The trouble with “Couch to 5k” programs

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Posted on May 15, 2015

Recreational running and racing has been on the rise in the U.S. over the past 20 years. Statistics show that since 1990, the number of race finishers has increased by nearly 300% (roughly 19 million finishers in 2013). The 5k race has maintained the #1 position of race distances with 8.3 million finishers in 2013 alone, accounting for 43% of all finishers. The half-marathon holds the #2 position.

Many of these novice runners are utilizing the popular “Couch to 5k” training programs in order to work up to their goal. A quick Google search will yield over 2.5 million results, all mapping out various programs aimed at getting you off the couch and on the way to your first 5k. It typically starts at walking for a set time or distance, then mixing in some jogging with walking, then transitions to only jogging with increasing time and mileage. However, the problem with the vast majority of these programs is that they are missing a crucial piece the puzzle: do you move well enough and do you have enough strength to make this transition safely and without injury?

Running places 4-5 times our body weight through our joints with every step. Depending on your stride length, you will average 2,000-2,500 steps per mile. So if you weigh 150 lbs., your joints are supporting 750 lbs. over 7,000 times during a 5k race! If you do not have the proper mobility and stability (or combined mostablity) to safely increase your mileage and activity levels before going through a Couch to 5k program, you are putting yourself at risk for injury.

One of my favorite quotes about running is “you don’t run to get fit; you have to be fit to run”. This would suggest that one cannot simply do more walking or more running in order to gain the mostability required. Our bodies are masters at compensating and they will without a doubt find a way to work around any movement impairment you might have, often sacrificing other areas of our body. The problem with compensating, however, is that it can only go on for so long before something starts to break down.

Even if you are not literally going from your couch to the 5k, a typical American still has 3 common movement impairments: 1) tight hips, 2) tight ankles, and 3) weak butt/hips. How well do you think you’re running if you have a foot that doesn’t absorb shock, a hip that can’t extend and muscles that are not adequately controlling what your pelvis, leg and foot are doing with step? Add all of those together plus increasing mileage over a relatively short period of time and you are setting up your body for failure. Now say you’ve had a previous injury from anything else (back pain, ankle sprain, car accident, etc. etc. etc.) and now your risk for injury has gone even higher.

Injuries among runners, especially new runners, are common. The knee holds the #1 spot for injured joints, accounting for 42% of running related injuries. We like to call the knee the “dumb joint”, it is stuck between the ankle and the hip and will do whatever it is told. The poor knee takes the hit for that tight ankle and hip and weak hip that was mentioned above. Over time, it can no longer compensate (because it was not built to do those jobs), and injury sets in. This problem will just persist and most likely worsen with continued walking and/or running. So now you have a person who is no longer exercising and is back on their couch, which defeats the purpose altogether. With obesity and metabolic diseases becoming an epidemic in our country, the last thing we need is another person injured through exercise who is now less motivated and perhaps even fearful of getting back into it.

If you are currently in a walking/running program, are thinking of beginning one, or have been injured in the past while trying to begin one, a physical therapist is the perfect person to help get you there safely. We can analyze the way you walk, run and MOVE and help identify areas of dysfunction.

Contact Momentum if you’re interested in learning more about how we can help.