I have never been one for physical activity. I absolutely hated playing sports as a child – my family will happily regale you with the countless times in primary school I refused to partake in sports day, complete with stomping feet and hands on hips; this gal gets dirty and sweaty for no one! I have never excelled as being the sporty girl, and many bad experiences, mostly from P.E at school, put me off the notion of ever entertaining physical activity as a hobby in my adult life.
That was until I discovered Couch to 5K.
Now, I had given the “idea” of taking up running a few times in my early twenties, but my attempts were often feeble; I became exhausted within a matter of minutes and more often than not was more concerned about what other people would be thinking of me than actually sticking with it and putting some effort in. I am also the definition of impatient, so the fact I wasn’t feeling that elusive “runners high” within the first ten minutes of running just left me feeling completely short changed. All in all, any attempt at running just resulted in me stomping off home in a foul mood and comforting my bruised ego with chocolate.
A few years ago, I went through a period of personal difficulties which rendered me feeling a bit lost and with zero motivation. Nothing really interested me, and I had fully sunk into the monotony of day to day life. Until one evening, I saw an advertisement for the Edinburgh Half Marathon – “a glorious 13.1 mile run around the Scottish capital”, and before I knew it, I was punching my details into the sign up sheet. I don’t know if it was boredom, impulsiveness or one too many gins, but within seconds, the girl who was literally in tears after a 10 minute jog had committed to running over 13 miles for charity with only 5 months to train. There was no going back, I had to find my running rhythm whether I liked it or not.
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My first few “training” sessions were nothing short of the same disastrous attempts I had previously encountered. I only had the courage to run at night as I was so terrified of people seeing me and having a good laugh at what I thought were my ridiculous attempts at exercise. I was all for giving up, when a friend who had been an experienced runner for a number of years advised me to download the free “Couch to 5K” app – designed by the BBC and Public Health England to help coach people from complete novice to 5K runner in just 9 weeks. I must admit, I had little faith (not in the app, just the fact I had convinced myself I was not meant to be a runner) but I figured it was worth a go, and if anything a little structure might be what I needed. The results came slowly, but they did come.
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The first thing the app taught me, was that I was running before I could walk – that is I thought if I couldn’t run for a considerable amount of time without stopping, I was a failure. It never occurred to me that someone with absolutely no running experience had to learn to build stamina, which takes time (I know this is probably obvious to some, but Miss Impatient over here just hadn’t even entertained the idea). The training sessions on the app actively coach you when to run and when to slow down to a brisk walk, increasing the time of the runs with each session; the end goal being that you will be able to run the full 5K when you complete the 9 week programme. You can choose from a number of famous faces to be your coach – including Jo Wiley and Sarah Millican, and they’ll kindly cut in when its time for you to speed up and slow down, so you can still listen to your fave running playlist as you go. Your coach will also provide you with little hints and tips about your breathing and keeping pace, which are so useful. Each run lasts 30 minutes so it was easy to fit into my daily routine (I preferred evening runs after work), and it also meant I had less of an excuse not to do it. Prior to this I was under the impression I had to run considerable distances for long periods of time to be a “runner”, whereas it’s really quality over quantity, especially when you’re still getting into the swing of running.
Tracking My Progress Became Addictive!
When setting up the app, it allows you to choose your goals, be it to prepare for an organised event like I was doing, or to improve your general health and wellbeing. Whatever the reason is, I found setting a goal and physically seeing it written on my profile helped with my motivation. Even now, I find it quite hard to garner motivation to run, so giving myself a goal, no matter how small, really pushes me to throw my trainers on and get out there. Each run you complete on the app gets checked off and allows you to “rate” how you found it – again, a great tool in tracking your overall performance and physically seeing your improvements as you move from week to week. I must admit, when I started to really get into it, I was almost eager to unlock the next run, and dare I say it, even began to enjoy it. There are also some fantastic support links provided by the BBC for you to access within the app, from handy hints and tips, testimonials from other runners and how to look after yourself and keep safe.
It took me a few weeks, but Couch to 5k taught me the countless benefits running can provide when done properly, and it also made me realise a lot of the reasons I initially hated it were due to hurdles I had created for myself. The big one was worrying what other people thought of me. I always felt pressure to run faster when people were in my vicinity, and I was terrified of looking out of breath and unfit, giving folk a right laugh at my expense. It took me a while and I do still sometimes have my moments, but ultimately I realised that I pay minimal attention to runners when I’m out and about, so the likelihood is no one is paying much attention to me either. The app really helped me blast these negative connotations I had previously pinned to running; focusing on the coach’s instructions meant with each run I was becoming more and more fixated on checking my pace or my breathing than what other people were thinking. Couch to 5K helped give me a solid basis in building my confidence as a runner, which I really don’t think I would have found on my own.
The app kept me feeling inspired to push myself, even after I completed the programme.
Ultimately, did it work? Did I feel fitter and healthier? Did I manage to run 5K, and eventually, a half marathon? The answer to all those questions is a resounding yes! About halfway through the programme I felt I had created a proper routine for myself; completing a session was just as normal as making lunch or brushing my teeth. I also felt stronger, both physically and mentally. My primary aim wasn’t to lose weight, but I did see changes in my body, especially when I advanced my running after the programme was completed. But small yet significant changes were evident after only a couple of weeks of integrating the programme into my life: I wasn’t as out of breath all the time, I had tons more energy and even my skin and hair felt healthier. The most significant change however, and one of the main reasons I have kept running ever since, is the impact it has had on my mental health. Like everyone, I’ve had ups and downs in my personal life and sometimes it can all feel a little overwhelming. Running gave me an outlet, a release for emotions I just didn’t know how to deal with or didn’t even know were having a negative impact on my wellbeing. I especially feel a difference if I am having days that are fuelled by anxiety; once I get running, even for just half an hour, it helps to calm anxious thoughts for the rest of the day. Running is not a miracle cure for mental health struggles, but for me, it definitely has the ability to ease my worries and gain perspective on situations which may be upsetting me, and for that alone, I will be forever grateful for Couch to 5K kick starting my running journey. As a side note, if you are interested in the relationship between running and mental health, I fully recommend reading “Jog On: How Running Saved My Life” by Bella Mackie linked here: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Jog-On-by-Bella-Mackie-author/9780008241728
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All in all, this is just one woman’s experience with a running app, I cannot say for certain how it will affect you or if it’ll spark the runner inside of you the way it has me. I still have a love hate relationship with running at times, but what it has given me is a relationship with exercise which I never had before; a relationship that holds positives for both my body and my mind. If you have curiosities about running, I can’t think of a better basis to get you started in a safe, easy, and effective way. The app is inclusive for all, just like running itself is. Anyone who owns a pair of trainers can call themselves a runner, you just need to let Couch to 5K give you the confidence and motivation to help you on your way.
Download “Couch to 5K” for Apple devices here: https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/one-you-couch-to-5k/id1082307672
Also available on Android.