How Josh Clark Invented “Couch to 5K” and Helped Millions Start Running
By Josh ClarkPublished Sep 25, 2018
“If you’ve taken up jogging in the past decade, there’s a significant chance you’ve done it thanks in part to Josh Clark,” the BBC reports in a nine-minute radio story for BBC World Service about the Couch to 5K running plan. A four-minute film for BBC World television also tells the tale.
More than two decades ago, I scribbled down a nine-week schedule to help skeptical, would-be runners get off the couch and on the move. I called the training plan “Couch to 5K” and published it on the web in 1996. Since then, my Couch to 5K schedule has become one of the world’s most popular exercise programs. Millions around the world have followed “C25K” to a regular running habit. (For designers here, you might say C25K was my first onboarding project.)
Since I first wrote the core schedule, many others have catapulted its content into podcasts, apps, websites, online communities, and real-world running clubs and clinics. The National Health Service of the United Kingdom even endorsed it as an official exercise plan. (Over 1 million people have downloaded the NHS podcast in the last year alone.)
I’ve received hundreds of notes and letters from people who tell me C25K changed their lives—and not only on the fitness front. Many tell me that the program changed their sense of self and what they’re capable of, that it gave them the courage to accomplish a professional, creative, or personal goal that previously seemed unattainable. It’s deeply moving simply to hear these stories, let alone know that I played some small part of them.
Featured on the BBC
I can’t totally explain the runaway success of Couch to 5K, but the BBC did its best to do just that in the radio story and film. In both, I describe how I went from hating running to loving it, why I created Couch to 5K, the accidental science and psychology behind the program, and even the identity of the first C25K runner (my mom!).
Many thanks to BBC World Service radio producer Elizabeth Davies for bringing this story to the BBC, to BBC World producer Jonathan Coates for taking it to the screen, and to director of photography Richard Numeroff for using a gentle lens to picture these old bones.
The real heroes of this story
These broadcasts are part of the BBC’s Witness series, which shares first-person accounts of notable moments in history—from the making of the Good Friday Agreement to the invention of the veggie burger.
I’m delighted to find myself in the company of the veggie-burger people, but I confess I can’t really take credit for the success of Couch to 5K. I may have put the schedule into the world, but the real champions of this story are the millions of people who put C25K through its paces. Every single one of those runners has overcome some mix of inertia, self-doubt, skepticism, and physical discomfort to get out there and run longer and farther with every workout.
This of course is what Couch to 5K is designed to help people do. The schedule delivers early victories for people who may have experienced only defeat when it comes to fitness.
That was certainly my own story. I always hated running. To me, it was a toxic mix of boredom, burning lungs, aching shins, and heart-bursting fatigue. Early on, I came to the conclusion that I was not a runner and never would be. I was not “one of those people.” I was not an athlete, I told myself.
In my mid–20s, the anxious and jittery energy of a bad breakup got me running. It was punishing and painful, and if I’m honest, maybe that was the point. But then something crazy happened: it started to feel good.
Physically, mentally, even spiritually—running makes me feel better. It delivers meditative and creative benefits. It keeps me grounded and sane no matter what else is happening in my life. And so, at that moment in the mid–1990s, I got the zeal of the converted. I wanted to help others discover what I had discovered—but without all the awful discomfort of my own first runs.
No pain, no pain
My motivation for creating Couch to 5K was to correct the tired slogan “no pain, no gain.” If C25K has a motto, it’s “no pain, no pain.” Couch to 5K is about being kind to yourself, letting yourself go more slowly than you think you should so that you can do more than you believed you could.
Many people start a program like Couch to 5K because they’re unhappy with something about themselves. We think we weigh too much, we feel unhealthy, we’re depressed, we’re stressed. In that light, running is the half-hearted solution for “fixing” something. It is a penance, and that’s a difficult place to find enthusiasm.
Time and again, I’ve seen people change from this penance mindset to a celebration mindset over the course of C25K’s nine weeks. Somewhere along the line, a switch flips, and people find themselves running not to “fix something broken” but simply to experience the sensations and benefits of motion. The activity becomes worthwhile in itself, and the rewards of physical and mental health follow as happy side effects.
It all starts with being gentle to yourself. The first week of Couch to 5K asks you to jog for just a minute at a time, an achievable victory for most of us right out of the gate. The challenges gradually increase, but in increments that are always within reach. In the process, one discovers that there’s more inside them than they realized.
Nearly all of us can run if we want to; we just have to start by walking or jogging. Speed, distance, frequency—those are all beside the point. The animating notion behind Couch to 5K is that anyone who laces up their shoes and gets moving earns the right to be called “runner”—and to enjoy the benefits in mind, body, and even self-image of finishing a run or crossing a finish line. Recognizing yourself as a runner—giving yourself permission to do this thing—is half the trick of actually doing it.
For everyday people, by an everyday person
Couch to 5K is designed to give you the kindest way to find out if running is for you. But it might not be, which is totally okay. Besides matters of personal preference, it’s obviously true that some disabilities make running extremely difficult if not impossible; for others, personal-safety concerns or harassment may keep people off the roads. In the BBC film I say, “Anybody can run.” I try to be more careful with my language around this, but this one slipped by me and became the title of the film. I regret that my comment made anyone feel ignored or unseen.
More personally, I closed the film by saying that “I’m still trying to get Liza and Veronika to be runners.” I was trying to be cute, and I wasn’t. Fact is, Liza and Veronika are already runners, and they didn’t need my help to get there. A few times a year, we even run local races together. Not only are they runners, they’re my very favorite runners.
So you know: I make mistakes in interviews. While we’re at it, you should also know that I’m no champion athlete. I’m an unexceptional, middle-of-the-pack runner. I’ve got this 20 pounds I can’t seem to lose. I go through periods where I don’t run at all—although I do happen to know a great running schedule that always gets me back into it when I’m ready. I’m a Couch to 5K runner myself.
Perhaps all of this is a reason that Couch to 5K is a success: it’s a program for everyday people written by an everyday person. The schedule recognizes and respects limitations as it celebrates achievements.
Over 20 years since writing the original C25K schedule, running is still a welcome part of my life—and of my family’s life. For me, running is an end in itself, a part of the day I look forward to. The steady, gentle principles of Couch to 5K have set me up for a lifetime of doing this activity I enjoy.
Far more important than that, it’s done something similar for millions of others. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear your Couch to 5K story. What was your experience of it? What did you learn about yourself in the process? Shoot me an email; I’d love to hear from you. Thanks, and good running.
BBC World film
BBC World Service radio