Runner
Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Last month, reporter Kevin Callahan of The Courier-Post, a New Jersey newspaper, invited me to do an interview about the Couch to 5K program for new runners, or “C25K” to its fans. I wrote the C25K in 1996, and since then, thousands and thousands of people have used it to make running part of their lives. I’m often a little overwhelmed by its popularity. There are C25K podcasts, C25k fan sites, and over 50,000 C25K Google search results.

As I answered Kevin’s questions, I realized that there are several similarities between running programs and software programs. My philosophy in designing C25K overlaps neatly with my philosophy of software design:

  1. Eliminate pain.
    If it hurts to do it, people will give up.

  2. Welcome newcomers.
    Friendly language and reasonable expectations are crucial in early experiences with a program.

  3. Deliver early victories.
    If you feel like you’re kicking ass from the start, you’ll be eager to continue. Otherwise, you’ll decide that you suck, the program sucks, or both. See #1 above.

  4. Make it easy and rewarding.
    We are creatures of inertia; we need carrots to get moving.

  5. Not everyone wants to be a power user.
    Some people will be content to master the basics and stop there; others will want to continue to develop and explore. The program should accommodate both paths.

The final article ran in June but, alas, now lives behind a pay firewall. Here’s the original Q&A from the e-mail exchange.[ 1 ]

Q: Did you personally start slow as a runner and then work your way up to a 5k?

I wish I had. I used to hate running. I thought running was for masochists. Every time I tried it, even as a reasonably fit 20-year-old, it felt terrible. I wheezed, I had muscle soreness, it hurt.

For a few months in my early 20s, though, I found myself particularly determined to become a runner. I pushed through the discomfort for a few weeks. When my body finally became accustomed to it, I discovered, wow, running doesn’t have to hurt. It can actually feel good, even meditative. It became something that I looked forward to, that gave me energy and, as a happy byproduct, also happened to keep me fit and healthy.

Q: How did you come up with this novel notion of Couch to 5k?

When I finally became a runner, I had the zeal of the converted. I wanted to share with others this secret I discovered: Running doesn’t have to suck. Anybody can do it. (That’s one of the great things about running: it’s accessible to everyone. It’s inexpensive. You don’t need a team. You don’t need lots of gear. All you need is a pair of shoes and a place to go.)

So I started a website that detailed all that I had learned. I created a section for new runners to help people make it through that initial skepticism and physical discomfort, and the Couch to 5K program was the centerpiece.

I actually wrote the program with my mom in mind. She was 50, didn’t exercise, always hated it, but wanted to do something for her health. And I couldn’t have been more pleased when the program worked for her.

Q: Why do you think it is so hard for people to get off the couch and run?

Most new runners stop running because they think it hurts, it’s uncomfortable and it’s boring. That’s not exactly a recipe for success. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you adjust your effort so that you’re stretching your limits, but only a bit, you can gradually ease into running without the unpleasant experience that so many non-runners associate with running and jogging.

But also, people are creatures of inertia. Even now, I find that hardest part of running is just getting out the door. Once I’m out there, it feels great, and I’m glad I’m doing it, but sometimes it’s just hard to get your body moving. One of the best ways to overcome that inertia is to have a sensible program that truly fits your fitness level. When you have that, you discover that exercise can actually be pleasant, not a drudgery.

“Most new runners stop running because they think it hurts, it’s uncomfortable and it’s boring. That’s not exactly a recipe for success.”

Q: What is the reason a runner should ease into their running program gradually?

The “no pain, no gain” approach to fitness is not sustainable for most people, because frankly, pain isn’t very much fun. In order to build a sustainable personal fitness program, it has to be fun, it has to give you a sense of accomplishment, and most of all, it shouldn’t hurt. While a certain level of discomfort or muscle soreness is inevitable at the very beginning, the goal has to be to keep that to a minimum.

By starting slow, you can actually accomplish what you set out to do. You meet with success right away, and you give your body a chance to adjust to these new demands.

Q: Why do you think the program is so popular with people starting out?

It’s something you can actually do. You can actually follow the program and complete it. A lot of people have a history of failure with exercise, trying to do too much before they’re ready. This program gives a lot of folks their first experience of success with physical fitness.

Q: Is one of the keys to the program starting out as more of a walking and jogging program?

Yes, you have to walk before you can jog. You have to jog before you can run. After two months, the program has you jogging three miles, three times per week.

Q: Is two months the time the average couch potato can expect to run a 5k by following the program?

By following the program, after two months, most people can cover a 5K distance at an easy jog. From there, you can decide where want to go.

Some people just keep jogging at an easy pace at that three miles, three times per week — that’s certainly a reasonable fitness program. Others feel particularly enthusiastic about their newfound ability, and they continue to develop it, running faster or farther, maybe even participate in some local road races. The program gives you a base of fitness that lets you decide where you want to go.

“It has to be fun, it has to give you a sense of accomplishment, and most of all, it shouldn’t hurt.”

Q: Would trying to do too much, too fast the biggest temptation of the program?

Patience is so incredibly important for new runners. As people discover that they actually like running and that they’re actually able to make progress, there’s a real temptation to jump ahead, to try to make that progress come faster. It’s important to resist that, to give your body a chance to get used to all this new activity.

Q: If the program is too tough, or a participant is sick or sore one week, is it OK to stretch out the workout for longer than two months?

Of course. Like any fitness program, the Couch to 5K is just a guideline, and you should feel free to adjust it to your needs. If you feel like you’re not quite ready to take on the demands of the next week, it’s fine to repeat a week or even to go back to the previous week. The important thing is just to get out there, move your body, and make incremental progress. In order to work, it has to be fun, and it has to be within your comfort zone.

1. The article pretty much ran the Q&A as-is, except that my use of the word “suck” was redacted to “stink.” (While I appreciate that “suck” may not be appropriate for a family paper, “running doesn’t have to stink” doesn’t quite capture what I was going for.) [back]

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