Will the Couch to 5k Plan Work for You?

Pledging to run a 5k within nine weeks might not be a smart idea. Here’s why.

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When I decided I wanted to get serious about running, I had several things to consider. How do I start? It sounds ridiculously easy. If you want to get better at running, then you go out there and run, right?

For many people, this approach is exactly what works. For people like me, who like things in neat, detailed little packages, I needed some direction and guidance. If left to my own devices, one or more of the following would happen:

• Too far, too hard, too soon.

• Make every run farther and harder than the day before.

• Skip adequate rest days.

Get injured.

• Become disillusioned.

• Quit.

Clearly, I needed a plan. And the first one that looked realistic but challenging was the Couch to 5k running program. I used it in 2005, and I've been running ever since my first 5k – it works. Here are the basic details:

• The program has an app that will tell you when to walk, when to run and how long until the next interval.

• Couch to 5k assumes a person can walk comfortably for 30 minutes.

• It is based on walk/run intervals that gradually phase out the walking until you're running for a full 3.1 miles.

• It can be measured using time or distance. I highly recommend you pick one method of measuring and be consistent.

Keep in mind that it does not say "couch to breaking-speed-records 5k." It does exactly what it promises in nine weeks. However, it assumes a lot of common sense. Some rules are not meant to be broken. For example:

1. Good running shoes are a must. Don't use those high top basketball shoes or trendy cross fitters. Get some real shoes. They do not have to cost a fortune, but you will save a fortune in ortho, x-rays and physical therapy if you start off with good shoes first. Go to a running shoe store, don't worry about how you might not look like a fit runner (yet) and tell them to please fit you in a good pair of sneakers.

[Read: 5 Keys to Injury-Free Running.] 

2. No pain, no gain: Not for beginners. The body will gently tell you if something is not right. If you don't listen, the body will use a little more urgency. If you still ignore it, you could be sidelined for months or wind up in traction. It is normal for knees and hips to feel a little sore. It's not normal for agonizing pain to shoot from your toes, hips, shins, back or knees.

3. If you don't do it, it won't work. You can't skip five workouts and expect to hit the 5k right on time. There is a lot of flexibility in this schedule. Use it, but don't abuse it.

Flexibility is one of the best parts about this program. Based on the way your life is structured, you might not make a 5k in nine weeks. It might be a 5k in 13 weeks. And in the grand scheme of the many weeks of your life you've spent wondering if you could be a runner, those extra few weeks of good training are so worth it.

The Couch to 5k program suggests picking a race nine weeks from the beginning point and then starting the program. This is where I disagree. And here's why.

[Read: A Beginners' Guide to Running.]

If you're brand new to running – or to any type of strenuous exercise, for that matter – nine weeks is too far in advance to think about a definite date for running a 5k. I would suggest aiming for at least 12 weeks out from start. That gives you plenty of extra time to retrain each week, and it creates some cushion for illness or life getting in the way.

Some disagree, saying the structured nine weeks keeps people on track. And that is true. My response is this: Anybody who is going to have the mental discipline to stick to nine weeks should have the discipline to stick to it for a little longer. If you're on week five and you get sick and miss some workouts, you will have the extra weeks to build back. What you will not do is cram two weeks of training into the next week, which is almost a textbook maneuver for injury. You will not feel defeated and quit halfway through because you might not be ready for the "pick a 5k" that you've told everybody – God, your mother and any friend on Facebook – about. Give yourself some time.

Go slow. Yes, slow. Turtles should pass you. Why? Well, have you ever see a turtle wearing a knee brace? Ever see a turtle with bottles of ibuprofen? Of course I'm kidding, but rarely will you see a slower runner crying from pain on the side of the road. Many injuries are "overuse," not "underuse". If you can walk comfortably for 30 minutes, start off by taking some easy running steps that will get your heart rate up. Don't go full force, Forrest Gump, airplane arms, speed of light. Go speed of chocolate fudge pudding. Your knees will thank you. And then you can eat the chocolate fudge pudding after you finish your first 5k.

[Read: 10 Themed Races to Make Getting In Shape Fun.]

Katrina Plyler is a full-time teacher and part-time runner, blogger and amateur photographer. She is a regular contributor to the Cooking Light Blogger's Connection and has been featured in Fitness magazine. Her food photography is regularly accepted in Tastespotting.com and Foodgawker.com galleries. For more information on the daily adventures of teaching, running and cooking, check out her blog, Katrina Runs for Food.

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