Misery Loves Company: The Community Around "Couch to 5K"

Ruxy Chitac writes an honest and compelling account about the benefits of having an online community when taking up running.


Blood. Sweat. Tears. “Couch to 5K” is a 9-week running programme developed by the NHS and BBC that promises to get you running 5 kilometres (or 30 minutes) without encountering the “blood and tears” bits of the ordeal. So inspired by these bold promises, I started the programme as a glimmer of hope that one day I might be fit enough to run for 30 minutes and bask in those post-run endorphins that everyone is talking about.

For anyone who is not aware of what “Couch to 5K” (C25K) is, I will provide a brief description. It is a programme that alternates walking and running intervals within approximately half an hour sessions. Progressing through the weeks, the running intervals become longer so that eventually the user will be able to run for 30 minutes constantly by Week 9. As an example, Week 1 is composed of 1 minute runs and 1.5 minutes walks, repeated 8 times, with a 5 minutes warm-up walk and 5 minutes cool-down walk at the end. There is the option of choosing the voice that coaches you through the progress so you feel like you have a personal trainer and the options range from athletes to comedians, so there is a choice for everyone. You can play your own music over it and NHS makes a good job at making the runs available in different formats.

The programme has been tested, developed and improved over the past few years so the approach has been shown to be successful. The beauty of it is that you are constantly encouraged to take it at your own pace, being reminded that the important part of this is that you are attempting some form of exercise, so you are already taking a step towards a healthier lifestyle. The coaches give you advice on how to breathe, how to properly cool down and how to regenerate your strength with a healthy snack after the run (still waiting to be told I deserve a slice of pizza for my efforts, maybe it will come in the later weeks...).

However, C25K is still working on bringing all useful information concerning running into one easy-to-access place for everyone. For a complete beginner to the world of fitness, it would be pretty difficult to learn what kind of shoes are needed, how to properly stretch after a run, how to run to avoid injuries, how to know if you have an injury that means that you shouldn’t run, or what kind of diet you should have to achieve an overall healthy lifestyle. These are all left in the hands and responsibility of the runner. However, I would argue that we live in a time where any of these issues could be solved through some quick research on the good old internet, but sometimes it is difficult to discern the useful bits of advice from the rubbish ones.

Nevertheless, I find that C25K manages to provide a solution to these shortcomings in the form of “HealthUnlocked”, an online community platform where people following the programme can share their progress and spark a conversation on any topic running-related. The first time I accessed the platform was before I even downloaded the C25K app on my phone and I was honestly inspired by how many people were openly discussing how much they were struggling, across any stage of the programme. In the end, just as the old saying goes - misery loves company - and all these random people provided reassurance that it will be okay if all I can do in the beginning is jog for one minute. It is rare that you have a community of people open about the ordeal of exercise and everything it entails, particularly in this society where we are fed images of very fit, happy and muscular able-bodied people 24/7 from all directions.

It is beautiful to see how people of all backgrounds and ages take on the challenge and power through the weeks, sharing what obstacles they encountered. Just a quick scroll through the page brings up posts to do with someone graduating Week 9, someone suffering from pain in the calves after Week 1 Run 1, another person said that they hated their latest run, people recommending running routes or asking for some advice and a 60 year old that has started C25K after not having run at all in their life. The community congratulates you, tries to help you and ultimately, provides a place to come when the journey proves to be too difficult.

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In this day and age, where online bullying is a real issue, C25K shows that it is possible to have a decent group of people with diverse personal lives and experiences that come together, to support each other in achieving a goal that will improve their fitness. In this way, I think the benefits of C25K reach beyond running - the sense of community might alleviate feelings of loneliness and support from people that share a goal with you could improve your own well-being. You have the option to bring your friends into the community or meet people near you that are doing the programme, which is a great way to motivate yourself to go through with the runs. This community that formed around C25K provides an example of the ideal benefits of social media and how it can turn into a wonderful device for empowering individuals.

Personally, I am still going through the programme and waiting for those endorphins to kick in and help me feel better - right now it feels like I have been sold empty promises by media in the past. However, the community on “HealthUnlocked” helped me to learn more and know better than looking for instantaneous results. So I’m taking it one run at a time, both the good days and bad days, but always being aware of the support I have from countless other people going through similar experiences.