In just nine weeks, anyone can get fit and become a runner thanks to the free NHS Couch to 5K programme. Hilly Janes slips on her trainers and gives it a go
When I’ve finished writing this piece, I’m going for a run. If I’d written that sentence a year ago, it would have been fiction. But it’s a fact; thanks to the free NHS Couch to 5K beginners running programme I can now run for 30 minutes, or about five kilometres. I still can’t quite believe it.
Couch to 5K gets you off your bottom and running (well, gently jogging in my case) five kilometres in nine weeks with a series of podcasts. There are three runs each week, lasting about 30-40 minutes and they build up very gently from only a minute’s running at a time, alternated with walking, to the full 5K monty. It’s aimed at people who have never exercised, or who want to start again.
I fell into the second category after I had spent several months sitting at my computer writing my healthy lifestyle book, Latte or Cappuccino, 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life (£9.99, Amazon ), to a tight deadline that left little time for anything else. Ironically, I ended up feeling really unfit, and in danger of not practising what I was preaching. When my sporty 11-year-old daughter suggested jogging instead of walking to school, or sprinted off like a gazelle so as not to miss a bus, there was no way I could keep up. Oh, the shame.
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There are several Couch to 5K programmes, but the NHS version is free, comes with specially written music and a coach called Laura. She sets you off on a brisk five-minute warm-up walk, tells you when to start running, and when to walk. The ratio of running to walking gradually increases, until by week five you are running for 20 minutes. Then you build up to the full 30.
Lovely Laura, as I call her, a former exercise-phobe who did the programme herself, interrupts the music with encouraging comments like “Well done, you’ve just run for 10 minutes!” or “Only one minute to go, keep going, you can do it!” There’s a verbal pat on the back when you’ve finished and then a five-minute walk to warm down. It’s like having all the benefits of a personal trainer with none of the costs. If you don’t like the music, just hang on in there until you’ve completed the course and make a playlist of your personal favourites.
I love the simplicity of running. It’s free, all you need is a device for the podcasts, and there’s no fancy kit or clobber needed apart from a decent pair of trainers and, in my case, a sturdy sports bra.
According to the British Heart Foundation, running can help reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke - three of the major killers in the UK. And as broadcaster Andy Marr, who blames his recent stroke on exercising too intensely has found to his cost, when you are older it’s vital not to put too much strain on arteries that may have hardened up over time.
Mindful, too, of the possible stress on my ageing joints, I wear trainers that cushion the impact and always run on grass in our local park or along a beach if I get the chance, never on pavements. I have had no pain or injury whatsoever.
Running, adds the BHF, will also give you a better body shape, improved sleep, help you lose weight, de-stress, relax and concentrate. I’d agree with all that. I’ve lost a good half stone, my legs are shapelier, I sleep like a baby when I’ve been for a run but feel sluggish if I go for too long without one.
Which leads to a confession. I didn't complete the programme in nine weeks, it took me nine months. Other stuff just kept getting in the way, like terrible weather, work pressures and childcare, especially over the holidays. Three 40 minute sessions a week doesn’t sound much, but by the time I’ve got my kit on and off, showered and dried my hair, it’s more like 90 minutes.
But I wasn’t going to make them excuses for giving up altogether. Any exercise is better than no exercise at all, and the great thing about Couch to 5K is that you can pick up again at a point that seems manageable. I was surprised after one long gap that I could still run for 20 minutes without stopping - proving that I had got fitter. I never thought I could be a runner but Couch to 5K has given me a big sense of achievement - and I haven’t missed a bus in months. Now, where did I put my trainers...
Visit www.nhs.uk for more information and to download the podcasts