point-of-view photo looking down at the feet of a woman as she tightens the yellow laces on a raspberry-colored running shoe; also visible are a wood floor and her turquoise smartwatch strap

Need a little motivation and structure to ramp up your walking routine? Want to wake up your workouts but not quite ready for a mud run? Consider trying a couch-to-5K program.

Dr. Adam Tenforde, medical director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and a sports medicine physician at Mass General Brigham Sports Medicine, shares tips on what to know and do before lacing up your sneakers.

What is a couch-to-5K program?

These free or low-cost coaching plans are designed to help would-be runners train for a 5-kilometer race, which is about 3.1 miles. The programs are available online, or as apps or podcasts. They typically feature timed walking and running intervals that gradually phase out the walking over a period of about nine weeks.

Why try a couch-to-5K program?

“One purpose of a couch-to-5K program is to give you time to acclimate and start to enjoy the benefits of running and the sense of accomplishment of completing a distance safely,” says Dr. Tenforde. Running provides many cardiovascular benefits, such as lower blood pressure and a reduced cholesterol level, as well as an enhanced sense of well-being, he adds.

What’s more, adding even short bursts of running or other vigorous physical activity to a workout — a practice known as high-intensity interval training or HIIT — appears to help improve mental health, according to a study that pooled findings from 58 randomized trials of HIIT.

Are you ready to tackle a couch-to-5K?

Even though the couch-to-5K programs sound as though they’re geared for completely sedentary couch potatoes, that’s not necessarily true, Dr. Tenforde cautions. These programs often assume you can walk continuously for 30 minutes, which doesn’t apply to everyone.

For some people, an even easier, more gradual training regimen may be more appropriate. Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to run to do a 5K. Many of these races also encourage walkers to participate as well. You’ll still reap the other rewards from committing to a race, such as being more challenged and motivated — and possibly more connected to your community. Many charitable “fun runs” benefit local schools or needy families. Some are in memory of people affected by illness or tragedy. Visit Running in the USA to find 5K races near you.

What to do before you start

If you’re planning to walk or run your first 5K, get your doctor’s approval before you start training. That’s especially important if you have heart disease or are at risk for it.

Comfortable walking or running shoes are a wise investment. Shoes that are too old or too tight in the toe box can cause or aggravate a bunion, a bony bump at the outer base of the big toe. Despite suggestions that people with flat feet or high arches need specific types of shoes, studies have found that neutral shoes (designed for average feet) work well for almost everyone. Walk or jog around the store when you try them on to make sure they feel good and fit properly.

You don’t need to buy special clothes; regular sweat pants or comfortable shorts and a t-shirt will suffice. Women should consider getting a supportive sports bra, however.

Go slow and steady when training

  • Always include a warm-up and cool-down — a few minutes of slow walking or jogging — with every exercise session.
  • If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start by walking just five or 10 minutes a day, three days a week. Or, if you’re already a regular walker, add some short stints of jogging to each walking session.
  • Gradually add minutes and days over the following four to six weeks.
  • Once you’re up to 30 minutes a day, check how far you’re traveling. Keep increasing your distance every week until you reach 5 kilometers. Then slowly phase in more jogging and less walking over your route if you like.

Remember that you can always repeat a week. You’re less likely to sustain an injury if you make slow, steady progress. Pay close attention to your body and don’t push yourself too much, Dr. Tenforde advises. Former athletes who haven’t run in years may think they can pick up where they left off, but that’s not a smart move — they should also start low and go slow.

For a good couch-to-5K guide, try this beginner’s program from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.

About the Author

photo of Julie Corliss

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Julie Corliss is the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter. Before working at Harvard, she was a medical writer and editor at HealthNews, a consumer newsletter affiliated with The New England Journal of Medicine. She … See Full Bio View all posts by Julie Corliss

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD

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