Couch to 5K Founder Reveals Tips for Running Beginners | Health
Josh Clark’s journey to becoming a lifelong runner began with a painful breakup in 1994. To help himself recover, the then 23-year-old public television producer started running, an activity he hated. “There was probably a bit of self-punishment to that,” said Clark, founder of Big Medium, a digital agency and design studio.
Indeed, his first weeks of pounding the pavement were difficult and decidedly unpleasant. His body ached. But something surprising happened: Clark began to love running. His runs had become easier and more calming, and he liked the feel of his body moving. So when Clark’s mom was looking for a fitness routine a year later, Clark immediately suggested running, with the zeal of new converts.
There was only one problem. He knew how nerve-wracking his first weeks of racing had been, and he didn’t want her mother to go through this. So Clark devised a nine-week exercise plan that combined walking and running to help him train, dubbing his plan the Couch to 5K program.
Twenty-five years later, this program is considered one of the most popular exercise programs in the world. Now dubbed C25K, it’s even approved as a formal exercise plan by the National Health Service of the United Kingdom. CNN Wellness spoke to Clark to find out why his plan is so effective in helping countless newbies get into the habit of running.
Important note: Before starting any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you feel pain.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: A lot of people have a hard time starting to run. Why do you think this is?
Josh Clark: Almost always we start by going too fast or too far. Giving yourself permission to be gentle with yourself and gently adapting to this new running routine is the key to success.
CNN: What was your main goal when making Couch to 5K for your mom?
Clark: I did not come to this running program with a “no pain, no gain” approach. I wrote it with the love of a son for his mother. I wanted it to be a good experience for her. I didn’t want her to get hurt. I wanted her to succeed; I didn’t want her to experience early defeats. And so I wrote a program that was smooth and sweet, and that – I thought – could make him run a 5K over the course of nine weeks. And she did!
CNN: Did you base this program on scientific research or did you think of it yourself?
Clark: I wish I could say I got to this with any kind of science or physiology background, but I didn’t. It was just that instinct of “How can mom literally go from a couch to 5K?” What can I imagine her doing? It turns out, in retrospect, that I was intuitively using much of the now well-established principles of physiology and fitness regarding physical effort and rest.
CNN: Your plan begins with alternating a minute of running with a minute and a half of walking for a total of 20 minutes. Then it builds from there. Why does it work so well?
Clark: C25K is really accessible to people. You only have to run for a few seconds at a time, then you can walk. This gives you time to get used to it. For many of us, walking 20 minutes is quite doable and accessible. Or even walk for 5 km. But for almost everyone, trying to run that distance right away is going to be horrible. So why not combine the two and gradually switch from walking to running?
CNN: What is the most important rule in your program?
Clark: Don’t take yourself too seriously. We set ourselves this metric to know what success looks like, what to be fit and what a runner is. And if we don’t reach that metric, we fail. It’s an almost self-punishing aspect of fitness. So be kind to yourself as you develop this new habit. This program is a guideline, it is not a strict set of rules. You can skip a week and try again the following week. It’s good to take a day off. Listen to what your body wants, because “no pain, no gain” is not a good motto for newbies in fitness.
CNN: What do you think is the secret to the lasting popularity of C25K?
Clark: C25K is very portable in the world of social media. Its popularity really accelerated when people started sharing their plans and experiences on Facebook. The other aspect is that it is achievable. You can do this the first week. It can be difficult, but you can do it. You have early wins instead of losses. By luck or intuition, I got the right levels to make it a difficult shot, but not an impossible one. It’s satisfying because it stretches you.
CNN: A lot of people have told you over the years that this program has changed their lives. Is the C25K really about running, or is it something more?
Clark: Granted, this causes your body and brain to run a 5K. It also opens up a world of activity and fitness that many people thought was not for them. More broadly, it changes what people expect of themselves. I hear time and time again not “I ran my first 5 km”, but “I had the confidence to apply for a new job”, or “I asked my partner to marry me. Or “I did this thing that I was afraid to do because now I have this new confidence.”
It thrills me to talk about it, because this program fundamentally changes the way people see themselves and their potential. It is mind boggling. And without a doubt, making Couch to 5K will turn out to be the most meaningful thing I have done in my life.
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Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer specializing in hiking, travel and fitness.