How to run 5k for beginners? – use “Couch to 5k” by NHS

How to run 5k for beginners? – use “Couch to 5k” by NHS

In the past I had failed able to run more than 5 minutes straight. Time and time again I would try to run further or longer, but failed due to my lungs feeling like they want to explode or my legs just giving way. That was until I discovered “Couch to 5k” by the NHS.

What is Couch to 5k?

The Couch to 5k is a 9 week programme to help build yourself from not running at all (i.e. sitting on the couch), to being able to run 30 mins non-stop or 5k.

Who is it for?

Its aimed for absolute beginners, however I think this programme is beneficial to anyone who wants to get into running or would like to improve their overall fitness in a gradual way.

How does Couch to 5k work?

The programme is based on running 3 times a week, with rest periods between your runs. For each week there are a different running plans.

The plans for each week are built up with a mixture of walking and running combinations. I.e. for the first week you would be walking 90 seconds then running for 60 seconds and repeating this for the duration of the “Run”.

As the weeks go on, the walks will get shorter and the running parts will get longer, until you can eventually run the whole session without walking at all.

How is Couch to 5k provided?

Couch to 5k comes in 2 formats:

  1. By podcast
  2. By app

The app is a recent development. When I first completed the programme back in 2015 it was only available as the podcast version. There is nothing wrong with the podcast except for the music they play during the sessions. I can’t describe it but would say its “bad” and not great for motivating you to run, you would have to download a session to see what I mean.

Choose the NHS Couch to 5k App

Even though there is noting wrong with the podcasts, I would strongly advise you to use the app format. Not only do you gain, what I think is the most important feature, being able to listen to your own music. But you gain other benefits too, such as:

  • Tracking your progress

You won’t need to keep track on which week you’re on or the run number within the week. The app has very simply visual tracking feature showing you which week you’re on and which run in the week. For me, I had experienced a couple of times when life gets distracting and you end of putting on the wrong podcast and re-doing a run that you’ve already done. Or playing a podcast too far ahead which is super frustrating.

On the app, the greyed out symbols and numbers indicate what you have left to do. The yellow means completed and the green is the next one you need to complete. The aim is to get to the trophy at the end of week 9.

nhs couch to 5k progress tracker app
  • Choose your trainer

This I think is a great feature as not everyone gets on with the narrators voice. In the past when I’ve listened to podcasts or audio books, sometimes where would be a narrators voice which I’ve found annoying and has put me off listening to the audio. So when you’re sweating it out and trying not to give up, you want to choose someone’s voice which appeals to you. So this should work for everyone as you can choose from 5 people to be your trainer.

  • Sarah Millican
  • Laura (the narrator of the original podcast)
  • Jo Whiley
  • Sanjeev Kohli
  • Michael Jordan

Just go into the setting and switch between the different trainers at any time and as many times as you want.

Choose your trainer - nhs couch to 5k app
  • See your running plan before you begin your session

With the podcast, I never knew what I was in for in terms of how much running or walking I would be doing that session. Which could be a positive thing. However with the couch to 5k app it gives you a breakdown by list and visually, in a kind of pie chart, separated by colours. Orange means warm up, blue is cool down. Then Green means walk and yellow means run. As you can see from the screen shots below, as the weeks progress, the walks get less and the run gets more.

Run breakdown - nhs couch to 5k app
  • Scheduling your next run

After you complete a run, the app will help you schedule in your next run. So this reminder will always sit at the top of your app when open. (see tracking your progress images above for an example). In your reminder setting you can choose which day of the week you would like the reminder.

Run reminder selection - couch to 5k nhs
  • Tips & Advice

There is a section of the app called “Support” where it gives you tips and advice about running and exercise. Click into the menu to expand.

  • Information during your run

If you would like to, you can see your progress during your run. There is a clock that counts down and a marker showing you where you are on the run breakdown chart.

Run progress - couch to 5k nhs app

You will notice a bell in the middle. When you reach the half way mark, there will be a bell sound that plays in the audio so you know you’ve reached half way. I think during my run’s this bell is enough for me to know where I am in my run. I think possibly getting your phone out to keep looking at your progress can be a little distracting.

  • How you’re feeling

Before and after you have done your run, there is a feature where it gets you to rate your mood. I think this is because doing exercise should always lift your mood. So it wants to show you if your feeling a little rubbish before your run, after you should feel better than when you first started. Thus drawing your attention to the positive mental improvements you also gain from doing exercise. The app does this in the way of smiley faces.

mood - nhs couch to 5k app

The cost?

The best thing about this app is that it absolutely free. You can download the podcasts from the NHS website

For the app, you can download it from:

or Google Play:


Based on the recent developments in with the app, I think this is a fantastic programme that you can gain free! I’m comparing this to another similar app I purchased (because NHS only had podcasts at the time) and it does pretty much the same thing. The whole concept is the same. The only real difference between this app and paid ones is; the integration with other apps, collecting badges for reaching goals and completing 5k in 8 weeks instead of 9 weeks. Stripping the “fancy” stuff out, the core programme is exactly the same.

Is it really for everyone?

In terms of levels of fitness its right for everyone. I mean everyone. When I first completed the 5k I was classed as obese and I still ended up running for over 30 mins by the end of the programme. I’ve since completed this quite a few more times over the years along with my husband which I would say is much fitter than I am. So realistically the first few weeks he found a breeze, but catching on half way through the programme, he found it beneficial to push his fitness more.

Long term?

This programme will get you to that 5k, but maintaining it is down to how much you carry on after. For me I’m on this programme on and off as I find it great to slowly guide me into getting fit without killing sessions. You do feel you work hard, but not to the point where its strenuous like HITT or spinning class would be.