Do you ever watch runners zoom by and wish you could dash around so effortlessly? Do you find yourself a wheezing, gasping mess after only ten steps at more than a brisk walking pace? Do you like British accents? Then NHS Couch to 5k (Ct5k) podcast is for you.
Back in the day, I loathed running. I would go out of my way to avoid running for even a single step. I wouldn't even run to catch a bus, despite knowing that I would have to wait half an hour for the next one. But slowly, after a while, I started wishing I could go for a jog. I would watch people jog past me effortlessly and just burn with envy. I wanted to do it too, mostly because I enjoy the idea of the peace and solitude involved in long distance running, but also because regular running has great health benefits, such as reducing the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke, boosting mood, and keeping weight under control.
Then my sister introduced me to the NHS Ct5k podcast. Now, I know what you're thinking: going from a couch potato to running 5k in only nine weeks? Sorcery! Trickery! I call BS. But hear me out for a bit, and maybe you'll change your mind.
The NHS Ct5k was designed for absolute beginners, but can be enjoyed by anyone who wants to get into running shape. This running plan was developed by Josh Clark, a novice runner, for his fifty-something mother to start running.1 The thought of running 5k might seem daunting, but the plan only involves three runs per week of around 30-35 minutes (including a five minute warm-up walk), with a different schedule for each of the nine weeks. Sometimes three different schedules in a single week!
While several "couch to 5k" podcasts exist, the one I am interested in is the NHS (National Health Service in the UK) Choice podcast. Your personal trainer Laura will tell you when to run and when to walk, and give you safety tips, suggestions, and encouragement, over an upbeat soundtrack that changes based on whether you're running or walking. If you thrive under boot camp-like direction, this podcast is not for you. Laura's British accent is delightful, and her encouragement is gentle but motivating. "Okay, slow down. Take another two minute walk to recover. You may be getting tired now, but you're doing really great." (Week 2)
While doing research for this review, I discovered that the NHS has an app for the Couch to 5k as well as the podcast that I have been using, compatible with iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and optimized for the iPhone 5. It includes visual descriptions of the contents of the three runs in each week. During the run, it displays how long the current workout has been going on, what the next part of the workout is (run or walk, and how long), as well as the time left in the workout. Another useful feature is the progress wall, which allows you to keep track of where you are in the nine week plan, and gives you the opportunity to share your progress on social media for encouragement, motivation, or bragging rights.2
Unfortunately, this app is only available on the UK iTunes store. If you are tech savvy enough to get around this snag, then have at it. I, however, am not, and so I must contend myself with the podcast. But considering that I have used it three times now, I know what is expected of me and don't particularly need the tracking features the app provides.
The Weekly Runs
The thought of running for any amount of time can be daunting if you're out of shape. Your first week (meaning three runs), you only have to run for eight minutes each time. Still, eight minutes is a LONG time when you're out of shape and running. But those eight minutes are split into eight sixty second runs. That's all. One minute. Chances are you will still be a wheezing, gasping mess after only one minute, but you have a whole ninety second walk afterward to recover.
In the long run, eight minutes out of thirty does not seem like a lot of running. Some people could find themselves discouraged, thinking that they'll never make it to week nine. I certainly did at first. But then, I started to really think about what I had just done, and found myself elated by the knowledge that I had just for eight full minutes and I survived.
As the weeks progress, the running time might increase while the walking time decreases, or both times might be identical. By the last day of week five of the podcast, I was running for twenty minutes without a break, though it was eight weeks since I had started listening to the podcast. It was incredibly helpful for me to be able to set my own schedule and repeat weeks two to four because I didn't feel ready to progress to the next week.
The Benefits of Interval Training
Interval training involves alternating high-intensity movement with low-intensity movement (called the recovery period), which in this case means alternating running and walking or fast running with slower running, or even fast walking with slower walking. As long as you get your heart rate up, you are working out. This slower recovery period is crucial, training your body to recover more quickly, which will gradually increase your stamina, speed, and strength. This will allow you to run faster for longer periods of time. This, obviously, means that you can run longer distances in less time, depending on your goals. Mine is to run a marathon one day, but first I want to be able to run 5k in less than 30 minutes, then 10k in less than 1 hour. In May of last year, I ran my first official Ottawa Race Weekend 5k race in 53:11 without walking or stopping. In September, I ran the 5k Army Run in 45:04 with several walking breaks. After training intermittently on a treadmill during the winter and starting on the street again now that the snow has mostly melted, it is my hope to run the Ottawa Race Weekend 5k in under 35 minutes, all thanks to interval training.
In addition, interval training helps you lose weight as your body burns mostly carbs during the high-intensity period and mostly fat during recovery. Research at McMaster University in Hamilton has show that three 20 minute interval training sessions (the average length of each workout on the podcast) per week are as beneficial as 10 hours of steady exercise in two weeks. However, interval training is hard on the body and should not be done every day. That's why the NHS suggests taking a day off in between runs and only completing three runs per week. For safety reasons, it would be wise to check in with your doctor before starting interval training to make sure your heart, lungs, and muscles can handle the high-intensity effort, especially if you are very out of shape or haven't exercised in a long time. You may wish to get a bit stronger aerobically before taking on this podcast.3
My Experience with the Ct5k Podcast
Although I now tend to break away from the Ct5k podcast and make my own playlists tailored to my current running pace, the podcast was instrumental in getting me hooked on intervals. In the beginning, I appreciated the fact that the runs changed each week and meant that I didn't get bored with the workouts, and I could actively see the progress I was making when I found out how long I would be running in one shot (1, 1.5, 3, 5, 8, 10, 20, 25, 28, and 30 minutes, not necessarily in that order.)
Despite the variety of workouts and encouraging feedback and tips from Laura, the music can get rather repetitive. It has a beat that is not suited to my pace, which makes it sometimes more distracting than helpful, and it all starts to sound the same after a while. Furthermore, after the first time you listen to the instructions, you might not want to hear them again, but there is no option to mute them. All you really need is to hear when to run and when to walk. In my experience, though, it's very easy to tune out both the music and the instructions that I don't need to hear. The benefit of having directions on when to run and when to walk without having to time everything myself greatly outweighs those minor irritations.
After Couch to 5k
I've finished the Ct5k podcast and can run 5k without stopping, but it took me much longer than 30 minutes. What now? Well, you have several options.
First, if you liked the podcast, you may consider the NHS Couch to 5k+ podcast, which coaches you to increase your speed, stamina, and running form. Unlike the first podcast, Ct5k+ has a particular beat that you are expected to follow, which is something I personally really enjoy following. These three training sessions can be used in any order three times a week and help you stick to the schedule you developed while following the first podcast. By working on increasing your speed, stamina, and running form, you will be able to run faster with less effort, and will eventually reach the goals you've set for yourself.4
Secondly, if you're like me and were still fairly out of shape even after finishing the podcast and running a full 5k, the Ct5k+ might be too difficult for you. The Stepping Stone session involved a continuous 30 minute run reaching 150 to 160 steps per minute. I was running comfortably at 138 steps per minute, and although I did manage 20 minutes (up to 155 steps per minute), it was too much. So I went back to the first Ct5k podcast and did it all over again, but this time, I would jog at a moderate pace when Laura told me to walk, and jogged faster when she told me to run. As of now, I run comfortably at 150 steps per minute and will be giving Ct5k+ another try before my next race in May.
Thirdly, and what I did after doing the Ct5k podcast for a third time, you can put together your own running playlist or workout schedule using a timer, a fitness tracker, or any number of apps. Once I worked out what my ideal running pace was (by finding the perfect song to run to and checking its beats per minute (bpm) on songbpm.com), I then hopped over to jog.fm to look up songs with the same rhythm. Then I got creative. I looked up songs with higher bpm than my ideal pace at regular intervals (145, 150, 155, and so on). I also checked the projected pace (meaning the amount of time it would take to run a kilometre with that many steps per minute), though I quickly learned that the steps I was taking were rather small, and thus didn't carry me as far as quickly. Using these groups of songs, I put together any number of interval training playlists and would run at the beat of each song, for the duration of each song. Doing so gives me an infinite number of possibilities in terms of music and of the type of interval training (based on the order of the bpm) and ensures that I am never bored of my workouts.
Finally, you can always look for a new podcast, or run as you please, or quit running because you did what you set out to do in the first place and ran a full 30 minutes (or a full 5k) without stopping and that's more than enough of that thank you very much. The beauty of it is that everything you do here is your decision, and you're not doing it because someone is forcing you.
Addicted to Running
As for me, the knowledge that I can actually run for a full hour without stopping (albeit very slowly) just isn't enough. I want to get better, stronger, faster, and run farther and longer than I do now. Although I do run races, the only person choose to compete against is myself, and to me, that's the best kind of motivation.
The NHS Couch to 5k podcast does have some disadvantages, but generally speaking, it provides a fantastic beginner runner workout and can be used and re-used as many times as is useful. I know that it will always be my go-to workout when I need to start my training (especially if I haven't been running for a while, like during the winter).
No matter whether you choose to continue running after completing the podcast, just knowing that you finished it, that you can run farther and longer than you ever thought possible before, will give you an incredible sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Well done you!
You know what? I think I'll go for a run.