This isn’t my first time around on the Couch to 5k programme. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s actually my 4th time! Pregnancy always absolutely floors me, with constant sickness, and then I find those first few years of motherhood so all consuming that fitting in exercise seems impossible so I fully fell off the running wagon. Back at the end of the summer, it finally felt like the right time for me to get myself off the couch and back into my running gear. I’d reached a point where I was a large size 16 and very unhappy with my body, and also felt like I needed to start making time for myself somehow. I wanted to keep a Couch to 5K diary of my progress, so here we go!
I wrote a few years back about my relationship with running, and I have definitely not always been a runner. Back in school I would do anything to avoid exercise, and the monthly cross country route was the source of nightmares. I seem to lack any ounce of competitiveness and find it a real turn off, so team sports have never been my thing, and I actually find the concept of running races massively unappealing. But running is something that I find perfect as a solitary exercise. You’re only ever competing against yourself, and it’s all about your own journey.
But it’s not easy.
Even once I found a love of exercise in my mid-twenties and was reasonably fit, I still found that I needed to teach myself how to run, and the Couch to 5k programme provided the perfect way to do that, providing a challenge, but an attainable one.
This time around I followed the NHS One You Couch to 5K plan, which you can download as an app (for free!). The plan spans 9 weeks and is interval based, meaning that you mix periods of walking with jogging, building up the running time week by week. You need to commit to 3 runs a week, with at least one day of rest between each run, and you can take it all at your own pace – slow doesn’t matter, just the fact that you’re out there moving. The app allows you to listen to your own music, with little interjections from your chosen coach to tell you when to walk and when to run.
Week 1 has to be one of the most important runs in the programme – making that first step to be out there and running can be so intimidating when you know that your fitness is poor. Week 1 has you running for 60 seconds, followed by 90 seconds of walking. I’d asked for a new pair of running trainers for my birthday, as it had been so long since I’d last run that my old trainers had been thrown away.
I was pretty nervous about getting out there as I was literally coming from the couch. I’d not exercised at all since becoming pregnant with my son Ben, who is now 2 and a half, so my fitness level probably didn’t even register on the scale. And then there is always the worry of other people seeing you run – I find I can be very self conscious about it.
But despite all my misgivings, I laced up my trainers and headed out along the canal towpath for Week 1 Run 1 and found myself really pleasantly surprised. It definitely wasn’t easy (I am beetroot red in the face and very puffed by the end) but it also wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected, and I loved the feeling of being outdoors and feeling the fresh air filling my lungs. I think this is why I do love running – getting my heart rate up outside, surrounded by trees and nature, really is the best tonic. I loved seeing my progress in the next two runs – by the third run, I’d completely recovered by the end of the 90 second walking intervals and felt ready to run again. Which means it’s time to move onto Week 2 I guess!
Week 2 runs are 90 seconds running, mixed with 2 minutes of walking. It felt like a big step up on paper but was actually really achievable and didn’t feel too different to the previous week. I am definitely noticing the small uphill sections when I reach a lock or bridge on the canal though (which is somewhat pathetic as they are tiny) and really have to grit my teeth to make it up. I’m secretly trying to time the walking intervals so that I’m walking when I get to them!
3 minutes running. That’s double what I did in week 2. Definitely slightly nervous heading out for this one, but I kept the pace slow and it was ok! The 3 minutes running is making it harder to get the little hills in during the walking though, so I’m having to push it to make it up them. I don’t like hills! It’s brilliant to see the progress over the 3 runs – by the time run 3 comes around I feel like it’s all going really well and I feel ready to move onto the next stage.
I found week 4 a huge step up from week 3! It eases you in with 3 minutes running and then 90 seconds walking, but then increases it to 5 minutes running and 2.5 minutes walking (and repeat). The 5 minutes was hard going, and I found that I wasn’t able to complete the first run without taking walking breaks where I should have been running as my legs just couldn’t carry on. That could also have been down the hotter weather, but I took the decision to repeat the run, and found that next time I could make it through. I tend to take the approach that there’s no rush to make it through the programme – once I’ve decided I want to run, then I know I’ll keep it up for a while – well beyond the programme – so it really doesn’t matter how long it takes me to complete it.
I have started to notice a pain in my right ankle, and I’m noticing that all of my joints feel a bit looser – ankles, knees, hips. I’ve taken up yoga at the same time as restarting running, as I think they fit really well together, and it could well be from that too, so I’m just going to keep an eye on it for now.
Although I always think that week 4 is one of the biggest step ups in Couch to 5K, Week 5 Run 3 is always The Big One. You have runs 1 and 2, with 5 minute running intervals, and then 8 minute running intervals, and then suddenly (out of nowhere it seems), on run 3 you’re being asked to run for a straight 20 minutes! My mind always freaks out about this, but this time around, having done the programme before, I trusted in it more and told myself that all of the training I’d done over the past weeks had prepared me for this, that I was capable. And you know what? I only went and did it! I counted it down in 5 minute chunks – after 5 minutes is where I start to feel the running is ok, 5-10 minutes is just “keep going”, 10-15 minutes was a bit more of a struggle, and then once I’d done 15 minutes, there was no way I was stopping before the 20 was up! Week 5 run 3 is such a milestone run in this programme, and I had such a high at the end of the run, knowing that I’d pushed myself and accomplished it. Those little hills that I used to stress about now barely register for me!
I am definitely noticing this time around though that it’s always my legs which make me want to stop running, rather than feeling out of breath. I guess after a few years on the couch I need to build up the strength in my legs again.
This was a really tough week for me. Another week with 3 different runs, and on paper they really don’t look too tough after knowing that I can run for 20 minutes. But the first run (5 mins running, 3 walking, 8 running, 3 walking, 5 running) I found I couldn’t complete it and had to stop for a break because my shins and thighs were hurting. Once I felt I could run again, I decided to make the most of the run by running faster intervals back home, taking more walking breaks. But I had to repeat this run again to be able to say I’d done it. I can’t say I found the second run easier, and it was a relief to ditch the intervals for run 3.
The highlight of week 6 is that at the end of the 25 minute run 3, Laura tells you “You’re a runner now”. And the best part is that I really think I am!
Week 7 is where it all fell apart for me. Although it moves on to simply running for 25 minutes, the pain in my legs had now become a real problem and meant I had to abandon the first run after 20 minutes. I tried to repeat it but couldn’t make it past 20 minutes again, and then on my third attempt I had to stop after 10 minutes as my legs just wouldn’t keep going. I’ve had shin splints in the past, so recognised the symptoms – it was mildly painful to touch my shin, almost as if it was bruised – and I finally accepted that the feeling of my legs not being able to go on was definitely a sign I needed to take it a bit easier on my body and let it recover. I’m pleased that I’m doing the yoga alongside the running, as I think it’s taught me to be more accepting of my body’s limits and to be a bit kinder to myself. I caught the shin splints a lot earlier than I have in the past, and took a week off the running to allow them to heal.
After a week off, the shins didn’t feel sore to touch anymore, so I headed out with the promise to take it easy on myself and keep the pace really slow. It felt much better, and I was finally able to complete the run, along with the following two 25 minute runs.
I like to run in the mornings, while my husband sorts the boys out with their breakfast, and it’s definitely getting more difficult to psych myself up to get out there now that the sun is rising so much later. I’ve bought myself some little LED lights so that I can be seen, as I’m paranoid about being flattened by a cyclist. For a sport that is supposedly ‘free’, running definitely comes with a lot of gear, the more you do it!
Week 8 only sees an increase in running of 3 minutes, to 28 minutes, so a piece of cake right? Not here – I found the whole week a real struggle and although I completed them all, it was really hard going and my legs are not feeling good. Although the shin splints haven’t returned, the pain in my right ankle has now become worse, and is now accompanied by a niggle in my right knee, right hip, and left ankle too. I’ve always got on well with neutral trainers in the past, but I think it might be time to head for a gait analysis to check whether some more supportive trainers might be in order. Shin splints, and now all the joint pains are definitely indicating that something is not quite right.
Gait analysis complete! I headed to Runners Need and hopped on the treadmill which was really enlightening. Watching back the video of me running, you could see really clearly my left foot overpronating and rolling in a lot on every step. I’m guessing that this is what was putting so much pressure on my right body when I then landed on my right foot, and will have been the cause of the shin splints, the ankle pain, and the loose hip joints. No wonder I was finding it all so much harder on my legs this time around!
The assistant was so helpful and we tried numerous different trainers. I’ve had very bad experiences with Asics and arch blisters in the past, so we ruled those out, but tried Nike Zoom Structure (as I’ve always got on well with Nike), New Balance, and finally settled on the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 19. It was really interesting to watch each running video and see the differences in how my foot hit the ground, and it was clear that the Brooks were the best fit for me.
It was amazing to take them out for the week 9 runs – they were like a little Graduation present to myself. Week 9 isn’t a huge step up from week 8 anyway, at 30 minutes running, but with the new trainers I found I could complete all 3 runs without having to repeat them. Although I felt that I was running slower, Strava makes it clear that I’m actually managing to run a little bit faster in them. Woohoo!
There’s nothing like that feeling of pride on that last run, when you complete the programme and see that ‘Graduate’ screen. It’s been my most difficult time completing Couch to 5K, and it’s taken me 12 weeks rather than 9, due to all my repeating runs. But running 30 minutes seemed like such an unachievable goal 12 weeks ago, and I’ve made it, and I’m so excited to carry on running and see where it takes me.
Looking back, and looking ahead
Looking back at my Couch to 5K diary, the changes are so much bigger than just ‘being able to run’. The effect running has had on my mental health and attitude to life has been huge. In making the time for running, I’ve realised just how little time I’ve made for myself in general over the last few years, and it’s inspired me to make little changes in so many other areas of my life. I’m eating better, taking better care of my skin, and making time to be present with the boys. I’m more positive and motivated about life, and so much happier. Oh, and if you’re wondering if you’ll lose weight doing Couch to 5K, I’ve lost about a stone and dropped a couple of dress sizes too. But most importantly, I’ve got back to a place where I can look in the mirror and be proud of myself and my body.
Here’s to keeping it up (and perhaps to getting to 10K!)