Fad Fitness: Conquering Couch to 5K

Week 1: Becoming a runner one workout at a time

I’ve wanted to be a runner for years. All of my friends are runners. My sister runs. My favorite bloggers run. The awesome heroines in chick flicks always run. The Subway sandwich guy runs marathons. Every time I leave my small, Brooklyn apartment I see people running—no matter the time of day. They are sweating, usually, and have a look of pain on their faces, but there’s always an air of determination about them, a sense that nothing can break into their world. I have envied this “air” for a long time, and I always think—why can’t I be a runner too?

This week, I joined the ranks. I dug out my winter running gear—I bought it on a whim a year ago and never used it much—and downloaded the 5K Runner: 0 to 5K  app. The problem I had when I tried to run in the past was always simple: I would be psyched before I started, but once I had gone 2/3 of a mile I could not concentrate on the running anymore. I would feel bored and suddenly unmotivated, wondering why I was doing this, forgetting my goals. It was a clockwork breakdown; I could not motivate myself once it started to hurt. And I did not want to run with any of my experienced runner friends until I could match their pace somewhat, but I could never get to that point. This problem was entirely mental, and I’ve needed something to ease my mind into becoming a runner for a long time.

One of my best friends suggested the Couch to 5K program for me, so I decided to give it a shot. I was thrilled on that first morning when I literally rose from the couch (well, a comfy armchair, with tea and a book,) to find my first day of running would only take 25 minutes, and I got to walk most of the way! I set out on my warm-up walk to McCarren Park, a local Brooklyn space with flat terrain. It was a not-too-cold Saturday morning, and I enjoyed looping around the park among dog-walkers, stroller moms, and other runners.

In a calm and non-demanding voice, the 5K app told me when to run and when to walk, and let me play my music through the app. Quite a few runners passed me, but I concentrated on the program and my Catching Fire soundtrack, pretending I was Katniss Everdeen training for the Quarter Quell. I found it surprisingly enjoyable—just as my lungs began to complain at the run, it was time to walk again. One minute running, one minute and a half walking. I ended my workout feeling like a runner, even though I had only run six minutes total between the walking periods, as the app prescribed. (But the people I passed who saw my “runner glow” didn’t have to know that.)

I knew immediately afterwards that this program was the way to mentally ease myself into the sport.

The next day the balls of my feet were sore, which I suppose is just from the use of new muscles. I mean, for the past year most of my running has been hurriedly between the restroom and the theater for mid-movie bathroom breaks where I couldn’t bear to miss more than a minute of whatever fantastic film I was watching. I do go to the gym a few times a week, but I hardly ever follow a regular training routine. By the second day of the program, three days after my first go, the soreness in my muscles had disappeared. The weather that day was snowy and frigid. I decided I wasn’t ready to run outside in extreme weather just yet, so I ventured to my local YMCA.

I hate looking at myself in the mirror as I run on the treadmill (who wants to watch their face redden, their hair frizz, and their body dance unconsciously to Beyonce in their headphones?), so I decided to put a “lifescape” up on the touchscreen of the treadmill. The device allows you to pick a destination and follow real footage of the outdoors or cityscapes, so as to create a virtual running experience that helps remove you from the monotony of the treadmill. I picked Germany, so every time I looked up from my phone I did not see my flyaway hairs, I instead saw Saxony! Or Munich! Which led me immediately to wonder…if I keep running…can I do races around the world?! Maybe a European running tour! (And then I remembered it was only my first week of Couch to 5K and maybe I was getting a tad ahead of myself.)

At the end of the workout I felt great, though I was a tad sweatier than when I ran outside. The program’s beginning workouts require you train between walking and running speeds, and I found that one problem with the treadmill is that it takes longer to switch between the varying paces as opposed to when running outside. But, on the other hand, it is nice that once you set a treadmill “pace” for yourself, you have to stick to it; you cannot start walking early.

Day Two was a good day at the gym, one of those days where you feel you could take on the world as a masked vigilante if you just did 50 more crunches. (Or is that just me?) Usually when I'm at the gym and I feel this way (and I do not have a programmed workout to follow), I keep going, pushing myself too far; and then for days I’m too sore to return to the gym. It is an undeniably bad pattern. So I took my moderately tired self home for a day of rest.

All runners have “bad days,” or so I am told, and Day Three was one of those for me. I attempted to run outside, and got 10 minutes in when I realized the pain in my freezing lungs from the 20-degree weather was just not worth it. If I were able to wean myself into running in the cold, I might be able to better handle the challenge. But as we’re well into the winter months here in New York, I’m faced with more of an all-or-nothing type situation that I’m not yet ready to brave. So I headed to the gym again where I re-started the workout. With about eleven minutes left in the routine, my headphones broke and everything started to sound like a karaoke track with no lead vocals, and then I got a cramp in my right side. So I slowed the ten-minute-mile pace and focused on breathing into the cramp under my ribs. These tactics worked and I was able to finish the workout in full!

I didn’t feel as wonderful post-run as I had the first two days, but there was no one there but myself to witness it. I always felt insecure having a coach or trainer look on when I had bad days in the past (I spent much of my life as a competitive swimmer), but with this app I never feel that way. I get the benefit of someone telling me what to do, and when, without the potential judgment. It’s like having a coach in my head, a motivation that comes from within—which is the kind of thing I never felt I was able to do on my own. The app even allows you to change the notifications so you only hear a beep when it’s time to switch running/walking, and you can also choose between a male or female coach voice. It also shows you a time-map of your workout so you always know the remaining duration. (“Just two more running sets and you can go home and make pasta primavera…”)

The only qualm I had with the app is that it required I take my phone off silent mode, even when my headphones were plugged in. It didn’t seem to notify me when to walk/run whenever my phone was on “lock.” This meant I had to hold it and make sure it didn’t lock. I would find it more effective if it told me through my headphones when to switch, even if my phone was on lock in my pocket. But maybe I am doing something wrong. Technology and I are not on great terms. Neither are me and my quads right now—I won’t tell them that next week the program requires more running!

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