Couch-to-5K: A guide to the first 5K Run

If it doesn’t challenge you it won’t change you

Fred DeVito

Photo by Daniel Reche on

Have you ever pondered, why the 5K run is called the “Fun Run”? When I began my journey, this was a question which I always felt wierd about. I would pant and faint before I would reach the 5K mark. Fun Run – Really? A 0-5K journey can really be fun if you decide to plan and structure it well.

In the last couple of years marathon running has become a craze in India. For almost 4-5 years now, I have been seeing social media handles of various family, friends, colleagues and acquantainces; carrying photos of running a marathon. Most, individuals begin their journey with a run of 3-5 kms. This would either be because they are representing their corporate setup or company, or seriously want to give it a try. But how many of us really sustain after the marathon or are able to run the next one?

Running a marathon is about testing your physical and mental fitness. But the problem is we do not concentrate on the fitness, but follow the glamour in it. It is important to have a proper training plan to run a marathon, so that you can really sustain your fitness levels. This post today is for those individuals who have identified running as a fitness companion in their journey and want to progress physically and mentally.

The “Couch to 5K” is a concept not really new to many. We must have seen and heard many fitness enthusiasts using this term. The crux really is “How to begin the long distance running journey”. How to push yourself out of the couch and run that 5K milestone. So today let us look at some tips on starting this journey.

Focus on the Pre- and Post-Run Routines

Warmup and Cool downs need to be an integral part of every workout. During the warmups focus on dynamic stretching and slow increase in Heart Rate. You can use exercises like walking lunges, butt kicks, high knees, high jumps, on-spot jumps, jumping jacks etc. Focus on streching and activating the hamstrings, legs and torso. These are the muscles that you need to be stronger while you run. Dynamic stretching helps improve flexibility and activates the muscles which helps prevent injuries. Post-Run, it is important to relax and recover your muscles and Heart Rate. Focus on stretching each of the muscles that you feel are tight. While stretching, dont just focus on the lower body but also stretch the core and the shoulders. We do not realise, but running is more or less a whole body exercise which overworks muscles and contracts them. Relaxing them via stretching also helps reduce injury and cramps.

An ideal warmup schedule for running should be something like Dynamic Stretching –> A brisk walk (5 mins at least) –> Slow transition to run with Run + Walk. This will gradually activate muscles and adjust the body temp and HR, thus making you ready to run. Similarly, an ideal cool down schedule should be Slow trainsition to Run + Walk –> A brisk walk (5 mins at least) –> Static Stretching. This will gradually relax and recover your muscles. Try to end with 1 minute of meditation as it will bring your HR to normal and you feel really fresh.

Start Slow. Dont Focus on Pace.

Our target is to run those 5 kms. But should you run those on day 1? No! An ideal training plan should be small intervals of run and more intervals of walking. Running puts a lot of stress on your body. So, there is a good chance that your body will give up too soon. Thus, you need to slowly train your body to manage this stress. Try running shorter intervals and walking more, and then slowly transitioning to larger time intervals of running. An ideal training plan would be, to not focus on distance but to focus on time. Something like a 10 min run, and then slowly progressing it to 20, 30, 40 mins. As a beginner, do not exceed 45 mins of running or walking.

The other biggest error that we make is focusing on the pace. We do not like the idea that a fellow runner or may be a walker crosses us while we run. Frankly, it hardly matters. It is important to run slow. How slow? As slow as you can have a conversation with another runner. If you are a solo runner, you should be able to sing if possible. That is the slowest pace. The focus should be on the breathing and not the pace. Breathe through the nose, and once in a while through the mouth is okay.

Starting Fast or running at a higher pace, tires the body fast. In this case the chances that you will be inconsistent with your runs is very high. Pains and Injury are highly demotivating and completely push you away from running. Slower start and lower pace, makes the runs more relaxed while helping your body adapt to the stress it will go through. This way you will enjoy the running journey.

Practice the Running Form Properly

The running form is unique for every individual. But with proper training you can really improve on it. Take a step back and think about these aspects:

  • Run Tall with a slight lean. Keep your shoulders and back straight with free movements of hands. Do not clinch or fist your hands.
  • Don’t look at your shoes while running. Ideally, focus your look on the road about 100-200 mts ahead. This will give you a slight lean and also keep your head high.
  • Don’t stomp your legs. They should land lightly on the ground. Learn to manage your weight and not put it on your legs. The best way to manage this is to have shorter strides to begin with and when you have got a hang of it, then increase the strides slowly.
  • While going uphill, shortern your strides. Improve hand movements. Balance yourself properly and ease the effort. Keep in mind that effort is more important that pace. It is okay to run slower.
  • While going downhill, lean ahead a little and let the gravity do the rest. If needed, the strides can be increased, but again pace needs to be controlled. An increase in pace can only add to higher HR.

Importance of Rest and Recovery

Resting is an important part of the workout regime. The body needs time to recover from the stress you have put on it due to running. When I say resting, it does not mean sleeping the whole day or doing nothing. It means that the workout needs to be less intense. If you ask a pro-runner, he/she will tell you that rest days are really important. Never run every day. 3-4 days a week of running is quite enough. The other 2-3 days either brisk walk or cross train.

Running helps us loose a lot of muscle. Recovering this muscle is also important. Muscles help us with our day to day functions. Functions like walking, climbing stairs, picking up a bucket of water, carrying the groceries from the store, sitting down and much more. As we age, especially after about 35-40, the bones start loosing their density. During this phase, they need support from the muscles. Some studies say that working out also delays the aging process. All in all, functional or weight training, yoga or agility and flexibility training all help in better muscle recovery and improvement. While you take up running, also plan some time in a week for such type of trainings. You will realise that your runs become stronger and it reduces fatigue as well.

Diet and Nutrition

When a coach says Diet, it brings a frown on everyones face. Diet is a taboo word for everyone, because everyone thinks that this is more or less tough and we will not able to follow it. Correct! Non-sustainable diets are tough to follow. Mind you, none of the nutritionist or dietician will every tell you to eat less. They always ask you to improve your nutrition. This means that the basic macros like protein, carbohydrates and fats need to be balanced. When you have appropriate nutrition you will realise that you have managed your hunger. Make your diet plan sustainable. Learn to identify the right things to eat.

Also you will realise, that as your training intensity increases, you may need to consume more food or calories. Speak to an expert and take advise on how you should plan your diet. Everyone is different and each one of us have our own tastes. A copy and paste of someones diet will never be sustainable. But an informed individual will go a long way. Stay away from supplements. I believe the food we eat has enough macros to provide you with the nutrition that you need.

Training for 5K as a beginner, is not an easy task. Every individual is different and so there is no fix plan for all. You need to plan, measure and listen to your body; and slowly but gradually take those additional steps. There are people who have trained within days or weeks. It took me 3-4 months to actually convert myself from 0 to 5 kms at a stretch. But since then, my journey has just moved ahead and I haven’t looked back.

So, when you talk to any professional runner, he/she would tell you, that the proverb “Slow and Steady wins the race”, is really apt for every long distance runner.

Stay Safe! Stay Healthy!

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