running is a high impact sport and as such you will need a decent sports bra for support. When it comes to trainers my advice is to go to a specialist running shop rather than buying online. There are so many different running shoes out there that it can feel a little overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Going in to a dedicated running store means that you will be able to try on as many pairs as you like, try them out on a treadmill to see how they feel and you will get expert advice from people who know their stuff when it comes to what suits you as an individual.
Any more tips for making couch to 5k enjoyable / successful (varying your running routes, slowing down, repeating a session if needed etc)
Even those who have been running for some time have days when they lack motivation and would rather stay indoors! Running with a buddy or as part of a group can be a great way to stay motivated and keep things fun. Running clubs can feel a little intimidating when you are first starting however you might find there are social running groups in your area, such as the weekly one I host in Clapham.
Exploring new places is another way to keep your running enjoyable.. I never go on holiday without my running shoes!
And if you are finding things tough then try not to be hard on yourself. You are doing an incredible thing by starting to run and wanting to improve both your physical and mental health and it should be a pleasurable experience not one you dread. Slow down if you need to, take more walk if you need them and if you don’t feel ready to progress on to the next week of the couch to 5k then don’t feel you have to.. you are in control!
Well done, you've completed couch to 5k – so what’s next?
Reaching the end of the couch to 5k is a brilliant achievement and you should feel incredibly proud of yourself.. but don’t stop now! Hopefully you feel that running has become part of your normal week but now you don’t have the program to follow any more you might find you lack the routine and structure you have become used to. It’s a great idea to plan and write down the days you will run each week. Schedule them on your phone, print out a weekly calendar and stick it somewhere visible.. anything that’s going to help you keep things going!
Now that you’re able to run continuously for 30 minutes you might like to challenge yourself even more!! Parkrun is a great community initiative, getting people together every week for a free timed 5k run and is a great introduction to event participation. You might want to try and improve your speed at 5k or perhaps increase your distance further. There are several ways that you can do this but always make sure that you do so gradually, just as you did with the couch to 5k. There are several running plans you can follow that you can find on the internet however there is never a ONE SIZE FITS ALL. Working with a running coach either in person or remotely, who gets to know you as an individual and who can write a training plan based around you, your lifestyle, your current fitness levels and your goals will give you the best chance of success at achieving them.
Here is the article as featured in Woman & Home magazine, out on 2nd March 2023..