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Fitness guru behind world-famous running programme Couch To 5K reveals how to jog through lockdown

Gyms are no-go areas and home exercise equipment is sold out. So millions of Britons, possibly going slightly stir-crazy in the lockdown, are using the only tool left at their disposal – their feet.

You might think that running is simply not for you, or that now is not the time to take up a new activity, with no access to professional advice. Well, I can assure you this is far from the case. Training yourself to run is surprisingly easy – even in these extraordinary circumstances.

And I should know, having invented the world’s simplest running programme, which has since been adopted by more than five million Britons, and is even endorsed by the NHS.

Everyone from grandparents to overweight children have seen success with my no-nonsense plan, called Couch To 5K. There are just three rules: walk lots, go slowly and stop if it’s too much. The only fitness requirement is the ability to walk for 15 minutes.

The only fitness requirement for the hugely-successful Couch to 5K plan is the ability to walk for 15 minutes

Now, I’ve adapted the nine-week programme especially for lockdown purposes. There is no need to go further than a stone’s-throw from your home or buy new gear. And by following this beginners’ guide, you’ll hopefully avoid injuries. You don’t even have to run if you find it too uncomfortable – just a gentle jog or fast-paced walk will do.

I may be biased, but I believe now more than ever that we need to be active. Studies show that running is one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety and boost mood in times of emotional distress. My daily runs have proven invaluable for coping with my own corona-related panic.

While I’m at home in New York, my wife is stuck 1,000 miles away in Miami. Running keeps me centred so I can be here for her, even from afar.

'The world's simplest running programme' was started by Josh, pictured, on his blog and has since been adopted by more than five million Britons, and is even endorsed by the NHS

‘The world’s simplest running programme’ was started by Josh, pictured, on his blog and has since been adopted by more than five million Britons, and is even endorsed by the NHS

But I wasn’t always so into exercise. Until the age of 25, I’d never set foot inside a gym. Then in the early 1990s, the nervous energy of a bad break-up got me running. I found myself putting on an old pair of trainers and heading out for a run to clear my head and ease my heart.

And my body was transformed – I was now stronger and leaner.

It wasn’t easy, but about two months down the line I was able to run for 30 minutes, or cover five kilometres – three miles – without stopping. My anxiety subsided and my mood lifted.

Some basic research led me to discover interval training – mixing short bursts of jogging followed by longer bouts of walking.

So I wrote a rough nine-week schedule on my blog. Within a few months, it had spread like wildfire.

Runners all over the world were sharing their progress, including my mother, the first Couch To 5K runner, who was in her 50s. And in 2010, NHS officials said they wanted to adapt the plan for a smartphone app. It has since been downloaded by more than five million Britons.

If it takes much longer than nine weeks to get to 5K, that’s fine. The most important thing is to try.

BEFORE YOU START

This programme involves three runs a week, lasting 20 to 30 minutes each time, for nine weeks.

You can choose the days that you exercise, but don’t do two days in a row, as your body needs time to rest. In the early weeks, your exercise combines walking and jogging, so you don’t get too exhausted. In fact, you will be walking more than you run.

However, as you move through the programme, the ratio of jogging to walking will increase until you are jogging exclusively. Every run starts with a five-minute brisk walk to warm up. You should then stretch (see the panel, below) before starting the run proper.

End with a five-minute cool- down walk at a pace that feels relaxing and comfortable.

Feeling a bit uncomfortable on your run is normal – you’re using muscles that you haven’t worked in a long time. But pain could be a sign of injury, so you should stop the programme.

Go slowly at first – if you get breathless, you’re jogging too fast. You may not be able to buy trainers at the moment, but plimsolls or any light, flexible, soft-soled fabric shoe can give ample support.You don’t need special clothes either – just comfortable layers you can remove if you get hot.

WEEK ONE

The schedule deliberately begins gently. On each of the three runs this week, alternate 60 seconds of running with 90 seconds of walking, for a total of 20 minutes. Don’t worry about your pace when walking – keep to whatever feels the most comfortable. When running, keep to a pace that is slow enough to have a conversation.

WEEK TWO

The running time increases but only slightly. You will now alternate 90 seconds of running with two minutes of walking, for a total of 20 minutes.

You may feel dull strains in the shins, knees or lower back – even hours after the jog. This is usually caused by stiff leg muscles and tight hip flexors – the muscles across the front of that joint.

It’s common and nothing to worry about, but if you feel a shooting pain in the kneecap it could indicate a more serious injury.

Otherwise, a few simple stretches and hot showers will ease any discomfort. Do the warm-up stretches every night before bed this week.

Feeling a bit uncomfortable on your run is normal ¿ you¿re using muscles that you haven¿t worked in a long time. But pain could be a sign of injury, so you should stop the programme

Feeling a bit uncomfortable on your run is normal – you’re using muscles that you haven’t worked in a long time. But pain could be a sign of injury, so you should stop the programme

WEEK THREE

Now there are two patterns of walking and running to gradually increase your stamina. Immediately after the five-minute warm-up, walk for 90 seconds, then run for 90 seconds. Then, the jogging time doubles – you walk for three minutes and run for three. Repeat this entire pattern twice.

The increase in running time often causes the Achilles – the small, thick tendon in the back of the heel – to ache. This is more likely if your calves are tight and pulling on the delicate tendons in the feet. Make sure to do stretch two (in the panel) every evening and morning to help with this.

Don’t forget to follow the rules 

  • DO stick to quieter residential streets, avoiding busier main roads or parks where more people are likely to congregate.
  • DON’T forget to keep your distance. Much has been said about running etiquette at this time – remember, you don’t own the pavement. It’s a good workout for your mind, as well as body, to quickly hop over to the other side of the road as soon as you see someone coming your way.
  • DO keep up hygiene standards. Take a hankie or tissues if you know you get a runny nose when jogging. And it goes without saying, but don’t spit or cough openly.
  • DON’T be afraid to go off the beaten path, very early or late in the day, or run across countryside or in woodland if you’re near enough – the change in terrain in a good challenge. You are also less likely to cross paths with another person.
  • DO let people know you’re going to overtake them – politely! And be aware of sharp corners where you might be in danger of bumping into someone.

WEEK FOUR

This week’s schedule is confusing so it’s best to let the NHS’s Couch To 5K app guide you. The intention is to gradually prepare your cardiovascular system for a full five minutes of running.

After the warm-up, do three minutes of running, 90 seconds of walking, five minutes running, two-and-a-half minutes walking, three minutes running, 90 seconds walking and finally, five minutes running. Your heart will now be pumping blood and oxygen to your lungs and leg muscles more effectively, so they’ll feel less tired.

WEEK FIVE

Lots of people drop out this week because they’re put off when they see that the three weekly runs are different.

But trust the process – the first two runs are designed to build you up so that by the third, you can manage 20 minutes of non-stop running.

The week’s first exercise involves running for five minutes, walking for three, running for five, walking for three and finishing with another five-minute run.

On the second, you’ll run for eight minutes twice, broken up with five minutes of walking in between. By jog three, you’ll manage 20 minutes of full running.

If you need distracting from the discomfort, try counting how many times your foot hits the floor or how many people you see out on the street. And it’s fine to repeat this week several times before you’re ready to move on.

WEEK SIX

There are three different runs here. On your first, you will run for five minutes, walk for three, run for eight, walk for three and finish with a five-minute run.

Run two may feel tougher – it’s two lots of ten-minute runs with a three-minute walk in between.

The third is 22 minutes of jogging without stopping.

By now, your muscles have adapted to the range of motion thrust upon them and the lower body will be stronger.

Gyms, pictured, are no-go areas and home exercise equipment is sold out. So millions of Britons, possibly going slightly stir-crazy in the lockdown, are using the only tool left at their disposal ¿ their feet

Gyms, pictured, are no-go areas and home exercise equipment is sold out. So millions of Britons, possibly going slightly stir-crazy in the lockdown, are using the only tool left at their disposal – their feet

WEEK SEVEN

Things are back to being simpler to understand – three 25-minute non-stop runs. And don’t forget to warm up and cool down. Repeat the week as many times as you need to until you’ve managed all three 25-minute runs.

WEEK EIGHT

Three minutes are added to your jogging time, making it 28 minutes each time. You are preparing your body for the full 30 minutes in the final week.

You’ll now be covering about 4.5km, or 2.8 miles. You’re within touching distance of your goal.

WEEK NINE

You’ve made it! This week, you can run for about 30 minutes without stopping. It takes the average person about this time to complete 5K.

Some people enjoy the habit, so continue jogging this distance three times a week for the foreseeable future.

Others get hooked on the steady improvement so keep increasing the challenge.

But many decide that completing this challenge is enough – running simply isn’t for them.

My mother, now 75, is one of them. After completing the challenge 25 years ago, she rediscovered the joy of walking. In these scary times, she says she couldn’t live without it.

  • For more details, visit nhs.uk.

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