Couch to 5k Review

Dec 06 2009

So a few weeks ago I finished the Couch to 5k program, commonly known as “C25K”. I’ve continued to run since then, meaning I’ve been running for about 3 months straight now, and have been reading running mags, running books, and lots of running articles on the net, and I like to think I’m not quite the noob I started out as last August. With this knowledge, I can look back at C25K and evaluate it a bit more than I could have in the beginning or middle of it.

First of all, let me say that it’s a fantastic program for what it intends to do. If you are, like I was, living a pretty sedentary life (“on the couch”, so to speak), I’m not sure there’s any better way to get up and running.

For one, C25K is so easy to get started with – pretty much anyone can run for 60 seconds at a stretch.

Second, it’s a relatively straightforward program. It’s a pretty nice gradient, increasing just a bit each week, nothing too complex in terms of routines – run and walk. And it’s not too long – once you get a little ways into it, the end is not too far out of site. When you are beginning, it’s very helpful to have that kind of disciplined routine. Without a strict schedule, it’s easy to skip days, and before you know it skip weeks. I also know that without the program, I would have started out way too hard and fast and burned out immediately.

Third, it’s gained enough popularity that there are all kinds of forums, mailing lists, Facebook groups, iPhone and other device apps, logs, t-shirts, blogs, etc. devoted to it. I know 4-5 people on my twitter follow list who are or were at various stages of the program. So you’ll be able to find all the technical and moral support you need.

My only criticism of the Couch to 5k program is the “5k” part. Really, it’s a couch to 30-minutes-of-running program. In fact, from week 3 onward, the program mixes times of running with distances:

Jog 3/4 mile (or 8 minutes)
Walk 1/2 mile (or 5 minutes)
Jog 3/4 mile (or 8 minutes)

The final week has you jogging “3 miles (or 30 minutes)”.

This is a fatal flaw in the program, and a reason I think many people don’t finish it. The program should be either in terms of time or in terms of distance. Using both time and distance automatically hooks you in to a specific pace. It’s simple physics. 3 miles in 30 minutes is a 10-minute-per-mile pace, which is pretty damn good for someone who just got off the couch 9 weeks ago. I actually managed to do it, but I realize now that I was pushing myself a lot harder than I really should have been. I am sure that others doing the program are even much more out of shape than I was to begin with, and implying that they should be running that pace is just setting them up to feel like they’ve failed.

Now, you could say that it doesn’t specifically say to do 3 miles in 30 minutes, it’s giving you a choice. 3 miles OR 30 minutes. But which should you do? There, the miles are emphasized due to the face that the time is in parentheses. But in earlier weeks, the time is emphasized with the distance in parentheses. I know that personally, if I wasn’t doing the mileage specified in the time specified, I felt like I wasn’t going fast enough, and pushed myself harder. At any rate, the name of the program implies that you should be running 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles at the end of the program. At 30 minutes, that’s even faster than a 10-minute pace.

This all came to light after I finished the program and as a prize went out and bought a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch with a heart rate monitor. After figuring out my max heart rate and heart rate zones and doing the first couple of runs at my usual pace, I discovered that I was constantly in zone 5, i.e. 90-100% of my max! While running at such intensity has its place in training programs, it’s definitely not what a beginning runner should be doing for the full time of every single run. Furthermore, various studies show that there are different benefits to running in different zones. Of course, running harder means you will burn more calories overall. But running in lower zones, you burn a higher percentage of calories from fat. And I assume that a good number of people starting C25K have losing weight in mind as one of the primary goals.

In short, C25K is a great program, but as laid out, a bit confusing or misleading. My suggestion is to stick to the mileage or stick to the times, and ignore the other. I suggest go with the time as that’s easier to measure. Just wear a watch.

If you are counting time, ignore the distance. If you run 30 minutes without a break and you only cover 2 miles instead of 3, congratulations! Don’t feel like you wimped out. You just ran 30 straight minutes!!! Could you do that 9 weeks ago? If you are doing this program, I can pretty much guarantee you couldn’t. So rejoice in the fact that you are in far better shape than you were. And keep going.

Likewise, if you are counting distance, ignore the time. You ran 3 miles. That’s fantastic. I bet most of your friends can’t do that. So what if it took you 45 minutes instead of 30. Check out the results for a local 5k (3.1 mile) race. I bet you wouldn’t have been in last place, would you?

In fact, from the race results I’ve looked at, if you ran a 5k in under 30 minutes, there’s a good chance you’d finish in the top 50%, which is pretty damn ambitious for someone who has only been running for 9 weeks!

So how fast should you be running? Well I’ll leave the technical details of that to your mad Googling skillz. But I’ll say this: if you are really struggling with any part of C25K, or you are thinking of giving it up because it’s too hard, you are absolutely going way too fast.

If you are serious about continuing to run, I highly recommend getting a heart rate monitor. I absolutely love my Garmin Forerunner 305. You can pick it up most places for well under $200. I’ve even seen it as low as $149. It has more functions than you’ll ever user or likely even understand. It’s totally changed the way I run. You can also get devices more dedicated to just monitoring heart rate and at even lower cost. Polar is a well respected brand. Do yourself a favor and make sure you get one with a wireless chest strap though. The monitor straps around your chest and sends signals to the watch. This gives you a constant and pretty accurate readout of your heart rate. Better and more accurate than the ones without a monitor that require you to press some buttons and hold them for a few seconds to determine your heart rate. The chest strap seemed like it would be annoying and dorky at first, but once you are running, you really don’t notice it at all.

Once you have it working, do some research (beyond the device manual) on max heart rate and heart rate zones, and figure out what range you should be in. Try to stick to it. I guarantee that you will feel like you are going too slow. It’s actually going to be frustrating to run that slow at first. But if you do the research and understand why you are going that speed, know the benefits, and start feeling them, you will be sold.

6 responses so far

  • Richard says:

    Very interesting to hear your thoughts on heart-rate after getting a Garmin. I had a similar experience when I got one, totally recommend it. I was getting caught up in always running at a “race pace” 90%+, and for someone running for exercise not competition, that’s not very useful at all! (Anaerobic vs aerobic benefits.)

    I’m not sure if the book you’re buying has anything on Fartlek (305 has this mode), but that’s a really rapid way to get a lot faster without killing yourself the entire time, and adds some nice variation.

    I’d also recommend the Trailrunner app if you’re on a Mac, works with your Garmin Training Center app to show routes on actual maps (the Mac Garmin app doesn’t seem to have any decent mapping). Being a geek, this combination of GPS, heart-rate and mapping really pushed me to run farther.

    • admin says:

      Yeah, the Garmin desktop app is pretty bare bones. I’m using the connect.garmin.com web app which is pretty nice. But I’ll check out Trailrunner.

  • Emma says:

    That is awesome to read thanks. I’m in week 3 and I’m going at the approximate speed of a snail. Its the only way I can get through the program, because if I go any faster I just can’t run towards the end of the workout. But I know I’m working hard, and I’m also improving. I’m not measuring distance at all, and I don’t care how far I’m going. Running 30 mins non-stop would be a major achievement, and its all I’m aiming for. Thanks again for that.

  • Renee says:

    Thanks for your review! I just did W1D1 last night and it felt great (I am 9 weeks post partum from child #3 – 3 kids under 4 years old… needless to say I have not done much in the form of exercise in quite a while!). I used to run in MS and HS, but developed some back issues playing soccer in college so I stopped and have had a hard time getting started again. The more research I do on C25K I realize a lot of it was b/c I was pushing myself waaaaaayyyy too hard in the beginning and in turn was totally miserable and had no desire to do it again. I actually enjoyed running for the first time in a LONG time. I am focusing on time since distance would be hard to measure and found a couple podcasts that make it easy… just hit play and go! (they tell you when to walk and when to run). I did do some route measurements using Google Earth and have an end goal marked (just under 3.5 miles), but I’m not going to push myself to get that far in 9 weeks. I set my watch to let me know when I was halfway through the podcast so I had a general idea when to turn around… I figure that way should help me gauge my speed/distance since in theory I should make it further before having to turn around the faster I go.

    • keith says:

      I’m glad it’s working out for you. Good call on time over distance. My longest run on C25K was 3.8 miles, but that included the 5 minute warmup and cooldown walks. So closer to 3 miles of just running. Good luck!

  • Chris says:

    I’m not convinced by your claim that a 10 minute mile is anything difficult or even average: I was running a mile in about 8 and a half minutes when I was a 12 year old, someone fat/out-of-shape, child. Even if I am more out of shape then I was then (and I probably am) I’m also much taller and stronger. It’s a very reasonable program: it’s not “c25k in 9 weeks”, it’s just “c25k”, the point being that you should gradually increase you speed over a period of many weeks. If you follow the time-based program and find out by the end that you aren’t quite making 3 miles in 30 minutes, then just slowly push yourself more the next week! It’s not meant to be a rigid system that ends after week 9.

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