Some people live for it, chasing faster times and that unbelievable “runners high.”
Others despise it with the passion of a thousand suns (which is an excessive number of suns).
As somebody who used to run cross country in high school, and will probably never run a mile again, I have strong opinions on this stuff.
Today we’re going to cover it all: running your first 5K, if you even SHOULD run a 5k, and all the details of the famous Couch to 5K program.
After all, Couch to 5K is the most popular 5K running program since “run for your life” invented by a human like 150,000 years ago.
“Don’t run for your life” was equally popular, it just…didn’t last long.
Quiet, I know. This was a way better gif than a human being chased by a wild animal.
You’re here because you wanna know if you can build up to running a 5k without losing your breath or having to stop.
So here’s what we’re gonna cover in this article:
- What is it about Couch to 5K that makes it so dang popular?
- Does Couch to 5K actually work?
- Will I lose weight training for a 5K?
- How do I not hurt myself running a 5K?
- What if I own a futon, but like, it’s a nice one. Can I still do Couch to 5k?
If you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness for longer than this article, you know my thoughts about running for weight loss (spoiler: I think it’s an awful way to lose weight).
I also think running can be a fantastic activity (for the right person if they do it the right way)!
So, are you that person?
And what is the right way?
Keep reading and I’ll tell ya.
In exchange, I can promise hilarious gifs.
And maybe also Michael Jackson.
What is Couch to 5K? Why is it so popular?
“Couch to 5kK” is a free program that takes people from their couch to running a 5K race in 9 weeks.
5K is short for 5 kilometers, or 5,000 meters or 3.1 miles.
Depending on which “couch to 5K” program you pick, it might be 6 weeks, or 12 weeks, or 9 weeks. Although this running program was invented by Josh Clark of CoolRunning WAY back in the day, it has since been co-opted and copied by every running blog out there, so we’re going to be referring to a generic “Couch to 5K” program when we talk about it.
Here it is in a nutshell: Couch to 5K utilizes an uber popular concept called interval training – moving at different speeds throughout a running session – and lays out exactly what to do every day for 6-12 weeks after starting.
By varying your pacing, your body is forced to adapt to different speeds, your heart and lungs have to adapt to various levels of strenuous activity (and get stronger/healthier as a result), and you actually burn more calories and get better prepared for a race then compared to just training at a constant speed.
In other words, interval training rocks and should be used by anybody who wants to get better at running.
Over the weeks, Couch to 5K slowly ramps up the amount of time you spend running and cuts back the time you spend walking until you’re at the point where you can actually run a 5K without stopping.
“STEVE, I’M INTRIGUED. WHY IS COUCH TO 5K SO DANG POPULAR?”
#1) It’s simple and clear. Print out a PDF or download an iphone app and for the next 9 weeks you simply do what it tells you: Today, do this. Tomorrow, do that. Repeat.
We are all busy. Most of us lead hectic lives. And programs that tell us EXACTLY what to do allow us to follow instructions without needing to figure it out ourselves.
Not that us nerds overanalyze things to the point of giving ourselves anxiety attacks…
#2) Most people think running = weight loss. If you’re brand new to health and fitness, and you’re trying to lose weight, you’re most likely overwhelmed at what you should start with and how you should train.
As much as I would WISH that was the answer (it’s probably the fastest path to changing one’s physique), it’s probably a bridge too far for most folks. So a majority of newbies equate running with weight loss (which MIGHT be true, but MIGHT not, I’ll explain soon), and decide to start with a jog around the block.
#3) Couch to 5K is not overwhelming. It’s a free program (or inexpensive app), and it’s very approachable. Programs like P90X and Insanity are designed to appeal to people that consider themselves hardcore (whatever the hell that means). Couch to 5K appeals to people who are overwhelmed at the idea of doing P90X or Insanity or mustering up the courage to go to Crossfit.
Couch to 5K makes you think “maybe I can actually do this…” which is the most important part of any fitness journey: starting.
#4) Everybody wants to “have run a 5K.” If you’re new to health and fitness and working on setting a good obtainable goal, “run a 5K this year” is a great place to start.
- It’s a short enough distance that with some training you can pull it off, even if you have to walk some or all of it.
- There are 5Ks practically every weekend, many of which raise money for charity or are themed in a fun way,
- It’s an amazing activity to do as a group with friends.
- Humans are wired for achievements, progress, and gratification – 5Ks are perfectly designed for that.
So in completing Couch to 5K, you train and get to see yourself progress weekly, you get to finish a race and feel a sense of accomplishment, and you go home with a medal you can hang on your wall reminding you of the proud moment.
Plus, it might get you in shape!
Does Couch to 5K actually work? Will I lose weight Doing Couch to 5K?
“Steve that’s all fine and good. But what do you REALLY think about running 5Ks and Couch to 5K?”
Okay you got me. I got thoughts. I also got jokes (they’re bad).
Will the Couch to 5K program help you run a 5k? YES! If you actually stick with it for the entirety of the training program.
Will the Couch to 5K program help you lose weight? MAYBE.
Is Couch to 5K a program that will get you healthy permanently? MAYBE.
Will Couch to 5K make me sexy and look damn good in a bathing suit? MAYBE, but probably not.
Here’s the truth about Couch to 5k: It’s the same truth with popular programs like P90X or Insanity or any other structured workout program:
It totally works and will help you lose weight if you do two things:
- You actually complete the program, AND
- You fix your diet.
It totally doesn’t work and won’t help you lose weight if you do two things:
- You actually complete the program, BUT
- You don’t fix your diet.
As sexy as it is to think that just going for a run will help you lose weight, the data doesn’t back it up. In fact, as Time Magazine rightly pointed out years ago and got yelled at for telling the truth, exercise alone won’t make you lose weight.
I believe that to be especially true when exercise is only steady-speed cardio.
In fact, many people gain weight after starting an exercise routine and get completely demoralized.
As we say here at Nerd Fitness, you can’t outrun your fork, and nutrition is 90% of the battle.
If you go for a mile run and then stuff your face with extra calories “because you earned it,” you’re going to gain weight.
It’s not because you have a slow metabolism, I promise. It’s because you’re consuming too many calories.
If this were a movie, nutrition would be Tom Cruise in Mission:Impossible and exercise is that funny sidekick who helps Tom. Let’s be real here, Tom is doing all of the heavy lifting to make that movie what it is.
Couch to 5K helps people run a 5K. That’s it. It isn’t designed to help you lose weight or build a body you’re proud of. It’s also a temporary program that lasts a certain number of weeks until you run your 5k.
For Couch to 5K to be successful for you long term, and for it to help you lose weight, it needs to be the catalyst that causes you to build a consistent long term habit of exercise and changes how you think about food.
Remember: you never get to be “done”, so you need to enjoy the journey and look forward to exercising daily. You also need to train the right way to build the type of body you want! And eat the right way.
That’s priority numero uno.
I know nutrition is a really challenging, complex, controversial topic (Keto? Paleo? Ah!), which is why we make it stupidly simple for smart, good looking, modest people like yourself. In addition to our online coaching program that guides you on making healthier food choices, we also created a free 10-level NF Diet blueprint you can hang on your fridge next to your Couch to 5K pdf.
Print it out, hang it on your fridge, and follow the instructions to level up every 2 weeks! You can get yours free when you sign up in the box below:
- Follow our 10-level nutrition system at your own pace
- What you need to know about weight loss and healthy eating
- 3 Simple rules we follow every day to stay on target
Now that we have the “will I lose weight?” stuff out of the way, I have two BIG questions to ask you:
Do you like running?
Are you healthy enough to run?
Do you even like running?
Bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman said it best: “Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy ass weight.”
In other words: “Everybody wants to be in shape, and look great, but nobody wants to put the work in to actually GET in shape and look great.”
And yup, getting in shape is tough; if it were easy we’d all look like Captain America and Wonder Woman.
Instead, 70% of America is overweight and 30+% are obese. Crap.
Which brings me back to the most crucial question of this entire 5K process:
Do you even LIKE running?
The world is split into three groups:
- People that like running and want to run.
- People that don’t like running but eventually learn to love it.
- People that don’t like running and will never like running.
Here’s that Ronnie Coleman quote, slightly adapted: “Everybody wants to have run a 5k, but many people don’t actually enjoy running.”
Running a 5k is a great achievement and a worthwhile fun goal, but it’s only one way of thousands to “get in shape.”
Admittedly, I’m firmly in Group #3: I don’t like running.
When I run I feel like Andy Dwyer in Parks and Rec:
I ran cross country in high school and started training the following summer for the upcoming season…only to suddenly realize, “Wait a second, I dread doing this every single morning. Why am I doing this to myself? I quit!”
I then quit running, decided to try weight training and gymnastics, fell in love with picking up heavy shit and doing cool bodyweight moves, and those choices led me down a path to start Nerd Fitness and that’s why you’re reading this article today!
Some people love that feeling of anguish or pushing beyond the limits. I don’t happen to enjoy feeling like that, so I put my focus on exercise that energizes and makes feel better.
Your mileage may vary, and you might love these feelings. Great!
So before you start Couch to 5K, think of it like a science experiment:
“I hypothesize that following Couch to 5K will help me run a 5K. I also hypothesize I’ll enjoy the process, enjoy how I feel after a run, enjoy running a 5k, and/or enjoy the achievement of having run a 5k.”
And that’s all this is: an experiment to see if running is the type of exercise you want to continue doing consistently for the next few years.
If 2 weeks into Couch to 5K you’re miserable and hate it: fantastic! You just discovered that you hate running and are now free to NEVER RUN EVER AGAIN FOREVER. It doesn’t make you a failure. It means your science experiment produced a result that you can now use to inform future exercise decisions. It doesn’t make you a failure. It just means you found a type of exercise that doesn’t work for you.
If you discover you LOVE running and how it makes you feel: fantastic! You can now make running part of your regular exercise routine. Combine this with a good nutritional strategy, and you will build yourself a runner’s physique. And you’ve found something you can do for the rest of your life.
If you are running to prove something to yourself, because a friend is doing it, because you’re raising money for charity, or anything else: fantastic! Do Couch to 5K and then decide after if this is the strategy that you enjoy and want to stick with permanently.
If you’re ONLY doing this to lose weight and it’s making you miserable, quit. Don’t run. Ever. Instead, pick exercise you actually enjoy. But not because the exercise is going to help you lose weight – because doing exercise you love is a constant reminder of “I’m making healthier choices, and thus I should probably eat healthier!”
If weight loss above all else is your goal, I’d recommend our Beginner Bodyweight routine you can do at home and combine it with our “beginner’s guide to healthy eating.” I can promise that if you read those strategies and start to implement them in your life, you’ll see results without ever having to set foot on a treadmill.
Phew! Okay, that covers “do you actually LIKE running?”
There’s another massive question you should be asking yourself before you start…
Are you healthy enough to run a 5K?
Just because you WANT to run doesn’t mean you SHOULD necessarily start running just yet.
It could be a fast track to injury, disappointment, and misery!
Those are literally three of my least favorite things. The fourth being brunch. 
Back to your health: are you physically ready to run?
If you’re at or close to your goal weight, then starting a running program is a good idea. Read the section below on “How to not get injured doing Couch to 5K” and get started.
If you are obese or very overweight, I think (power)WALKING a 5K is a great goal for the immediate future.
I don’t think running a 5K is going to be a healthy solution to helping you get healthy – in fact, it might cause damage to your joints and ligaments and cause you to backslide a whole bunch.
WHAT I WOULD DO: Focus on healthy eating, building the habit of daily walks, and follow a beginner strength building routine like the Beginner Bodyweight Circuit. This will build you a solid foundation of strength, core strength, and endurance.
Download our free Bodyweight Workout Worksheet when you sign up in the box below:
- Complete this workout at home, no equipment required
- Avoid the common mistakes everybody makes when doing bodyweight exercises
- Learn how to finally get your first pull-up
So here’s why you should focus on strength and nutrition before pounding the pavement with hours of running:
- As you begin to drop weight, a lot of the stress on your joints, organs, bones, etc. will start to decrease.
- As you strength train, the ligaments that hold your body together will become stronger and more adequately prepared for the rigors of running.
- As you refine your running form to minimize resistance and jarring shocks throughout your body, your body will learn to become more efficient.
- When you start to approach your goal weight, you can start to introduce increase your speed from power walking to jogging – with correct running technique (see below) – and staying healthy.
“STEVE, I was all excited to run a 5k, and now you have me demoralized. I’m overweight but I still want to run!”
Okay okay okay, fine! I don’t want to keep you from exercising, I want to help you build momentum and make you antifragile.
Obviously, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and if running before your physically ready is what you want to do, go for it!
Just do it safely, please! Read the section below on how to not suck at running!
I would still advise that you focus your efforts on strength training, hiking, long walks on the beach…low impact activities that strengthen rather than deteriorate your body.
But you do you, boo.
How to start the Couch to 5K Program
“Steve I’m in. I read all of that jazz above and I am ready to get started. Whether I’m walking or running, I want to start Couch to 5K!”
If you’re ready to do the Couch to 5K program, you can download the following which I believe is the Original Couch to 5K Program (they’ve made it quite tough to find!).
The reason it’s tough to find is they’re pushing people towards the official Couch to 5K App.
Here’s another which I found on Antrandado.com
For us Nerds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the super fun Zombies Run! app, which uses interval training combined with fun audio cues and video game mechanics throughout your running sessions.
What I would do next after downloading the program? Do the first day of training!
I would also recommend finding a race that’s 2-3 months from now, and sign up for it even if you’re not ready. Recruit a friend or two to join you in training and the race!
Doing these things create immediate motivation and accountability.
It’s the strategy that Jaime from Nerd Fitness used to get herself in shape: signing up for races in the future that she wasn’t quite ready for yet.
She also strength trained and dramatically overhauled her nutrition, but she used races as great motivational events to stay on target!
HOW TO FIND A 5K IN YOUR TOWN: Let me google that for you. Type “5K + [your town]”, and I bet there’s a 5k every weekend for the rest of the year coming up. The Couch to 5K app also lists local races for you.
To recap: pick a race that looks fun that raises money for a good cause, recruit a friend or two, and go for your first day of running.
It’s gonna suck, and you’re going to be fine. You’ll get better!
This is exactly what I did years ago when I dressed up like a Caveman with 20 of my friends and raised thousands of dollars for kids with cancer to go to summer camp!
How to Not Get Injured Training For a 5K
If you don’t learn how to run correctly, you’re doomed to develop an overuse injury and that’s going to negate the whole reason you started running in the first place!
This is why your running form is so damn crucial: when you run, you’re putting hundreds of pounds of pressure on your joints and ligaments with each bounding step down the road. This is then repeated thousands of times over the course of training and a race.
No wonder nearly every runner has tons of stories of injuries they’ve had to deal with. It can be brutal activity that can wreak havoc even with good running mechanics.
With poor running mechanics, the results are compounded.
And not the GOOD kind of “compounded” like compound interest like you learned in 2nd grade with the story about starting with 1 penny a day and doubling it for 30 days.
The BAD kind of “compounded” like plantar fasciitis and stress fractures and sore IT bands and torn ligaments and crazy soreness all the time.
We don’t want that.
I’m going to get super granular into proper running technique in this section, so if you already have perfect running form, you can skip this section. But I’d still read it.
Yeah, you should probably read it.
Here are the 5 Steps to Not Sucking at Running a 5K, thanks to my friend Jason Fitzgerald of Strength Running:
1) Lean from your ankles. Lean from your ankles, and keep a straight line from your ankle, through your butt, and up to your head. If you’re standing still with this slight forward lean, you should feel like you’re about to fall forward.
Kind of like Michael Jackson in “Smooth Criminal.” Just, slightly less of a tilt. Hat optional. Style encouraged.
When you start running, gravity will help keep you progressing forward. A proper lean from the ankles keeps your body in alignment and loads your muscles properly and efficiently.
2) Increase your cadence. Cadence is your stride rate, or the number of steps you take per minute. It will probably seem weird at first, but you’re putting less stress on your legs with shorter foot strikes.
Your cadence should be at least 170-190 steps per minute when you’re running at an easy, conversational pace. It will probably increase once you start running faster—that’s normal.
“Steve, what the hell do I do with “170-190 steps per minute?”
Great question. Go to Spotify and look for 170-190BPM playlists, like these which I found here:
Not on Spotify? Cool. (But like, why?) To get a cadence, try running to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and time your strides to match the beat. That’s the cadence you’re looking for:
Research has shown that increasing your cadence and taking more steps (around 180 per minute) provides many of the same benefits of barefoot running: less impact shock that goes up your legs, improved running economy (or your efficiency, which means you’ll run faster with less effort!), and a reduced chance of injury.
You’ll feel like you’re taking way more steps than normal – that means you probably had poor form before and now you’re fixing it!
If your legs get to the point where they’re going this fast, let me know:
3) Foot strike at the right time. When your foot comes down and makes contact with the ground, it should be underneath your body, not in front of it. Combined with a quick cadence and a slight forward lean from your ankles, you’ll be distributing impact shock evenly—and efficiently.
This aspect of running form is often skipped over by beginning runners. Instead of focusing on where the foot is landing in relation to the rest of the body, they focus too much on running on their forefoot. If you don’t first land in the right place, a midfoot or forefoot strike will only do more damage.
As you’re running, a good mental cue is to think that you’re just “putting your foot down” in a straight line underneath your body. There’s no reaching or stretching your leg out in front of you. Practicing this mental cue will have your leg touching down almost exactly underneath your center of mass, distributing your weight evenly and safely.
4) Land on your mid-foot. While not as important as landing underneath your center of mass, becoming a mid-foot striker has a host of benefits. It can help you avoid a lot of injuries by absorbing impact shock and preventing a severe heel striking running stride.
Heel-striking can’t be entirely blamed for injuries and labeled “bad.”
Even elite athletes heel strike when they run races! It’s not entirely bad— especially if you’re putting weight down on your foot just after you heel strike, instead of directly on the heel.
What you should focus on is having a higher cadence, landing underneath your body, and not aggressively heel striking. Try to land with your foot flat on the ground, instead of with your toes angled upwards.
5) Symmetrical arm swing. Nobody wants to look at you running if you’re flailing your arms wildly all over the place like Elaine dancing from Seinfeld. An ideal arm swing has your arm bent at about 90 degrees and a front to back swing (not side-to-side).
Imagine a pretend line that goes down your mid-line or center of your body. When you run, your hands should not cross over this imaginary line. Cup your hands loosely together (no clenched fists!) and if you want to use your arms for momentum, pump your elbows, not your hands.
Once you incorporate these changes into your running form, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable and your injury risk is going to plummet.
For extra credit, learn to run softly and quietly. Foot stomping isn’t allowed and gets increasingly more difficult as you approach 180 steps per minute.
A few other things you want to keep in mind:
- Keep a tall back, chest up. No slouching.
- Look 30-50 meters in front of you – not head down looking at your toes.
Both are easy cues to keep an athletic posture and good running form.
Go back through and read this section a few more times. We know it’s a LOT to think about while running, but it is incredibly important. If you get a chance, have somebody film you running, and then watch your tape back to see how you’re doing.
Tips and Tricks for Training for Your 5K
Although the Couch to 5K Program covers specifically how you should be training, it still leaves out quite a few important things (like technique, which I covered above!).
Once you’ve picked your 5K training program, here’s how to get yourself to ACTUALLY follow through on your training!
Recruit an accountability partner. Have somebody that trains with you (or at least somebody you tell about your training), so that each day you can check in with each other.
Wanna be diabolical? Give somebody else $100 of your money. And tell them you’ll check in with them after your training every day – if you don’t do your run, they’ll donate $50 of that money to a political cause you HATE.
While you’re building the habit of running, you need to make the pain of skipping your run greater than the pain of doing the run.
Do this enough times until you build up enough momentum and get hooked on that runners high so that you actually look forward to training.
Warm-up before, stretch after. Don’t do static stretches beforeyour runs. It’s not doing what you think it is. Instead, you’re going to warm up your muscles through active movement.
- Do the following warm-up before you run. Continue this by going for a light jog, high knees, and warming up your muscles through movement.
- Do the following cool down after you run. Stretching after for the win!
Make it the first thing you do each day. Build the habit of doing your run first thing in the morning when life hasn’t had a chance to get in the way. Sleep in your running clothes. Put your alarm clock/phone across the room. Put your running shoes by the door. By hacking your batcave, you’ll minimize the steps between you and the new habit you’re trying to build.
Strength training makes running easier. Doing 1-2 sessions of strength training per week (on days you’re not running) will help you burn fat, build muscle, and stay injury free. Follow our Beginner Bodyweight Routine, no equipment required.
Don’t worry about your shoes when you start. Wear whatever you shoes you have so that you can just get started building the habit immediately. If you START to love running, read our article on proper footwear and get yourself some better kicks.
The same is true for “running clothes.” Do not let this be a barrier to entry. Start running first and make sure you like it before you go spending any hard-earned cash on stuff you’re not gonna use.
Sign up for your race as far in advance as possible. Use 20 seconds of courage if you need to, but commit to the race. If you don’t sign up, you’re going to be much more likely to back out when life gets busy. But if you pay for it ahead of time, and get other people to run with you, you’re going to be using positive peer pressure to follow through on your commitments.
Your race time doesn’t matter! Who cares if you’re the last person to finish? Like the Rock taught us, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you finish something that you started. That’s a huge accomplishment in itself.
Start a running club or join one at work – the more people you surround yourself with that are doing the things you want to do. Hang out with runners that are faster than you. You’re the average of the 5 people you associate most with, so you might as well start associating with faster, healthy runners.
Don’t have an in-person running community? That’s cool! Join the Scouts Guild in the Nerd Fitness Rebellion. It’s the section of our community that does running, biking, swimming, and other distance based activities!
What Do I do After the Couch to 5k?
You made it through the training, and you ran/walked your first 5k! I’m so proud of you.
So after successfully completing your first 5K, you may be wondering what you should do next. To run again or not…
Many new runners absolutely love the atmosphere at a race; the number pick- up, pre-race motivational speech, cheering crowds, and crossing that finish line.Oh, and the post race beer and meal is the best food and drink you’ve ever tasted.
So after the excitement settles down, you need to ask what you want to do next.
Your three options:
- Run Faster: Sign up for another 5k, keep training, and try to beat your previous race time.
- Run longer: Maybe you want to run a longer race like a 5 miler, a 10k, or go slay a bigger dragon like half-marathons or marathons.
- Pick a different activity: Going from Couch to 5K to Couch doesn’t help you at all. Temporary changes create temporary results.
If you’re looking to run more or faster, here are two of my favorite resources to level up:
- Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon: How to Be Your Own Best Coach
- Strength Running: A site by my friend Jason Fitzgerald.
NOTE: If you’re already a part of (or interested in joining) our coaching program, share with your coach your running goals so we can build your program around those specific goals!
And there ya have it.
- Couch to 5K may or may not be a great program for you. It depends on how much you enjoy running, and what you are hoping to get out of the program.
- Running a 5K might be a good way to lose weight. It is entirely dependent on your nutrition. The same is true of literally ANY workout program.
- Make sure your running technique is solid. It’ll save you years of pain and injury.
- Recruit a friend or find a way to stay accountable so you actually do the race!
- Who cares about your race time! Just completing the race should be your goal.
- Once you finish the race, decide if you want to keep running or if you are going to pick a different activity.
Okay, it’s your turn. I’d love to hear your experiences when it comes to training for a 5K, and if you enjoyed the process.
Have you DONE Couch to 5K? Did you stick with it?
What challenges did you run into along the way?
Share it in the comments below so we can share it!
PS: We have a bunch of NF Coaching clients that are training for 10Ks and half-marathons and tough mudders. If you’re somebody that wants to do races like this, but aren’t sure how to eat right and how to fit the training into your life, consider checking out our really fun 1-on-1 online coaching program.
You can learn more by scheduling a free call with our team to see if we’re a good fit for each other! Sign up by clicking on the box below:
PPS: In honor of our continued “Outsiders Month” at Nerd Fitness, this week’s Rebel Hero is Rebecca rocking her Nerd Fitness gear! I’m going to assume her horse’s name is Epona and she gallops like the wind:
Want to be the next Rebel Hero? Send us a photo of you in your NF Gear to email@example.com so we can share your photo and story!
photo credit: mripp Fun run, almostsummersky sleepy pups, BRICK 101 LEGO Sonic Tails & Shadow, clement127 Halloween is coming!!, Mabacam Speed, Photography andreas Just a Lego Minifig, Reiterlied Wandering in the North, clement127 Banquet