Ready, Set, Stop! Things you should know before starting ‘Couch to 5k’

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I’m assuming more than one person has recommended “Couch to 5K” to you in the past few months, which seems to have surged in popularity lately. Said referrers are undoubtedly enraptured by this new craze and you’re tempted to see what it’s all about. However, as with all these health fads, such as the infamous Keto diet, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and not for everyone. Below I break down the things you should be aware of before downloading the app. Just to offset some of the pessimistic odour in the air, I did complete the Couch to 5K app myself, for my own reasons, and I enjoyed it. I also cover some of the reasons why you should do it too.

Reasons you shouldn’t do it

Because you’re trying to lose weight

The desire to be in shape is one of the prime reasons people start exercise. Hell, I am guilty of undeservedly wanting a body like Zac Efron, sue me. For most, this means losing fat. Let me be clear on this, running is one of the worst forms of exercise for fat loss. Despite this, lots of people who set this goal lace up their running shoes and pound the pavements. Let’s take a look at why that’s a bad plan.

Firstly, physical activity only accounts for about 10–30% of your total energy expenditure, which includes all your basic moving around, such as shuffling to the kitchen, so obviously exercise is only a subset of that. If we’re being real, you need to be working out like a pro athlete to get above 30%… and you don’t even take the stairs at the office. For a 30-minute jog we’re talking <5% of your total expenditure, easy. Your metabolism, however, is responsible for 60–80%. Your metabolism is how much energy your body burns off maintaining itself ‘at rest’ a.k.a sitting on your fine ass doing sweet fuck all. Scientists refer to how many calories your metabolism burns off as basal metabolic rate (BMR) or resting metabolic rate (RMR). Lean muscle mass is responsible for a significant portion of your BMR.

Total Energy Expenditure in Humans by Cameron Readman
Total Energy Expenditure in Humans by Cameron Readman
Graph showing approximate values for total energy expenditure

Therefore, (and simplifying a little) increasing your muscle mass increases the calories burned off by your metabolism. Resistance training is a great way to increase your muscle mass, by doing so you increase the calories you burn just sitting down, being your usual awesome self. Furthermore, hitting the weights room (or doing High Intensity Intervals) also results in a much greater ‘afterburn effect’, or EPOC recovery, once your session is done. This means you use yet more calories to replenish your energy stores immediately after you finish working out.

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Pick up a Barbell. Credit: Pixabay

Conversely, running or steady-state-cardio has been shown to do the opposite and slow your metabolic rate and has a smaller ‘afterburn effect’. Translation; if your aim is to lose weight don’t hit the pavements, hit the weights room or do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIITs). Of course, a healthy diet is important too, it doesn’t matter how many squats you do if you reward yourself with a whole dozen box of Krispy Kremes after each session.

Because you’re trying to improve your cardio fitness

Running is cardio, ipso facto doing it is the best way to improve cardio fitness right? Well, not necessarily. Studies show that resistance training and HIITs are just as effective, if not better, at improving your cardiovascular fitness as steady state exercises. This is good news, doing HIITs can shorten your workout time drastically. Instead of an hour of running, you can get a similar effect by doing 20 minutes of sprints. If ‘not having enough time’ is one of your excuses for not exercising, give HIITs a go. There’s even some evidence to suggest HIITs is just as effective as steady-state for half-marathon training too.

Because it’s highly likely you’ll get injured

A review of different studies showed that up to 79% of runners are side-lined with an injury within the course of training. Not only does this suck for obvious reasons, if you’re trying to lose weight or improve your cardio fitness, becoming hobbled with a poorly ankle is hardly helpful in those endeavours. You’d think with Couch to 5k being a very light program for beginner runners, that reduces risk of injury? Alas, more bad news. Not only are beginners at risk because of body imbalances and poor technique, it seems even light training can put you at risk. 25% of novice and recreational runners in this study were injured over an 8-week period training for a recreational 4mi (just over 5km) event.

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An injury can take you out of the game

Reasons you should do it

Okay, so I’ve just spent 1,000 words slagging off Couch to 5k, how am I going to get myself out of this one?

Because you want to get good at running

Yup, seems obvious don’t it, but this is the main reason for embarking on my own Couch to 5k journey. The explanations for why I couldn’t run are complex and I won’t bore you with the details, but partly it’s because I work a lot and sitting for extended periods is not good for the ole ligaments. But why get good at running? Personally, I like to be safe in the knowledge that I could outrun the zombie horde. (Although, I’d still be screwed were they to turn out to be the 28-days later kind.) While this might seem somewhat irrational and running generally has little prevalence with our day-to-day lives, there’s still a benefit to being able to run further than the end of your driveway. It’s good to know you have the ability to run in your back pocket, whether it be running between ill-timed transfer flights, being called up to a company sports team/charity event or a bigger emergency. It opens doors to new opportunities and friendships you might not’ve even seen before. Don’t underestimate having a basic ability to run (especially come the apocalypse).

Because it builds healthy habits

I spoke in my last article about the importance of habit. Couch to 5k is great at this and is clearly built on a foundation of habit forming. The first few weeks are nice and easy for this reason. The standard advice for years has been to exercise at least three times a week. The NHS has revised this to at least 150 minutes of ‘moderate activity’ per week, but they’re basically saying bicep curling pints on a Friday does not count as one of your three workouts. According to YouGov, 51% of Brits do not exercise 3 times a week, and 27% do nothing at all! This is obviously not good for a nation obsessed with Greggs, pork pies and the chippy.

Getting into the habit of running three times the week can definitely be the start of something bigger for most. Egging you on to run three times a week, for 9 weeks will greatly increase the likelihood that once the programme is complete you will continue to exercise. Perhaps, if ‘motivation’ is your crux, forming these healthy habits by using this app, and sharing your progress with friends will help you stick to a longer-term, healthier exercise routine. It may also give you the basic level of fitness you needed to join that local tennis club you always wanted to or feel more confident to give water aerobics a go.

Because any exercise has health benefits

Alright, we’ve decided it might not be the most effective form of exercise for most people’s goals, but still, any exercise is better than zero. There has been for a long-time overwhelming evidence that we should all be physically active. It is medically proven that exercise reduces risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, some types of cancer, early death, dementia and depression. They are all significant, yet most won’t make an appearance in your life until it’s too late. Flip that, and not doing exercise is increasing your chances by a huge margin. The threat of that list happening to you, far younger than it ought to, should scare you shitless and is all the more reason to get to it.

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This very good boy knows running is good for him! (Pixabay)

Of course, there is one entry in that list that is likely to affect your life right now. Depression and mental health. I have been consistently working out an average of 5–6 times week this 2020 (built on habits I formed in 2019), be it on the track, the weights bench or in the pool. I can honestly say I am the happiest, least anger prone and least anxious I have ever been in my life. I get it, I’ve been there, it can be ridiculously hard if you’re already depressed to do anything at all. Simple tasks like getting out of bed is a personal Helm’s Deep. Exercise isn’t a cure all and isn’t easy. Having said that, I firmly believe doing what it takes to be physically active is one of the best things you can do for yourself (or others) and so does science. ‘Doing what it takes’ might include extra measures, such as teaming up with a friend, posting everything online to pressure yourself or inventing a machine that kicks you in the balls every time you skip a run. Couch to 5k is a nice simple program, that is well known and will work splendidly with any of those tactics. Whatever your poison, just get out and do it. Once you form the habit, it’ll get easier too. Treat yourself to regular exercise, your head, heart and body with thank you.

To Run or Not to Run, That is the Question

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Snapshot on my final Couch to 5k run

The answer lies in the reasons why you’re downloading that Couch to 5k app. Are you trying to lose fat? Then consider weights or HIITs, you’ll find it easier to hit your goals (‘losing weight’ is not always a useful term and neither are your scales). If you don’t know what you’re doing YouTube has a smorgasbord of videos to help you. Alternatively, you can hire a personal trainer, especially when it comes to perfecting correct form for weights training and building confidence in that intimidating weights area of the gym. Plus, once they’ve taught you, you can totes ditch ‘em.

However, if you’ve struggled to stick to any programme for more than a couple of weeks, struggle with exercise or simply want to get better at running then definitely give it a crack! I have armed you now with the basic knowledge you need to make your decision. I did it and I loved it. Especially the robotic voice of Michael Johnson feeding me little nuggets of encouragement and telling me I was doing a great job. If Michael Johnson doesn’t put rum in your punch, there’s also Sarah Milligan, Jo Whiley and Sanjeev Kohli to choose from.

In the end, Couch to 5k is a well-made app based on solid principles that I felt accomplished completing week after week. It’s not the app that’s the problem, it’s the running. Perhaps in future the NHS will release a “couch to powerlifter” or “couch to golf pro”, until then I think we’ll continue to see running as an undeservedly popular way of getting fit.

Did this article resonate with you? Or perhaps I should stop writing immediately and go to hell! Either way, let me know! Be sure to give this article plenty of claps if you enjoyed it or get in touch with me via the contact form on my website.

This article was written by Cameron Readman. If you’d like to know more or receive notifications for future articles, please head over to the Website and subscribe at the bottom of the page!

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