When the pandemic first started, Samantha, a 43-year-old teacher in Tennessee, decided she’d make a point of getting out of the house and stretching her legs by taking her dogs for a long walk once a day. “After a couple of months, our walks grew longer and longer,” she says, “until I just felt the urge to run rather than walk.”
Before picking up the pace, though, she researched how to run in a way that would avoid injury and/or burnout. Eventually, she discovered r/C25K, the Reddit community dedicated to the Couch to 5K fitness program, known colloquially as C25K. The program’s creator, Josh Clark, built it after he “scribbled down a nine-week schedule to help skeptical, would-be runners get off the couch and on the move.” Given how simple the program is — it requires no other workouts, weights, dieting or membership — Couch to 5K has had enormous success since Clark first posted his schedule online in 1996. Fourteen years later, the U.K.’s National Health Service endorsed it as an “official exercise plan,” and it’s spurred thousands more blogs, communities and apps (including Clark’s official C25K app, which has been downloaded millions of times).
So how does something so basic — and now, old — continue to flourish?
Many converts credit the program’s slow, but steady build as the thing that keeps them (and it) going. Case in point: Vicki, a 30-year-old in the U.K. who began C25K after suddenly losing her father in January last year. “I needed something in my life to focus on,” she tells me. “I felt depressed a lot of the time, and I’d gained a lot of weight over four years, which gave me joint pain.”
Still, she went into C25K expecting to quit after a few weeks, and struggling to run for 60 seconds straight in Week One didn’t help. But something kept bringing her back. “It’s psychological — you convince yourself you won’t be able to do it, but your gradual progress gives you the tools and stamina to do it without you even realizing it,” she explains. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, but you see your fitness levels increase so quickly that it gives you hope and motivation in something you may have previously dismissed as impossible.”
Samantha had a similar experience. “Each time I’d run a little longer and was always surprised that I was able to meet the new challenge. Eventually, the biggest issue I had was following the recommendations and only running every other day rather than every day.” To that end, before she knew it, Samantha was running 12 minutes straight, “then 15, 20, 25, 30 — until I graduated at 35 minutes.”
“I was, and still am, elated that I’m able to run for that amount of time, especially when I started by barely being able to run for 30 seconds,” she continues. “Each victory proved I could go a little farther, push a little more, and I looked forward to pushing myself and being proud of myself at the end of every run, which, in turn, made me excited to accomplish the next goal.”
Because Couch to 5K is focused on the journey rather than the destination, Samantha says the commitment to seeing it through feels stronger than any of the other fitness programs she’s attempted previously. “It’s not like dieting in that there isn’t anything to prove to anyone else or that there is temptation to fail at every turn,” she explains.
Along those lines, after years of being unable to stick to a gym routine, Cassius, a 28-year-old in London, hoped C25K would force him into a habit of exercising. “I’d let myself down in terms of my physical health and I knew I had to make a change,” he tells me, “and there was nothing intimidating about a program that begins at the couch.”
Cassius has since graduated from C25K, and motivated by his better overall health and weight loss, he’s embarking upon B210K, or “Bridge to 10K,” a similarly structured schedule that will take him from five kilometers of running to 10 kilometers of running. “I’m still very much new to this, but very much excited for where it might take me,” he says.
For her part, Samantha is focusing on getting faster before she tries longer distances. “I don’t know why I enjoy running so much, I just do. The feeling of accomplishment it gives me is exhilarating,” she says. “As it turns out, I am, in fact, the badass I always thought I could be.”
Not too shabby for a starting line that began at the couch, and with a program that’s about to celebrate its 25th anniversary.