Lockdown Couch to 5k: Can An App Really Help A Novice Commit to Running?

As someone with a fluctuating relationship with exercise, I’m always looking for that extra bit of encouragement to push me towards getting my body moving. Whether it’s the drive of being part of a Taekwondo class or having a partner training session with my boyfriend, having somebody around me to make sure I stay motivated ensures that I always see my workouts through, and feel all the better for it afterwards. 

When gyms closed last Spring, I realised how little of my motivation to exercise was self-generated. I’m naturally a very lethargic person, I don’t rise easily in the mornings, and have very little energy in the afternoons. I tend to find the biggest spur of energy and consequent motivation to exercise is in the evenings, and I try to cultivate it immediately after work before I can talk myself out of it.

Many “fads” have been tried over the past year. I tried doing yoga every day, I did weights at home, I even followed Heather Robertson home workouts whilst on furlough. The idea came to me several weeks back to start running in order to keep up my general fitness. As someone who has very little motivation to push through the burning sensation and breathlessness, as well as having a general lack of pace, I thought it would be best to follow a guide and downloaded the Couch to 5k app. Here’s what I’ve learned in the past six weeks.

You really don’t run for as long as you think you do

As I’ve progressed through the weeks and the running intervals have gotten longer, there have been many instances where I’ve told myself “Surely there’s only a few seconds left”, thinking I’d already run for five minutes when in reality it was only three. This goes to show that when you are running ‘blind’, i.e. without the aid of a virtual coach or even a watch to track your time, you really are just stabbing in the dark, and in many ways cheating yourself.

I’ve finally figured out the best times to workout around my busy lifestyle 

When I first started using the app, I was very much a novice to running. I had no idea how best to fit it in around mealtimes and my working schedule. The variations of running before work and on my lunch break fared for the first few weeks but slowly dissolved into non-existence. As a night owl, I really struggle to wake up early enough, and with enough energy, to warm-up, exercise, cool down, have a stretch and then shower and begin my usual morning routine. Running on my lunch break left me with indigestion too many times, even after leaving a good three hours between eating and putting on the trainers. I can now say that I’ve got a really good routine set up, running alternate days after work- and I mean immediately after work. I get my workout clothes out ready in the morning so that the second I shut my laptop, I can get changed and start warming up. This works perfectly for me for a number of reasons. It stops me sitting on my phone and giving into lethargy after work, and gives me a welcome break from screens where I can refresh myself with fresh air and a good sweat. It also prevents me from holding my workout off until “later”, and inevitably leaving it too late.

Don’t give in to hesitation

Even now, knowing how much I am enjoying my easygoing running routine, I still have days where I try to talk myself out of going out and hitting the pavement. I know why this is, I’m still not very confident and so can sometimes give in to the niggling self-doubt that tells me “it looks like it’s going to rain”, “you’re too stiff”, or the good-old “the roads are going to be too busy at this time of day” just to avoid the embarrassment I feel at being seen exercising in public. But that self-doubt is slowly quieting down due to the pure joy I feel knowing I’m going to get a massive endorphin-hit, and that I am actually seeing improvements in my stamina, pace and technique. Plus, I now know that I love to run in the rain, but not so much when it’s windy. You just have to trust yourself.

Just because you’re consistent for the first couple of weeks, doesn’t mean you need to buy a tonne of new workout clothes

I am indeed guilty of falling into the trap of buying new workout clothes because I feel intensely motivated when I commit to a routine. Clothing apps make it easier than ever to make an instant purchase, with Vinted being my particular vice, so it’s really easy to convince yourself you’re going to stick at something and therefore a big investment is worth it. After I took a bit of a break following week 4, I can confirm that this is not a good idea. The amount of guilt I felt for missing two runs in a row was mostly rooted in the fact that I had bought extra workout gear to ensure I’d feel comfortable running, and if I gave up now they’d lie redundant in my drawers. I can now confirm that I am back into my routine, and that my break was just a result of a busier than usual work and social schedule, so the purchases are still very much valid. But I would recommend building your gear up slowly, maybe an item a week, until you reach a reasonable amount of gymwear. 

Exercising on your own doesn’t have to be a chore

As a lover of exercise classes, or otherwise just abandoning all forms of exercise other than walking because of motivation, the idea of working out on my own six weeks ago wasn’t ideal. Even when I lift weights at the gym, I do so with the support of my boyfriend to avoid those horrifying feelings of “doing it wrong” or looking silly. I think one thing that put me off running for so long was the fact that I see it as a solitary exercise. Sure, it’s great to see people out running with their friends or as part of a local group, but I could never keep up with them or find a running partner. Having a voice in your ear telling you when to start running, to slow down and that you’re doing a great job, although at first a little disconcerting, soon becomes a brilliant aid to get through a solo run. Rather than concerning myself with whether people are looking at me as I run past, I am concentrating on the path ahead as I listen out for my cue to slow down.

You get better without realising

After I took my little break, I convinced myself that all progress would be lost, daunted at the sight of a 6-minute running interval on my screen. Truth is, I breezed it. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. In the beginning it was my chest that used to burn, but now during the longer stretches I find that my calves are on fire and aching to stop, but I don’t. The fact that I can now see beyond the need to slow down and walk just to relieve my aches and breathlessness shows me that I am fitter, and stronger mentally. My big goal is to run for over ten minutes continuously, and although I’m confident that I can do this now, I’m still going to use the Couch to 5k app to ensure I don’t get too ahead of myself and stick to the comfortable pace I’ve been building myself up to. 

You’ll start taking better care of your body

Never before have I so consistently stretched my body, and it’s all thanks to my new running habits. I do hip and ankle mobility exercises before a run, a deep cool down stretch post-run, and try to fit yoga in there a couple of times a week to ensure that my tendons aren’t getting too tight and to support the overall strength of my back and lower body. Feeling stiff the next day is great motivation to roll your legs, practice downward dog and go for a walk to get the muscles moving. Drinking more water becomes second nature because you actually work up a thirsty appetite after sweating, and overall I’ve found myself feeling more in touch with my physical needs.

There are a few things to note about my experience of “learning” how to run with the Couch to 5k app. Firstly, although I am healthy, I am not fit, and so for me, being able to run at the rate I currently do is a great achievement for me. It’s super easy for some people, but for those of us who aren’t naturally-gifted runners, the sense of achievement from seeing small improvements is immense. Secondly, the app is customisable, so that you don’t just have to stick to the plan it makes for you. You can rate how difficult your run was and this will inform the following weeks. I like to stick to the plan I’ve got as I feel it is the right balance of challenging but attainable. It also goes without saying that you absolutely do not need an app to start running, or to feel good about your fitness journey. It’s all about finding what works for you and building yourself up at a pace and consistency that suits you, until the exercise becomes something you genuinely look forward to doing.