How to fix the Couch to 5k Plan so it doesn't suck

The Couch to 5k (C25K) Plan Kinda Sucks

I know that I have mentioned this before, but any couch to 5k (C25K) plan out there is kind of broken. The entire idea of a C25K plan is to teach someone with absolutely no running experience (like sitting on the couch) how to run a decent distance in a decent time in approximately 8 weeks.

What is the C25K Plan, Anyway?

5k stands for 5 kilometers, which is 3.1 miles. And average runners can run that distance in ~30 minutes.

Couch to 5K is a plan designed for people who are not runners to become runners by going out 3x a week, doing intervals, and eventually being able to run 3.1 miles in ~30 minutes.

In theory, this is great for new runners. Unfortunately, the reality is much different. The unspoken rule of a C25K plan is that everyone has to prepare themselves Couch-to-5k so they’re ready for Day 1, which kind of defeats the purpose. And it sucks.

If you are a real couch potato and live a sedentary lifestyle, you are absolutely not going to be able to start out with Week 1, Day 1 of any couch to 5k plan. (I have written more about how to do that prep here.)

Not being able to keep up with the very first day of a C25K plan is disheartening and puts people off. And you know what? That sucks. Couch to 5K is a program for non-runners that doesn’t start where non-runners can start. It’s absurd.

I mean…I just…I…can’t even. Ugh.

How to Approach the C25K Plan the Right Way

Not only have I been hearing multiple friends have trouble with this recently, but I also had major problems with it when I was overweight and out of shape. So if you’re starting out with a couch to 5k plan, don’t fret if W1D1 is way too hard (and honestly, it probably will be). That’s okay. You can prep for that.

“What if Couch to 5k is Too Much for Me?” You Ask

If a C25K plan is too much for you, then you need to start out with walking. Generally 2-3 weeks of brisk walking, 4 or 5 days a week will do get you prepared for Couch to 5k. A good rule of thumb is that if you can walk for 45 minutes at 3.5-4 mph and not be winded, you’re in good shape to start Couch to 5k.

Most people who want to be runners think that walking is weakness. It’s not. Even marathoners and ultra-marathoners walk during their races. It’s a rest for your legs because it works different muscles than running. There are days where my whole routine involves going for long walks, keeping my heart-rate up, and just enjoying being outside.

If you’re looking at starting couch to 5k, then you should make sure your legs and lungs can handle it. Especially if you are running with asthma like I am.

How Long Does Couch to 5K Take?

Most C25K plans that I have done are either 8 or 9 weeks long, and each session is roughly 30 minutes, give or take.

The first day of a C25K is around 9 intervals of running for 60 seconds, then the same number of walking intervals for 60-90 seconds. With 5 minute warm-up and cool-down periods.

That’s hard, y’all. Especially if you’re not used to moving around at all. If you’re truly a couch potato, then running 9 full minutes at 60-second intervals is tough.

This is why people think running sucks.

It’s hard, and it’s not fun, and it’s not indicative of the sport in general. What it is, however, is hard on your legs, hard on your lungs.

You’ll be tired and panting for breath before the first one is over if you’re a truly couch-level beginner. 60 seconds is far too long for a first running interval ever. And doing that for 20-30 minutes? It’s too hard. And more than that, it kinda sucks.

Plus, the next day, your legs will be super sore. It’s dumb.

Again: This is Why People Think Running Sucks

Running doesn’t suck. The Couch to 5k plan does.

But you can totally fix it by pre-gaming the program. Make sure you can walk a while before starting. It may sound silly, but it’s true.

Like I said above, if you think that Couch to 5k might be too much for you, I suggest that you be able to walk for 30-45 minutes at 3.5 to 4 mph (15-18 minutes per mile) without feeling out of breath before you even start with your couch to 5k plan’s intervals. 

I know that when I tried a couch to 5k plan for the first time, I couldn’t run for 15 seconds. I was 280ish (maybe more than that), and a whole minute of running was 100% out of the question.

It took me a long time before I could make it even 30 seconds. It may only be a week for you to be able to do Week 1, Day 1. Maybe 2. It all depends on you and your level of fitness.

The takeaway here is that you have to take the time to prep to make sure that the first week of a C25K plan doesn’t make you hate running as a sport or activity. Because I know for certain that it’s turned a lot of people off (though to be honest, probably not as many as it’s turned onto running).

I suggest that you get Runkeeper or Strava (or a GPS watch) to check your pace. You can use the GPS from a couch to 5k app, but I have never had them work right for me. I always prefer to use them for interval timers, but not for GPS.

The Real Question: Does Couch to 5K Work?

Yes. Absolutely. Different C25K plans have helped me start running and have helped me multiple times to get back n my feet after injuries or setbacks. They just don’t quite work 100% as advertised.

Once you can easily walk at a decent pace for a decent time (15-18 minutse per mile for maybe 45 minutes?), then you’re good to start running. Just don’t get discouraged if you have to work up to a beginner’s program like C25K. A lot of us have to do the prep work.

Just remember it’s because the plans kind of suck. We don’t suck. Running doesn’t suck. It’s the C25K plans that do.

And after talking with some of my friendos on Twitter, I realized another pitfall of the couch to 5k plan: the weeks are too condensed. If you’re having trouble going from week to week, don’t feel bad about repeating it. I had to repeat Week 4 three times before I could move on. Don’t feel tied down to the weekly schedule. The Couch to 5K schedule is nice marketing, but bad science.

Running and fitness is a lifestyle where comfort and safety are paramount. All training plans need that personal touch. So if you feel the need to repeat a week, you’re not alone. If you need to walk, walk. It’s okay.

If you ask me, the couch to 5k plan should be stretched out to 12-16 weeks to really take advantage of the real-world experience of newbie runners. But that wouldn’t be nearly as appealing, would it?

What are your experiences with Couch to 5K?

B.J. Keeton

B.J. Keeton

B.J. is a geek, gamer, podcaster, and livestreamer. He has been the co-host of the Geek to Geek podcast since 2016, and he helped start the Geek to Geek Media Network. His biggest pet peeve is when someone spells Wookiee with only one E. One time, he told his friends he liked vegetables maybe more than he did Star Wars, and they made him put a dollar in the jar. That should tell you everything you need to know about him. Find him on Twitter as @professorbeej or on Discord as @professorbeej#1337.

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6 Comments

  1. 30 Day Challenge Mike

    Great advice on getting started with running. I know personally, I just did too much too fast. My calf muscles have never been the same 🙁 Make sure you’re stretching, and including other types of exercise in your routine.

    Reply
  2. Angela

    I was that couch potato. Walking made me out of breath. Folding laundry made me out of breath. I was embarrassed by my health level. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. So I decided to run.

    I started the C25K program last June. I don’t agree with your assessment that the program is broken. But I do agree that you have to take it slow. My first run Week 1, Day 1, was hard. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to run a minute. But I did it at a snail’s pace, so slowly that most people could walk faster than my “running”. I stuck with it day after day. And in 7 weeks, I completed my first 5K. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I was slow. But I was running…at my own pace. I could not have been more proud. And I have repeated the C25K program several times. Each time at a faster pace. And I’m happy to say that I’ve stuck with it. And now I’m training for my first 10K.

    For those of you who think the program is hard…Slow down but never give up!

    Reply
  3. Cate

    I have been doing c25k for almost 8 weeks. I started briskly walking for a few weeks before beginning the program, so the first few weeks were pretty easy. Once I got to the harder weeks, I realized that only 3 days of cardio a week are not enough, and now I’m starting the Hal Higdon novice 10k training (and hoping for better results by the time I run my first 5k). The HH training adds two days of cardio cross training, and two strength trainings a week.

    Reply
    • B.J. Keeton

      I did something that was based on the HH 10k last year, and it worked really well. 🙂 I agree with you–I don’t feel as though 3 days is enough for me, especially when I’m training for a goal. Which is where cycling and kettlebells come in for me. That way I can still have a rest day but not feel totally inactive when I’m not running.

      Reply
    • Nathan

      I found it did work, and I was way overweight. Using C25K did feel painful to start with but sticking at it helped me shift 90 pounds.

      Reply

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