What to do after Couch to 5K

Couch to 5K is a fantastic program for almost anyone trying to build (or re-build) a habit of activity. It’s intentionally un-scary, provides simple, well structured ‘do this, then do that’ programming, and requires minimal equipment, all of which make it a great option for full-time travelers and homebodies alike, even if running isn’t going to be their “thing” long-term.1They don’t pay me to say that.

But it has one problem, which I’ll explain by sharing four text messages I got from an old friend and reader of some of the earliest drafts of the Road Warrior book.

10:22 AM: I just ran my first 5K in ten years!! C25K baby!
(We had a little back and forth where I said some supportive things, asked about their race time and experience with the program, etc. Several hours passed.)
3:45 PM: Okay, now what?
3:45 PM: The app says I should get their 10k app
3:46 PM: what if I don’t want to run a 10k?

Okay, now what?

First, some  recognition is in order. By completing a C25K, you’ve already accomplished something impressive and difficult, and you should feel proud. It’s difficult to build a regular habit of activity, whether that’s running, spinning, lifting weights, rock climbing or literally anything else. And you did it! Well done, you!

Second, a disclaimer: if you never want to do anything more than repeat W8D3 forever and jog 30 minutes three times a week, that’s completely fine. Not everyone needs to be a marathoner (or even a 10k-er); some people just want to live a little longer and better. All goals are valid.

First of all, keep running while you figure out what you’re going to do next

An hour and a half of weekly moderate-pace jogging has the ability to improve your heart health enough to cause a ~30% decrease in your chance of dying from any cause over a totally sedentary individual.2Well, on average — epidemiology can’t actually tell you how much longer you specifically will live. That’s just not how statistics work. There are also a number of other benefits (that I laid out in this 31 Reasons To Exercise That Have Nothing To Do With Six-Pack Abs article a while back).The single most important thing to do now is maintain a habit of activity.

It may feel like your biggest victory of the past eight weeks was your newfound ability to run, but you secretly had an even more important win: you did something active, three times a week, for eight straight weeks.

As I research, write about, and attempt to live a healthy, productive life, it’s become increasingly obvious that while doing the work is important, creating the conditions that allow you to do the work consistently — making the time, shaping the environment, and developing the habits — is actually how those superhuman-seeming people get it all done (whether the “it” in question is learning, writing, running, or just about anything else).

This means habit-building. Whatever your ultimate fitness goals are, the thing you need to be protecting the most is the habit.

Practically, this means keep running for 30 minutes a day, three times a week, until you have a plan to do something else for (at least) 30 minutes a day, three times a week. Just keep lacing up the shoes and getting out there. No need to worry about improving your pace, or pushing yourself to the limit. Just don’t lose the habit.

(If you find that even that is harder now that you’ve hit the end of the preset program, you’re not alone. Have a look below at the “Sign up for a 5K” and “Join a running group” sections for some ideas that can give you a continued sense of progression without changing too much all at once.)

How to keep the habit, or 10 things to do after Couch to 5K

The rest of this article is a random access grab-bag of options for what to do after Couch to 5K that fit the following criteria:

  • They’re appropriate for someone with the physical capacity that most people finishing Couch to 5K have,
  • They require minimal planning past “show up, do whatever an instructor or pre-made program says to do,”
  • They ask for a similar time commitment as C25K, and
  • They require minimal equipment. This is still allegedly a blog for people who live out of their suitcase, after all.

Also, importantly, they assume you want to keep running. This is honestly a limitation of these suggestions. There are many, many ways you could continue or extend your activity habit past just running, but to keep it less overwhelming (and a reasonable length), they’ll have to wait for another installment.

You’ll see plenty of apps and done-for-you templates on this list. A lot of hardcore runners might poo-poo this, but I say fuck ‘em. Figuring it out yourself has its benefits — and you’re obviously free to do just that— but I’d recommend waiting to go the DIY route until you’ve got a bit more experience and knowledge under your belt. As someone just coming off of C25K, the potential benefits of a DIY approach are far outweighed by the work, confusion, and demotivation it can cause.

These recommendations are broken into three basic groups: ways to keep doing what you’re doing and maintain motivation, ways to get faster, and ways to run farther, plus a bonus 11th recommendation, which serves as a sort of conclusion. On with the show!

1. Sign up for a 5K

Even if you never do anything more than just continue  to get out there and get your heart moving a few times a week  (which to reiterate, is not only totally fine but in fact amazing and wonderful, especially if the alternative is not doing it all), I’d recommend having some forcing function to get yourself moving on those days where work is busy, or you feel a little cruddy, or you just don’t feel like it.

My personal favorite version of this idea is signing up for a 5K race or fun run. These are a nice blend of carrot (do your new hobby with people!) and stick (oh no you paid for that thing better do it and better not be terrible at it!), plus they’re abundant in almost every community at every time of year.

One that’s going to take place in 5-8 weeks is ideal; going farther out than that means that you’re waiting longer than it took you to do Couch to 5K in the first place, which opens you up to trickery from your brain on the order of “well I can just restart C25K in two weeks and still be fine for the race.” Your brain wants to trick you into reverting back to your old behaviors, it’s best that you don’t give it the opportunity if at all possible.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to keep signing up for 5Ks every eight weeks forever, but you’ll want to at least until you feel the habit is deep in your brain (easy heuristic: when you start feeling weird or bad or neurotic when you don’t go on a run).

This takes — on average — a little less than 10 weeks (66 days, to be precise), but for some people can take as long as 256 days,3By some people, I mean the most similar 95% of the 82 people in this 2009 study, which, from looking at the study design, seems like a pretty representative group for a general population. A note about this, though: the very common two-sigma approach used here means that means that 2.5% of the study participants took longer than 256 days to build a habit, and 2.5% took less than 18 days. That is some massive individual variation. so it’ll really be a personal call.

2. Make a public bet that you’ll keep running

The public bet is a sort of ‘pure stick’ version of the above — as you continue to reinforce the habit, you create a strong monetary disincentive to stop. You do this by handing a friend a check for a painful amount of money written either to them or to a charity or PAC that you’d hate giving money to. If you don’t do the thing, they send (or cash) the check.

If you don’t have a friend or loved one to do this sort of betting with, there are a bevy of online services that will allow you to do this alone or as a part of a group. Some notable ones include stickK (pure disincentive), Spar, and RunBet (group betting), but there are others.

Disclaimer: I’ve never used any of these services — my brother and I are both more than willing to cash each other’s checks — but they come recommended by people I trust.

3. Find a running group

If betting isn’t really your thing, another great tactic for keeping up with your running is to find a community of people to run with. Not only will they encourage, support, and keep you accountable, the old timers are a goldmine of resources on how to safely increase mileage, work on your speed, choose races, choose shoes, and almost everything else.

In addition to a hometown-Sunday-mornings type of group, you can also look for running groups when you’re on the road; they’re a killer way to get a sense of the place you’re visiting and get a local’s perspective on where to go and what to do in your limited free time.  You can even create one amongst your colleagues, if you’re on a long-term client with a number of other people — it’s a great way to bond outside of a bar).

In the US, Road Runner’s Club of America and Meetup.com seem to the best resources for finding a running group, but consider googling and searching facebook for “running club” or “running group” + the name of your area to find more.

Even if you move around too much to join any in-person group, digital running communities and challenges like Strava and even Reddit’s /r/running are great ways to find a like-minded group of people to learn from and maintain accountability with.

4. Run a faster 5K, option one: pace progression

If you are interested in running more and better, there are two main ways: run faster, and run farther. These naturally go hand-in-hand — running faster for the same amount of time will mean you go farther — but I find it’s generally better to only worry about one of the two at a time, especially if you’re just getting the hang of this whole running thing.

The simplest way to run faster is to just run a little faster every time you run.

This starts by just tracking your current pace for a few runs. C25K has an intentional disregard for detailed pace tracking — this is a feature, not a bug— so I’ll go over that in detail just in case you’re not familiar with the idea (if you are, skip ahead a paragraph).

There are two kinds of pace you can keep track of: your overall pace, normally measured as minutes-per-mile or minutes-per-kilometer, depending on where you live, and your split pace, a measurement of your miles-per-minute at a smaller distance interval than your 5K.4Why we measure people this way and vehicles in miles- or km-per-hour I do not know, although “6.6 MPH” certainly does sound weird when you’re talking about a person’s running pace. For each run, you’ll have one overall pace, which is an average of many splits. The number of splits you’ll have depends on how you break it up; half-miles, quarter-miles and KM are all common.

Once you know your pace, you can try and increase it. There’s no need to be super precise or aggressive about this progression, just attempt to increase your pace by a few seconds per mile every time you go out for a run.

it takes a long time to develop an intuitive sense of pace,, especially as you get tired towards the end of the run, which makes it hard to know if you’re actually running faster or it’s just getting harder. Strava, Runkeeper, and other run-tracking apps have optional split pace and total pace announcements that can help you keep track,5nb: even though they all pressure you to use their social features, you can normally turn them off and just use them as trackers. which lets you course-correct to be a little faster or slower for your next split based on those announcements.  No need to suddenly go from a jog to a sprint, just pick it up or slow it down a little bit every time you hear another announcement, and if you’re having an off day and don’t feel like you can push the pace that day, don’t. You’ll running three times a week now, remember? You’ll have another opportunity in just a few days.

Bonus tip: The easiest two ways to run faster (past just “going faster”) are by focusing on taking more steps or longer steps, and of the two, more steps is easier to consistently grasp and accomplish. Many runners call this metric “foot turnover” —how fast your feet are making a complete cycle, and trying to increase that instead of focusing on speed directly is a big boon for many beginners.

Music can help with this, because the beat can serve as a metronome of sorts. Spotify even has playlists that are all the same beats-per-minute, which can also help you pace and progress— use a 100 BPM playlist for one week, then a 105, and so-on.

5. Run a faster 5K, option two: run-jog intervals

If “just run a little faster every time” isn’t enough structure for you, especially coming off of C25K’s walk-jog intervals, here’s another option for you: start the progression over at W1D1, but instead of doing walk-run intervals, do intervals of “jog” and “run.”

Well really, “jog” to “fast jog” — I’m not talking going from a light jog to a dead sprint here, more like going from a very comfortable pace to a notably quicker pace.

One nice benefit of this is you can use whatever already-familiar system you used to do the original Couch to 5K – whether that’s a podcast, an app, or an interval timer. All you’re changing is the pace of the intervals, but not their format or scheduling.

6. Run longer distances, option one: timed

If you want to focus on running longer without necessarily running faster, there are two basic ways to do that: run for a longer amount of time, or run for a longer explicit distance.

Of the two, I prefer running for a longer distance, because it’s easier to map out and not accidentally end up two miles away from home when I misjudge my pace, but given C25K is all about running for time, I figured I’d explain how you might set up a time-wise progression.

But first, the basics of progression. When I say progression, I just mean a structured way to gradually do more over time. Virtually all good workout plans have progression built in — it’s how you improve without overreaching so much that you hurt yourself or burn out and have to sit on the couch for weeks and weeks as you recover physically or mentally.

There are whole books written around how to most effectively structure progression for different sports and people, and it can be extremely complicated if you let it be, but it really just boils down to two things: frequency and intensity.

That is, how often you apply a training stimulus (how frequently do you work out?) and how much of a training stimulus do you apply (how hard is the workout?). If you don’t pull either of these levers hard enough, you don’t see any progress because you haven’t done enough for your body to realize it needs to adapt; if you pull them too hard, you also don’t see any progress because you’ve done too much and your body doesn’t have the recovery “resources” to recover from the stress of training and get better at the activity.6This is a dramatic oversimplification of all of the physical, physiological, neurological, endocrine, and other things that are going on, and ignores a bunch of other things that can impact recovery status, like sleep, nutrition, stress, and more, but getting into more detail would just confuse the point I’m trying to make.

For elite athletes in intensive training phases,7That is, in the off-season. Competing and preparing to compete work a little differently. the goal is often to push to the very limit of their recovery ability, staying only a thin ‘safe margin’ away from injury or overreach. For most weekend warriors and even amateur athletes, I don’t recommend this.

Instead, the goal is really just consistency and moderation.

Assuming no major physical limitations and an average work ethic, you are — as strange as it sounds — equally likely to do way too much as way too little. You almost certainly have the pure physical capacity to, in a single run, do more harm than you can adequately recover from. If you skip or miss a session, you have a greater tendency to push yourself harder to ‘make up’ for that, which makes it even more likely you’ll overreach, unless you don’t, in which case you may not do enough in a week to get better.

It’s a hard balance, which is why the best approach is to just aim for getting out there consistently and adding less per week than you think you can handle, especially if you miss a session or two.8If you miss a week, just repeat that week without adding. If you miss a few weeks, consider taking a couple of steps back on your ladder and going from there.

For running longer distances by time, this means increasing your total time by maybe 2-5% per week, which works out to 3–5 minutes per session, running 30min, 30min, 30min the first week, then 33,33,33, then 36,36,36, and so-on, until you get to where you’re trying to go.

Every 5K is about 30 minutes at a 9:30 min/mi pace, so 5 miles is 45 minutes-ish, a 10K is an hour, 10 miles is a bit over an hour and a half and so-on; that said, after getting to a 10K three times a week, you’re sufficiently advanced that you may want to consider switching gears and focusing on another goal (like pace), adding a session of resistance training, or something else.

Keep an eye on your pace (or distance, they’ll be directly related) as you add time — if you find it’s slowing down by more than your normal day-to-day variation, it’s a sign you may be under recovered because you’ve been pushing it too hard, not sleeping enough, not eating well enough, or something else. Consider repeating a week without adding time or even taking a session off.

7. Run longer distances, option two: untimed

This would be almost identical to the time-wise progression laid out above — please have a read of that, as its discussion of progression will be useful— but instead of focusing on time, you’re focusing on distance, adding 3-5% of your total distance (a scant 0.25–0.5K per session) week to week, until you can run as far as you want to be able to run.

8. Run longer distances, option four: C210K

The point of this article is to show you the myriad other ways you can continue or progress after C25K that aren’t “get their app for 10Ks,” but assuming you want to run a 10K, and that you liked C25K, it really is a good an option.

But, it’s just that: one option of many viable paths.

9. Run longer distances, option three: run more frequently

You’ll eventually run into a different constraint: hours in the day.

Whatever way you go about running longer distances, it will take more time than running shorter distances, even if your pace is improving at the same time. It’s hard for a busy professional, especially one who has to spend 2+ mornings or evenings a week in the air, to find more than an hour to run (plus bathe and so on) on three different weekdays, especially as you’re just getting into the habit.

Up until now, we’ve mostly talked about running farther per session, but unless you have a specific reason, like a race, to hit a specific target distance, another way to increase your total mileage in a given period of time is to simply to run more frequently.

Say you run 30 minutes three times a week, and want to run more, but don’t have time to — or simply don’t want to — spend more than that to run on a workday. Instead of adding ten minutes to each of your three sessions, just add another 30 minute session.9For race training purposes, running more in one session versus more across several sessions aren’t totally equivalent, for arcane and complicated reasons that exercise scientists call specific adaptation to imposed demands, but for the purpose of just getting better at running and doing it more, it’s fine. Or, if you want to ease into a bit more, first drop to four 25 minute sessions (ten more minutes of running a week, split across one more day), and then increase the time of each of those back to 30 or beyond.

10. Run longer distances, option four: the Sunday long run

Up to now, we’ve only really talked about programs where you run the same amount of time or distance every time you run because that’s what C25K does, but that’s only one way to structure training.

Another very common way to slowly increase distance is to have one run a week — whether it’s your second, third, fourth, or seventh of the week — be much longer than the other ones. Traditionally, folks do this on the weekend when there’s more time.

As an example, if you run on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, you can just start extending your Sunday run by 5 minutes (or one kilometer) every time you do it, and keep your other two at the base 5K. You can even start working on pace on your Tuesday and Thursday runs AND make your Sunday run longer run, for a double-whammy, or do a Sunday long run and replace Tuesday’s run with sprint-walk intervals, or just about anything else. Once the habit is there, the world is your oyster with mix-and-match workouts.

I saved this for last because it’s the most complicated change, and if it feels daunting, you don’t need to do it right away — but it’s a great way to change things up as running the same amount of time at the same pace week after week begins to get boring.

Not to mention, varying the duration and goal of of each session is a hallmark of all kinds of ‘more serious’ training plans for every distance from 10K to Marathon, because it keeps things interesting and allows you to work on more things in less time — just have a look at the infamous Hal Higdon’s programs and you’ll see what I mean.

Bonus eleventh recommendation, and also a conclusion: combine any of the above, or do literally anything else that sounds appealing to you.

As a C25K graduate, you’ve recently learned building a habit of activity is not a trivial task, even when you have the plan laid out for you. If you’re not used to planning your own workouts, trying to understand what you should do now and next, especially after something as structured as Couch to 5K, can seem both restrictive and overwhelming at the same time — either you do exactly what the app says (even if it’s not really your thing), or you’re tossed into the overwhelming wasteland of commercial workout plans and apps, forced to choose among them without much context or knowledge.

My hope in going through all of these different options and strategies was that you would find exactly the next step in your journey, in a manner as simple and accessible as the original Couch to 5K program does. But that’s just the beginning. As you learn more and do more, you’ll gain the experience to figure out what the next next and next next next step (and so on) are. All you have to do is keep at it, and the wins will keep coming.

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