NHS Couch to 5K: Does it work?

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Designed to get self-proclaimed couch potatoes (or complete running novices like myself) up and moving, the free NHS podcast Couch to 5K is a damn good initiative. It’s free to download, and judging by the awful music that clearly didn’t require licensing, must’ve been dirt-cheap to produce. Oh, and in theory, it reduces obesity, potentially saving the country millions. Thumbs up so far.

The podcast is narrated by a super saccharine fitness mentalist/robot, allegedly named ‘Laura’, who used to be just like you (lazy and fat). In just 9 weeks, with three episodes per week, Laura talks you through the trials of learning to run with a specially designed running-walking interval programme…all to help you achieve your goal.

Weeks 1 to 4 are all about building stamina with short running bursts, learning to breathe properly, not bob up and down too much, and avoid stitches. Week 5, episode 3 is where it starts getting harsh: 20 minutes without stopping, with incremental increases over the next month. And voila: in just 9 weeks, you’re running for 30 minutes non-stop.

I should say it’s not really running 5K (unless you run at a pretty fast 10K per hour); it’s 30 minutes jogging and 10 minutes fast walking, which, if you go at around 8K per hour, you’ll cover in 40 minutes.

By the end of my first run, during which I was admittedly pretty useless, I already hated the word ‘goal’. What exactly was it? To get fit? To lose weight? Or just to learn how to move my body in a running-type shape?

I suppose it was a bit of all three: I’m reasonably fit, have a bit of excess baggage, and certainly am not the most natural runner. I have terrible memories of worthlessness during my school Cross Country, and strong stabs of jealousy when I look outside and see a whole world of running that I’m not a part of. I was determined to do this.

But does it work? Yes and no.

At first, I found the motion of running and the breathing excruciating, with even a light jog for a couple of minutes causing physical and mental trauma. But with Laura-bot telling me it was all in my head, I pushed through the pain. I was running longer, harder, and with more ease than ever before in my life. And even though I had to repeat a few episodes in order to really nail it, I finally managed 30 minutes without stopping. I was fitter, slimmer, but more importantly, I was a real runner.

And then I went back to the exercise I actually enjoyed. Because deep in my heart I knew I hated running, hated the motion, hated the monotony. It tore my knees apart (unlike the crosstrainer, which I can happily do for 40 minutes with no pain). And running outside I felt exposed: I much preferred the safety of the gym, where I could set a steady pace and only suffer mild dizziness once stepping off the treadmill.

I would still definitely recommend the podcast: it’s free, it’s structured, and it definitely works. And if you actually enjoy running? So much the better. I’ll just continue to eat less and move more.

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