Couch to 5K: What You Need to Know
Feeling more like a couch potato than a cardio bunny? That’s okay, I’m not huge on cardio either, but I know how important it is to a well-rounded routine, and Couch to 5K is a perfect beginning plan to help you learn to run.
Committing to the Couch to 5K plan is something that you can easily achieve with the right attitude, training, and knowledge which is exactly why you are reading this right now. Starting with small steps, you’ll see how you can go from couch potato to mini-marathoner in a short while.
What is Couch to 5K?
Couch to 5K, C25K, however, you want to say it is the brainchild of Josh Clark from CoolRunning and has been adopted, molded, and used by plenty of fitness enthusiasts and cardio freaks for years and years.
It’s one of the most popular cardio plans, nay, workout plans in general, because of the fact that it’s geared toward beginners and has a simple approach.
What’s also important to note on why Couch to 5K is so popular is that it:
- Is free
Two of the best things to hear when it comes to fitness! Although, it only works if you put in the time and effort to learn to run properly, understand the importance of cardio, and commit to the Couch to 5K plan.
In case you were wondering, 5K is 5 kilometers or 5000 meters or 3.1 miles.
How it works, in the simplest of terms (we’ll get into the actual plan in just a bit!) is that it utilizes interval training, which is a form of workout that makes use of short bursts of activity, followed by rest periods, and so on and so forth.
A similar pattern applies in cardio, especially running, which causes the heart, lungs, and muscles of the body to various levels of activity and develop stronger. This ramps up more and more as the Couch to 5K plan continues.
How Long Does Couch to 5K Take?
A very fine question indeed is, “how long does Couch to 5K take?” There are varying degrees of length that the plan lasts depending on which program you consult, but for our purposes, we’ll be purists and use the original from Josh Clark.
The original Couch to 5K lasts 9 weeks, so just over 2 months. That’s not a lot of time for a fitness program which is why so many people love it. It won’t consume your entire life and it’s easily digestible making it great for beginners in particular.
Of course, there are other alternative Couch to 5K plans that last anywhere from 6 weeks to 12 weeks, but we’re sticking to programs that are around that same time (the original is hard to find since CoolRunning said goodbye).
Keeping that in mind, we’ll get into what to do after the plan is all wrapped up and you’re left wondering “what next?”
Fitness goals aren’t a start-and-stop hobby to pick up and then put down, you need to keep up with them, but for now, just know that Couch to 5K does not take very long to complete!
How Does Couch to 5K Work?
We already talked about what Couch to 5K is and you now know that it is interval training, but we’ll get into the real nitty-gritty and show you what the program looks like.
Here’s a handy infographic that outlines the full plan of an 8-week, 9-week and 10-week Couch to 5K program look like:
Here’s an 8-week plan:
A 9-week plan:
And a 10-week plan:
Just by looking at these tables, you can see how forgiving it is for even the least cardio-inclined folks.
The whole point is to get you building up your stamina and strength in short bursts over time, while still providing you plenty of rest days to recover.
Alternatively, you can download the official Couch to 5K app online or find any number of PDF versions of alternate versions of the program.
I’m a big fan of this site which has an impressive selection of resources regarding Couch to 5K (like a treadmill version of the plan!) and other cardio-related information that’s just handy to know, you know?
Couch to 5K Books
For all the old-fashioned fitness enthusiasts out there, you can indulge in some reading material on Couch to 5K with books (both paperback or on Kindle).
Here are some of the top choices available on Amazon:
Remember that Couch to 5K is just a general training philosophy for learning to run. While there are some "official" C25K sources, the idea is nearly the same across the board - getting you from little to no cardio, up to running 5k.
Those books are just a small sample of the many cardio-focused fitness books to help bolster your knowledge of exercise, body mechanics, and impress your friends with your book shelf.
Tips for Getting Started With C25K
Start Right Away
Putting off your workout goals until tomorrow eventually snowballs into, “I’ll do it next week/month/year…” until you aren’t committed to a solid routine at all.
There may be some obstacles to get over, which is why you’ll want to pay attention to the next two sections of this post, but in a general sense, the quicker you start, the faster you’ll reach your goals.
Recruit a Friend
Maybe you’re shy to hit the trails by yourself or maybe you need encouragement, whatever it is, recruiting a friend can help.
This happens a lot to people when they go to the gym for the first time, and it happens in running too. Having a friend join your Couch to 5K journey provides good motivation, good morale support, and you have someone to compare progress with.
Not to mention, you’ll be the superhero friend that helped a pal get in shape with you.
Find a Couch to 5K or Running Group Near You
If you want to keep your running solo for a bit, that’s perfectly fine, but consider looking for a local Couch to 5K or running group in your area.
Running groups will often have an assortment of cardio fanatics, cardio beginners, and people in-between so it’s an awesome way to get tips, learn some technique, and join a social fitness group with similar goals.
Is it a Good Plan for Beginners?
Another excellent question yet again about Couch to 5K (or any fitness plan) is whether it’s good for beginners.
As far as beginner cardio plans go, it’s easily one of the smartest and safest options. Looking at how the programs are broken down, it’s not throwing any curveballs at you.
Intensity levels of Couch to 5K don’t pick up until week 5 when you’ll be doing a jog that’s double-digits in time span, so you have plenty of time to adjust whatever it is you need to adjust (for me, it was always shin splints).
I can’t give a definitive answer because the plan varies from person to person and for a whole heck of a lot of other variables, but it’s safe to say that for many, it’s a perfect introduction to cardio.
Am I Fit Enough to Run the Couch to 5K?
Piggybacking off of the previous section is whether or not you’re fit enough to run Couch to 5K.
Might seem like a silly question given that it’s a beginner cardio program aimed toward getting you fit, but it’s actually a deep ask.
You don't need to be fit to start changing your lifestyle, to start lifting, to start running, or start on a healthy diet, but you do need to understand any possible limitations or pre-existing issues.
Some things that may come up are, have you ever played sports? Do you have any previous injuries or medical conditions? What’s your lifestyle like? You're going to need to ask yourself these questions before you get started.
It is on the onset a great plan for even those that might not consider themselves fit, but consider what limitations you might have, like if you are or were a smoker, if you are overweight, or if you’ve had absolute 0 experience running before.
None of this is meant to shame or make you doubt doing it, just to help you consider how you can adapt the plan to work for you personally.
Other adjustments to this cardio program that are encouraged:
For those that are overweight or feel they need a little activity before taking on running, consider making a walking/power walking Couch to 5K plan to help you prepare. You should also use this simple beginner bodyweight routine to help get ready.
By adding a simple bodyweight routine you:
As great as the plan is for getting fitter and helping beginners, making adjustments before committing to it can prevent injuries - or worse.
Can I Lose Weight With Couch to 5K?
Make this a three-parter of a question as this relates to the previous two already.
An age-old question that comes with the territory whenever you talk about a fitness plan or a program is whether or not you can lose weight with it. So, can you lose weight with Couch to 5K? Sure! But that’s not the entirety of it.
Yes, running and cardio in general like cycling, rowing, and especially swimming, are great for losing weight, but only if you make the appropriate lifestyle changes to complement them.
Abs aren’t made in the gym, they’re made in the kitchen,” is something you’ve probably heard, and it’s true because it all comes down to a calorie deficit in the end.
Sure, you can run enough to burn more calories than you eat, but that can be dangerous and also very, very difficult. Besides, you might still be putting high sodium, high saturated fat food into you which is unhealthy regardless of how many of those calories you burn.
Additionally, you can't expect to perform properly without the right kind of sports hydration, so that doesn't just mean water, it means you need electrolytes from sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, etc. to keep on trucking - or running.
With all that being said, Couch to 5K is an excellent addition to a full-lifestyle change that is geared toward losing weight. The reason why losing weight is important directly to this cardio plan are:
Making adjustments that swap out bad foods for good foods, committing to an overall diet of better food choices, and tracking your food to help you manage healthy habits contribute to the goal of losing weight to be healthier, not simply to see the numbers on a scale drop.
Mistakes to Avoid with Couch to 5K
We all make mistakes. During my first time in the gym, I probably spent more time walking around in bewilderment at what every machine and station did than actually working out.
Fast forward to now, and I can probably walk around a gym blindfolded and know what everything does! Although I might end up making the mistake of walking into a squat rack…
Anyways, there are going to be mistakes that are made while starting Couch to 5K, and that’s okay! It’s part of the process, but there are plenty you are going to want to avoid.
Here are a few of the glaring mistakes to avoid when deciding to start your Couch to 5K journey:
#1. Not Fixing Your Diet
I cannot stress it enough, which is why I’m saying it again, that you need to also fix your diet (and lifestyle choices) if you want to make real, serious change with Couch to 5K.
You shouldn’t just do Couch to 5K to lose weight, but even if that is the only goal, you have to make an effort to fix your diet to give your body a better chance to make progress and feel better.
#2. Running With Poor Form
“Running is just running,” wrong. While the actually act of running is pretty straight-forward - one foot in front of the other at a faster-than-walking-pace - there’s actually more to running with form than you would like to believe.
Before I mention this I should say I’m by no means an expert in running, it’s not even my favorite form of cardio, but just like squats, rowing, or bench press, there are plenty of tips on form you should know.
Most of it comes down to how you position your body, and it happens to be each part of your body playing an integral role to your success flying across the blacktop. Some of the tips from Runners World can give you an idea of what to do.
Keep reading and I’ll get more in depth about this in the next section!
#3. Using the Wrong Gear
Just like the gym, you don’t need to be decked out head to toe in fancy, expensive, and flashy name brand fitness wear to get a good workout.
Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t, but there are some pieces of fitness gear that will make a difference, same applies for running too.
Don’t worry, you won’t be asked to run in a powerlifting belt (although knee sleeves can help some people), but the right shoes can make a difference.
Active.com has a great article about the keys to looking for a running shoe, and offers some advantages that running shoes offer:
Running shoes are just one part of the puzzle, and you can start out with shoes that offer some of the advantages before you commit to a new pair. It’s also advised not to start running right away in brand new shoes unless you’re a glutton for punishment and want blisters and sore feet.
As for other clothing, shorts or track/running pants work well as long as they feel comfortable on you while moving. Try to avoid thicker material to keep yourself cool. That also applies to shirts or tops.
Sweat-wicking, light material is generally better for the same reason, as are lighter colors that don’t absorb heat if you’re running during the day.
Ultimately, pick what you feel most comfortable in and helps you perform best!
#4. Not Stretching Before AND After
Too many times I’ve had to recommend people stretch both before AND after they workout, let alone run.
When you stretch, generally you want a good mix of dynamic and static stretching, leaning more towards dynamic. Dynamic stretches are ones where your body is moving (ex. Jogging in place) while static means you remain stationary (ex. toe-touches).
I'd also personally recommend learning how to use a foam roller to help aide in recovery. It's one of my favorite pieces of workout equipment so you should get one as soon as possible!
Both types of stretching offer benefits depending on what muscle group you’re trying to stretch and Livestrong has a great article that includes a good mix of both, while this article from Insider also contains some excellent stretches to do before and after.
Trying yoga for stretching is a great way to keep the body loose too!
Your body needs to be warmed up and loose pre-run, and stretching the muscles after you finish a workout keeps them from tightening or contracting without providing them some useful support.
#5. Having No Plan After Couch to 5K (MAJOR MISTAKE ALERT!)
Is this dramatic? Yes. Is it necessary? Also yes.
Maybe one of the more unforgivable mistakes you can make with your Couch to 5K plan is not having a plan once you’re done! I have a lot to say about this one, but like I said about poor form, I’ve saved the bulk of this info for a section we’ll touch on soon.
How to Avoid Injuries While Running
So, you want to run but you’re worried about getting hurt? Great, because it happens more often than you’d like to believe.
Running, like any other form of exercise or activity, has plenty of ways you can get hurt and plenty of ways to avoid that pain and injury. If you are experiencing some pain or trying to recover from injuries, I’d recommend checking out Knees Over Toes to supplement Couch to 5K with.
As I’ve already said, I’m not expert when it comes to running and running form, but luckily the internet is a wonderful place to find resources on the technique and form you need to succeed, but I’ll summarize as best I can:
Eyes Up, Chin Down
Sounds kind of counterintuitive, right? Oddly enough, it’s the opposite. Many runners feel the desire to look down or let their head dangle, and often overcompensate by straining the neck forward.
This can restrict breathing, strain neck muscles, and shift center of gravity/mass and potentially lead to over striding.
Try to look about 10-20 feet ahead of you while you run, like you would while driving.
Shoulders Down and Back
Running causes a stress reaction in the body, which usually results in tightening of muscles like the shoulders and back.
Keeping your shoulders down, back and loose does two things:
Swing Arms Forward and Back
You may not notice it, but your arms are likely swinging side to side, rather than forward and back.
Again, it’s hard to notice these little things, but once you do, you can really improve your running ability.
When you swing arms forward and back, with elbows tucked to your sides, you’re allowing energy of motion to help propel forward, rather than losing it up and down on your sides.
Relax the Hands
Just like your arms, shoulders, and back, the stress reaction of the body while running usually makes you tighten your grip or ball your hands into fists.
You want to be doing the opposite of that by relaxing your hands and keeping them nice and loose. The above mentioned article gives a good tip about visualizing you’re holding a piece of paper in each hand and you’re trying not to scrunch it!
Straighten Your Spine and Tighten the Core
Much like you do with your shoulders and back, hunching restricts breathing and keeps you from having a strong, tight core as your base of power.
A lot of beginner runners think all your running power comes from your legs and hips, but much of it comes from the spine and core.
Making your spine tall by straightening your back out allows yourself to tighten the core and helps your breathing too.
#6. Lean Hips Forward
Leaning or hinging your hips forward is not the same as trying to fall over yourself while running, but you should feel a bit of lean, while keeping your spine straight and shoulders relaxed.
After all, the hip flexors are a major portion of any lower body workout.
It all sounds very complicated to do at once, but it’s actually pretty easy!
How it helps is by preventing your legs from doing all the heavy lifting, err - running, and activates your hips and glutes more.
#7. Bend Your Knees
Keeping your feet and legs closer to the ground, and your knees, helps conserve energy.
If you’ve ever seen marathon runners or long distance runners in competition or the Olympics, you’ll notice they aren’t swinging their knees and legs up much, and even for Couch to 5K, you want to emulating that style.
Making a slight bend to your knees keeps your legs closer to the ground, allowing for more energy output.
#8. Keep Your Legs Underneath the Body
In a very similar manner to the previous form tip, you don’t want to be using unnecessary energy.
This can happen when you overstride, or try to kcik your legs out too far ahead of your body. Keeping your shins perpendicular to the ground when your foot strikes helps conserve energy and prevents injuries related to the shock of your foot and legs on contact with the ground.
#9. Keep Strides Short
Speaking of overstriding!
Keeping your strides short and fast is much more conducive to preventing injuries and better running. This comes down to cadence (aka. Strides per minute).
Overstriding can cause you to come down with more impact on the heel, when generally you want to land on the mid-foot, thus preventing too much shock and helping prevent tiring the muscles.
So, now you have a pretty brief cursory glance on what it means to have proper running form. It sounds much more complicated than it actually is and it’s a good idea to record your running form (on a treadmill or have a running buddy record you) to see how you do!It’s not enough to just know what good form looks like, you should be aware of the signs of bad running form, so I’ll leave that helpful link for you to check out from the same people.
Additional Injury Prevention
Injuries can seriously derail your progress and your confidence.
It's happened to be more than once, where coming back from injury took more mental and physical toll than I expected.
Fortunately, if you're prepared, you can handle it like a champ.
Some of my favorite tools and resources for preventing cardio injuries include:
Knees Over Toes
If you haven't heard of Knees Over Toes, or Knees Over Toes Guy, then you're in luck because I've already written about it on the site!
Designed by Ben Patrick, Knees Over Toes is a rehabilitation and strengthening program to help with knees, but also helps target the lower back, heels, ankles, feet, and the lower body as a whole.
His routine stresses the use of backwards walking for mobility and building stronger joints and muscles that are often neglected. It's the perfect addition to your cardio fitness, and you can find plenty of information at our existing article and in his books
Both available on Amazon.
Foam rollers are a must-have for anyone - doesn't matter if you workout or not.
Easily one of the most crucial recovery accessories, foam rollers are amazing if you need to roll out your muscles and feel some much-needed relief.
What makes them so valuable for runners are the ability to properly treat your IT band, which is a long strip of muscle that runs down the side of your leg, which is a common runners injury.
They're also great for yoga enthusiasts and lifters of all skill-level too!
Often associated primarily with powerlifters and strongmen, you can take full-advantage of knee sleeves as well, and we have a handy best knee sleeves list to get you started.
Knee sleeves help compress your joints and provide support, so if you have weak knees, then they can prove to be very beneficial to avoiding pain during your runs.
The best part about this accessory is that you can wear them during your workday, or whenever you choose, so you can help provide support for your knees before and after you run if you don't like wearing them during your runs.
Maybe the foam roller isn't doing it for your muscle recovery and rehab needs.
In that case, you can look for a more heavy-duty option like a massage gun. Luckily, massage guns have become much more readily available, so you have plenty of choices when looking for one.
They're also cheaper now too, which is a bonus. Massage guns can provide that extra percussive relaxation to soothe even the gnarliest of cramps or kinks in your muscles.
Keeping one in my gym bag has done wonders for my overall recovery.
Much like knee sleeves, compression socks work to help support your ankles, calves, and feet.
These three parts of your lower body absorb so, so, so much force when you run that compression socks can do wonders for keeping everything nice and snug.
Similarly, compression socks are amazing for helping with circulation in your legs, which is why you've likely heard of friends or family wearing them on long plane rides.
You can wear these while running, or you can wear them in your day-to-day (absolutely recommend if you sit at a chair a lot for work!), but either way they're a cheap, yet helpful piece of support.
What Do I Do After Couch to 5K?
So, I told you this was one of the cardinal sins you can make when it comes to Couch to 5K and I’ll finally tell you why - complacency.
Complacency kills progress in the gym and for fitness goals. Couch to 5K is a great beginner program, not just running, but fitness, but it shouldn’t be your final goal.
Once you reach your goal of running 5K, walking 5K or a mix of both for 5K, you should keep aiming to improve. If you walked it, see if you can add more running, if you did a bit of both, try to aim for running the full thing.
If you completed Couch to 5K, then your next goal can be reducing your time, running 10K, whatever you want it to be. Hell, you might even train for a marathon if you want to keep up the progress.
Another thing to do after you’ve conquered this program is building a strength program to compliment it.
Luckily, we have a good list of strength training books to check out to help you, and some other resources about how to squat properly, first day at the gym tips, and many more for you to check out and continue your fitness journey!
Helpful Gear and Products for Running
As I said, gear does not make the runner, but it can help.
Should you be running in Olympic lift shoes? Probably not, but you also don’t need to run in expensive running shoes either. That being said, they will help and eventually you’ll want to upgrade.
Here is some of the best running gear to checkout:
Best Shoes (Men)
Best Shoes (Women)
Fitbit Versa 2
Garmin Forerunner 45
Fitbit Versa 3
BioSteel Sports Hydration Drink
Optimum Nutrition BCAA 1000
Beyond Raw Beta-Alanine
Wow, we’ve talked about a lot (well, I’ve talked, hopefully you’ve been listening and made it this far) today.
Couch to 5K is one of those amazing fitness programs that is geared toward getting someone with no athletic training, background, or desire into the rhythm and routine of making healthy, positive changes.
You have all of the ability in the world to make those changes too. You can either be a couch potato your whole life, or you can become a workout warrior with something as easy, fun and impactful as Couch to 5K.