What is Couch to 5k?
Couch to 5k is one of the most popular running programs for beginner runners. Like the name suggests, the goal is to get someone from total “couch potato” to completing a 5k (approximately 3.1 mile) run.
The program eases you into running by alternating between short runs and short walks. As the program progresses, each run has less time walking and more time actually running. It’s a great way to start running if you feel like you’re totally out of shape. (And if the program is too hard for you, there are also a few variations that progress even slower.)
The program was first popularized on Cool Running, a site which unfortunately recently closed. The good news is that Couch to 5k has already spread widely throughout the internet, so there are plenty of free variations and Couch to 5k apps floating around. The website c25k.com does a good job of collecting them.
What Comes Next?
Couch to 5k has helped many people start running, but once you’re done with the two month program, you might be wondering what on earth you should do next.
The Couch to 5k program ends with you running three times a week, and capable of reaching a distance of 5k. It’s perfectly fine to just keep running 5k three times a week indefinitely. You’ll get plenty of health benefits, and probably continue to see improvements in your running form and speed.
On the other hand, setting new goals can be incredibly fun and help to keep you focused. In my opinion, this is where running gets really fun, because the options are endless. After hitting your initial goal of running a 5k, there are many directions in which you can continue to improve.
My first new goal after hitting 5k was to improve the speed at which I could run that same distance. I was still running at well over 10 minutes per mile, and I really wanted to be able to run a 5k in under 30 minutes.
Another common goal after reaching the 5k distance is to try to run even farther. Many people have used the “Bridge to 10k” program to lengthen their runs until they are able to reach 10k (about 6.2 miles).
If road running is starting to get boring for you, you could also try setting track goals or learning to run on trails.
Finally, many runners like to enter a specific race, and focus their goals around improving their performance in that race. (Lately, running races have been cancelled and postponed world-wide due to the coronavirus, but there are still many “virtual races” that you can enter instead.)
So, once you’ve found a new goal, how do you actually go about achieving it?
The Structured Approach
If you loved having the structure of Couch to 5k, there’s good news for you: there are tons of more advanced programs that provide you with step-by-step instructions on how to continue improving your running.
I’ve already mentioned the “Bridge to 10k,” which is an incredibly popular program for people who have just finished Couch to 5k. It will help you reach the 10k distance using the same strategies that Couch to 5k used.
If you’re interested in achieving a different distance or increasing your speed, a simple Google search will bring up endless free training plans to choose from. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the options, Jack Daniels and Hal Higdon are two of the most established and trusted names.
Another option is to reach out to a running coach to create a customized running plan for you. Many new runners think that running coaches are just for the professionals. The truth is that plenty of running coaches specialize in working with beginners and are often more affordable than you might expect.
The Unstructured Approach
What should you do if you’re sick of all the structure provided by Couch to 5k? Do you need to jump right back into another structured plan? Definitely not. As a beginner, there are many ways to continue improving your running even without following a structured plan. (Although this becomes less true the better you get.)
A common first step is to simply add another day of running to the week. Instead of running three days a week like you did during Couch to 5k, start running four. Once that starts to feel comfortable, add in day five. Eventually, you can even work up to six days a week.
Another extremely common way to increase your running is to add in a long day. Like the name says, this is just a day when you run a longer distance than normal. You can gradually increase the distance of your long day week by week.
As you’re adding days to your running schedule and increasing your long day mileage, make sure not to add too much too quickly. Most runners follow the “10% rule” by not increasing their total mileage more than 10% per week.
In addition to improving the amount that you run, you can also start improving the quality of your runs. Around 80% of your runs should be normal, easy runs, but you can start using the other 20% to add in various speed exercises.
A word of warning though: increasing your mileage should normally come first. Wait until you have an established running base, then start adding speed. When you first start adding speed work, it should be even less than 20% of your overall mileage, and slowly build up.
Interval training is one common type of speed work. Intervals are short, high intensity repetitions that can do wonders for your overall speed.
Another popular speed work option is the tempo run. Tempo runs are ran a little slower than your 5k pace and last for about 20 minutes. (Plus a warm up and cool down.)
Fartleks and hill sprints are two other interesting speed work variations to try out.
Trying out different types of speed work is a fun way to add variety to your running routine, and it will also help make you a lot faster.
There’s always another goal that you can reach, so even after finishing Couch to 5k, there’s no reason to feel aimless. I’d recommend deciding what you like best about running, and using that to choose your next goal.
Do you love the speed of sprinting past everyone else on the trail? Then work on improving your 5k time. Do you love getting a break from your daily stresses? Then make the break even longer by increasing your mileage.
Finishing Couch to 5k isn’t the end of your running journey — it’s the beginning.