The founder of Couch to 5K reveals his running secrets

Gentleman’s Journal speaks to Josh Clark about his famous 9-week schedule, and why lockdown is the perfect time to start exercising

Josh Clark never liked running. In fact, that’s an understatement.

“Oh my god,” the Couch to 5K founder tells me remotely from New York, “before all of this began, I hated running. So much. Like with a white-hot heat. My lungs burned, and my legs screamed. It was a cruel, endless torture…”

They’re big, surprising words from the man who developed one of the most popular exercise schedules in the history of the fitness world. But Clark’s story is heartening. He isn’t a superhuman, who lives for the gym and has no interests beyond his own muscle mass. He is a normal person, who made it his mission to help other normal people.

“A bad breakup back in the early 1990s got me running,” he reveals. “It was punishing and painful, and if I’m honest, maybe that was the point. But then something crazy happened: it started to feel good. At some point, the boring awful discomfort gave way to real pleasure — physically, mentally, even spiritually.”

Clark caught ‘the zeal of the converted’, as he puts it. And, wanting to share his discovery with other skeptical, would-be runners, he sat down and wrote a nine-week schedule to get his mother into running. “She was the first C25K runner,” Clark says, adding that he launched a website for runners called Kick! not long after that, in 1996. Here, he published his C25K schedule for the first time and, by the turn of the millennium, thousands of people had completed the program.

“It’s a very portable, very shareable program,” says Clark, “and the arrival of social media — especially Facebook — turbo-charged that effect. It grew right along with the web. Like a lot of early online content, it found its way into newer forms: podcasts, apps, desktop software, even offline communities.”

Clark, who now works as a UX designer and design leader at his pioneering New York design studio, Big Medium, sold Kick! in 2001. The official steward of C25K these days is online fitness giant — as well as the app created by Zen Labs. But Clark is confident that millions of people have completed the program by this point — with a huge spike in the last few weeks alone.

“I simply created the content,” Clark says, “The schedule itself. Others have created the websites, apps, podcasts, and other vehicles to bring it into people’s lives. It’s been amazing to see. It’s even endorsed by the NHS, who have created podcasts and apps around the original schedule.”

Which brings us to C25K’s recent surge in popularity. During the current state of self-isolated lockdown, our once-a-day workouts are keeping many of us going. And, if you’d failed to notice, Twitter, the App Store and even the streets outside your front door have been ablaze with praise for Clark’s almost 25-year-old schedule. So what tips does the founder of C25K have for would-be runners in this brave new locked-down world?

View running as a passion, not as a punishment

“Many people start fitness routines like C25K because they’re unhappy with something about themselves,” begins Clark. “We think we weigh too much, we feel unhealthy, we’re depressed, we’re stressed. In that light, running is the half-hearted solution for ‘fixing’ something. It is a penance, and that’s a difficult place to find enthusiasm.”

Instead, Clark adds, you should start afresh. Don’t keep thinking about those New Year’s resolutions you always break, or that last time you took up running and got shin splints. And, most importantly, don’t think of fitness as a punishment — especially when it’s currently one of the only times we’re allowed outside.

“Time and again, people change from this penance mindset to a celebration mindset over the course of C25K’s nine weeks. Somewhere along the line, a switch flips, and people find themselves running not to ‘fix something broken’ but simply to experience the sensations and benefits of motion. The activity becomes worthwhile in itself, and the rewards of physical and mental health follow as happy side effects.”

Be gentle with yourself — and use distractions

“Aim for slow, incremental improvement,” advises Clark. “Go slower than you think you should, and do less than you think you should. Be patient. Too often new runners start off by, well, actually running. They go too fast, too far, for too long. Pain and exhaustion follow.”

Instead, Clark adds, the first week of C25K only asks you to jog for a minute at a time — an achievable victory for most of us. The challenges gradually increase, but you’ll soon realise that you’re more than capable. “And bring your headphones,” says Clark. “Listen to music or a podcast or an audiobook. It’s okay to distract yourself if that’s what it takes to get over the hump.”

“You will likely experience some soreness — but that’s okay. Some light stretching before and after your run will help relieve that, and it’s perfectly fine to keep going even if your legs are sore. Listen to your body, though, if the soreness is too unpleasant to continue, then don’t! If your body asks for rest, give it the rest it needs, and wait a day or two before returning to your routine.”

Try not to compare yourself to other runners

“I’ve been a runner for 25 years now, and I’d even describe myself as a serious runner,” says Clark. “But, every day, I’m passed by faster runners of all shapes and sizes — much younger or older, much rounder or slimmer. In most things in life, it’s not terribly useful to compare yourself to the accomplishments of others, and that’s definitely true of running, too. Few of us are ever going to win a race.”

Instead, Clark says he’s found it useful to think about his own accomplishments and progress. “And that goes double for new runners,” he adds. “C25K isn’t organised about running a certain distance or a certain speed. It just asks you to get out there and jog for a few minutes a day — and those minutes gradually grow over nine weeks.

“So don’t worry about how fast or how far you go. Just get used to moving for a longer and longer period of time. Once you have that base, start to explore the pleasures of speed and distance — and enjoy your own progress on those fronts without worrying too much about the runner next to you — or ahead of you.”

The ‘runner’s high’ is great, but don’t always expect it

“The truly elated runner’s high is rare,” admits Clark, “For me, it usually happens only in the middle of a run. It’s a sensation that I could just keep doing this forever. It’s hitting a stride that feels like I’m pushing but also well within my ability. I often zone out and forget that I’m even running. Sometimes that’s a very meditative, inward, calm experience. Other times, it’s very creative — I find myself solving problems or having sparks of ideas. There is a glow and a confidence that goes beyond the physical. It’s pretty remarkable.

“But most times,” he continues, “you know what? It’s just a run. There’s still the satisfaction of the workout, the pleasure of moving through my city, but there’s not a heady existential experience. Everyone’s different, but for me it’s a rare and lovely surprise when runners’ high hits.”

Now is the perfect time to start

“I feel so grateful that my preferred self-care, stress relief, and exercise is one of the activities that is explicitly allowed and encouraged in these strange times,” says Clark. “With a few common-sense precautions, running alone is not only safe right now, it’s a huge benefit. Exercise and fresh air are both welcome contributors to stress relief, calm, and mental health.”

Going for a run, Clark explains, will clear your head even as it stimulates your heart — and both of those things are important for easing the cabin fever of quarantine. It’ll even help boost your immune system.

“It’s clear that a lot of newcomers are turning to running right now to clear their heads and stretch stiff legs. It’s great to see, and I have a hunch many of them have C25K playing in their ears. It’s safe to say that I never thought C25K would play an important personal role in a global pandemic. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, perhaps it’s that it’s creating an opportunity for lots of people to discover that they are actually runners after all. Maybe we should create a Corona to 5K edition…”

Want to boost your immune system? We asked an expert how to stay health during these troubling times…

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