Spring training: Moving from couch to 5K

By | May 1, 2019

Need a little motivation and structure to ramp up your walking routine this spring? Want to wake up your workouts? Consider trying a couch-to-5K program.

What is a couch-to-5K program?

These free or low-cost coaching plans are designed to help would-be runners train for a 5-kilometer race, which is about 3.1 miles. The programs are available online, or as apps or podcasts. They typically feature timed walking and running intervals that gradually phase out the walking over a period of about nine weeks.

Why try a couch-to-5K program?

“The purpose of a couch-to-5K program is to give you time to acclimate and start to enjoy the benefits of running and the sense of accomplishment of completing a distance safely,” says Dr. Adam Tenforde, director of the Running Medicine Program at the Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. Running provides many cardiovascular benefits as well as an enhanced sense of well-being, he adds.

Even though these programs sound as though they’re geared for completely sedentary couch potatoes, that’s not necessarily true, he cautions. They often assume you can walk continuously for 30 minutes, which doesn’t apply to everyone.

For some people, an even easier, more gradual training regimen may be more appropriate. Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to run to do a 5K; many of these races also encourage walkers to participate as well. You’ll still reap the other rewards from committing to a race, such as being more challenged and motivated — and possibly more connected to your community. Many charitable “fun runs” benefit local schools or needy families. Some are in memory of people affected by illness or tragedy. Visit Running in the USA to find 5K races near you.

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Before you begin

If you’re planning to walk or run your first 5K this spring, get your doctor’s approval before you start training. That’s especially important if you have heart disease or are at risk for it.

Comfortable walking or running shoes are a wise investment. Shoes that are too old or too tight in the toe box can cause or aggravate a bunion, a bony bump at the outer base of the big toe. Despite suggestions that people with flat feet or high arches need specific types of shoes, studies have found that “neutral” shoes (designed for average feet) work well for almost everyone. Walk or jog around the store when you try them on to make sure they feel good and fit properly.

You don’t need to buy special clothes: regular sweat pants or comfortable shorts and a t-shirt will suffice. Women should consider getting a supportive sports bra, however.

Slow and steady to start

  • Always include a warm-up and cool-down — a few minutes of slow walking or jogging — with every exercise session.
  • If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start by walking just five or 10 minutes a day, three days a week. Or, if you’re already a regular walker, add some short stints of jogging to each walking session.
  • Gradually add minutes and days over the following four to six weeks.
  • Once you’re up to 30 minutes a day, check how far you’re traveling. Keep increasing your distance every week until you reach 5 kilometers. Then slowly phase in more jogging and less walking over your route if you like.
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For a good couch-to-5K guide, try this beginner’s program from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.

Remember that you can always repeat a week. You’re less likely to sustain an injury if you make slow, steady progress. Pay close attention to your body and don’t push yourself too much, Dr. Tenforde advises. Former athletes who haven’t run in years may think they can pick up where they left off, but that’s not a smart move — they should also start low and go slow.

Harvard Health Blog