The Couch to 5K running program, or C25K for short, is designed to ease you off the couch and into distance running. You can do C25K using the official mobile app, or with a downloadable training program — and with a few adaptations you can even do it on a treadmill.
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The Couch to 5K App
You'll find many mobile apps oriented around the Couch to 5K program, but the original comes from Cool Running, the company that pioneered the C25K approach. All they ask you to do is commit to three 30- to 40-minute workouts spaced throughout each week. You don't even have to run the whole time, because they start you off by alternating longer walking intervals with shorter jogging intervals.
But by the time you're several weeks into the program, you'll be running as much as you're walking — and then gradually pulling ahead until you run more than you walk. That easy start and gradual progression are part of what make this approach so accessible and useful to beginner runners and those who aspire to be beginner runners.
Of course, an array of other features doesn't hurt. The C25K audio coach prompts you when to switch from walking to running and back again, and the app's DJ-curated running music playlist is guaranteed to make your feet want to move. You can even adjust the music beats per minute to match your running pace.
Music can be a more powerful motivational tool than many people realize. As the American Council on Exercise explains, music can reduce your feelings of fatigue, psych you up for better performance, and help you stay relaxed as you work out. You might also experience a natural boost in self-confidence and motor coordination when your body syncs to the music's beat.
ACE recommends warming up with relatively slow music — between 120 and 126 beats per minute — and gradually increasing the music speed until it suits the exercise you're doing. For weightlifting and general cardio, that'll often be between 128 and 135 bpm.
Read more: Two-Week Training Plan for Running a 5K
The official C25K app also tracks your calories burned and distance run, offers an online community for encouragement and feedback and integrates with a variety of other fitness-tracking devices. You'll find similar features in the wide variety of "Couch to 5K" apps and programs now available across the internet.
What About the Treadmill?
Of course, there's always a catch. Most Couch to 5K apps use GPS to track your distance and pace as you run. If you take your workouts indoor to a treadmill, that functionality becomes meaningless because no matter how hard and fast you run, you're never going to move more than a few feet.
However, there is an easy workaround. Just download a Couch to 5K training plan and use that as your guide to manually adjust the treadmill's speed to carry out your walk/run intervals. It might take a little trial and error to find the right speed for "walk" and the right speed for "run," but if you did a couple of outdoor runs with a mobile app, the stored pace information in that app can help you choose your starting pace.
Some high-tech treadmills will even let you program in your own custom intervals, automating that switch from walk to run, so all you have to do is keep your feet moving. If you miss seeing your run/walk outings logged in your C25K app or your favorite fitness tracker, you can always enter that information manually to keep your logs up to date.
There's one other major quirk of working out on a treadmill instead of running outside: The treadmill creates completely flat, even terrain — something that you'll almost never encounter in the real world.
If you're training for a real race, or training on a treadmill until the weather is nice enough to go outside again, you may want to prep yourself for reality by elevating the treadmill to at least a 1 percent incline. Or, better yet, set the treadmill to increase and decrease elevation periodically, to more accurately simulate the varied terrain you'll find when training outside.
Steps to Stay Engaged
The music in your Couch to 5K app is a powerful motivator. If you're working out on a treadmill, you can still use a playlist of your favorite tunes to keep your feet moving — or if you've made it past the run/walk stage of training and are doing continuous runs, you could use a treadmill program or mobile app with a virtual trainer that talks you through your run.
Some treadmills even have "virtual reality" training courses, showing you video and automatically altering speed and elevation to match famous running routes.
If you haven't quite caught fire for running just yet, don't worry — although the Couch to 5k program is designed to teach an enjoyment of (or at least appreciation for) running, it takes time. In the meantime, as the Mayo Clinic points out, recruiting a friend to run/walk with you, logging your progress over time, and setting periodic rewards for yourself can all help you stay engaged and motivated.
Consider Interval Training
At its heart, the Couch to 5K program is a set of low-key intervals, alternating higher-intensity bursts of exercise (the run/jog portion) with lower-intensity recovery periods (the walking). This helps ease your body into a higher level of exertion than you're used to. As you build strength and confidence, you might want to try doing more intense intervals to maximize your workout benefits without increasing your workout time.
As Harvard Health Publishing explains, the key to making this work is defining "high intensity" and "low intensity" in terms of your current fitness level. That stays true to the intent of the C25K program by ensuring that you're getting a beneficial workout, instead of working out so hard that you end up injured or have to miss a few workouts because of soreness. Doing workouts that are too light can be problematic in a different way, because if you don't continuously challenge your body to adapt to new stimuli, it won't get stronger.
If you don't want to do sprint intervals, considering using your treadmill to do elevation intervals instead, shifting the elevation higher for the high-intensity intervals, then lowering it back to flat or a 1 percent incline for the recovery intervals.
Whether you're walk/running or doing wind sprints, treadmills make it dead easy to manage your interval training: Just push a button to adjust speed or elevation, then the machine tracks and displays all the metrics for you. And the treadmill will always be there waiting for you, regardless of the weather and if it's light or dark outside.
Here's a bonus: If you follow a solid Couch to 5K training plan, you should either meet or at least come very close to meeting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines for physical activity. They specify that you should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, or 75 minutes of intense physical activity — or a combination of the two.
- American Council on Exercise: "Music and Exercise: How Music Affects Exercise Motivation"
- Mayo Clinic: "Fitness: Tips for Staying Motivated"
- C25K: "The Official C25K App"
- Cool Running: "The Couch to 5K Running Plan"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Want Better Exercise Results in Less Time? Try Interval Training to Boost Your Workout"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"