My hatred of exercise could be traced directly back to cross country running at school. In my memory, it is always winter – dark, cold, muddy and raining. We would be made to run in red polyester knickershorts (think Bridget Jones pants) with an Airtex top. The combination of physical suffering and adolescent humiliation left me swearing I would never put myself through that torture again.
But by my mid twenties (and by now, a decade of inactivity), I knew my exercise aversion was bad for me in more ways than one.
I had already fallen into the trap of joining a gym, going once – never to return – under a cloud of guilt and shame. And the thought of doing any sort of group sport or class took me right back to the school sports fields.
I wanted something as low key and low fuss as possible and strangely enough, I decided on running. I liked the idea of it requiring very little by way of equipment, time and commitment. Crucially for me, it was also private. I didn’t need to do it in a group – I could just get up early and do it in my local park, alone.
I found a plan online called Couch to 5k which lasted 9 weeks and started, in week 1, with alternating just a minute of running and a minute of walking at a time. I felt sure that even I could manage that. So off I went, with a new pair of £30 trainers and a woolly hat as disguise.
Fast forward to just over 9 weeks later, I’d finished the plan and was elated. I could not believe that my body was capable of running for 30 minutes. I’d gone from an exercise-phobe who ran in secret, to telling anyone who’d listen what I’d just achieved. This included my boss. I worked for NHS.uk at the time and pitched the idea of a podcast series to him. I felt that we could turn what I used (which was just a written plan, and quite fiddly to follow) into podcasts where someone could be in your ear, telling you when to run and when to walk and sort of cheering you on and encouraging you as you listened.
My boss decided it wasn’t a bad idea but insisted I script and voice it, seeing as I’d actually done the plan. We decided that would make the programme more relatable. I had notes from my own experience, so I based my scripts off those, offering tips and motivation that I'd learned first-hand.
Not long later the NHS Couch to 5k podcast series quietly launched on NHS.uk and on iTunes (you can see the launch video above). It gradually built up a bit of a following and within a couple of years, the series was being downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and was riding high in the iTunes charts. An app came next which has since evolved to feature the voices of BBC stars such as Jo Whiley and Sarah Millican.
Downloads of the app and the podcast series are now in the millions – it was announced this week that 858,000 people downloaded the app in lockdown – and while that always makes me feel really proud, the human stories I’ve heard over the last 10 years make me prouder.
A lovely stranger messaged me just the other week and said this: "You’ve been in my ears since the end of April, I’ve just run for 25mins non-stop for the first time in my life and it’s all down to you telling me how long I [have] left and just generally being my fan. I really appreciate you, thank you for doing what you do. You’ve made a huge difference in my life."
Learning to run 5k or for 30 minutes won’t sound remarkable to some people, but for others, taking on that challenge can lead to remarkable things. I’ve heard of people using it to lose weight so they can conceive and of others using Couch to 5k as part of their heart surgery recovery. But there are also many people with simpler stories – like me – who just didn’t think they were capable of it and for whom it built confidence and resilience, alongside physical fitness.
Anyway, this isn’t one of those stories that ends in me revealing that I now run ultra-marathons. In fact, I’ve still never run in a group or for a distance greater than 10k. I also hadn’t run for a while until lockdown when, like so many others, I needed an excuse to get some exercise, fresh air and to clear my head. But much like riding a bike, running is always there waiting for me to pick up where I left off. Exercise doesn’t intimidate me like it once did and I know it will be always be a part of my life.
To all #Couchto5K Graduates WELL DONE!!— Jo Whiley (@jowhiley) July 1, 2020
Congratulations on deciding to try the App. On MAKING yourself get fitter. On becoming a bona fide RUNNER.
I’m SO impressed with u & what you’ve achieved. THANK U for choosing me to be yr coach. Ps. it’s ok about the swearing!#NHSBirthday pic.twitter.com/g69oTFCsdK
A huge proportion of us are inactive, which can have catastrophic consequences for our physical and mental health. There are many, often complex reasons for this and the older we get, the more daunting it can be to start something new. ‘I’m not sporty’, 'I don’t have trainers or the right clothes’, ‘I’m too old/overweight’ – there is always an excuse. But Couch to 5k is not just about exercise and isn’t about turning you into something you’re not. The thing that bonds Couch to 5k graduates (as we call ourselves) is the enormous sense of achievement it delivers. The satisfaction of completing each run, the elation of finishing the final run of the programme and the pride when you tell people you’re a runner.
It’s much more than just a running plan – it’s the biggest and best confidence boost you can give yourself.