I’ve lost count of the number of days – or even weeks – since the start of the coronavirus lockdown. Despite this, the number 88 will stick in my mind.
It’s the number of days it took me to complete the Couch to 5k programme, a hell of a journey which saw me progress from munching (at least) one Greggs pastry product per day and no exercise to 30 minutes’ running without stopping… not even for a steak bake.
It took a little longer than the recommended nine weeks. Given the delay, perhaps in hindsight I should have waited another eight days, poetically coinciding with the number of pastry layers encompassing a Greggs sausage roll.
I explained a little bit about the Couch to 5k programme in my previous blog here, which also outlined the level of crisis my life has reached. Not much has changed since and in fact the symptoms are more severe; I decided to cook a host of tapas dishes for six at the weekend.
Cooking aside, running has certainly been the most rewarding part of lockdown life – but have I caught the bug?
Week one began with a pathetic-sounding amount of running; one minute at a time, with plenty of ‘brisk’ walking breaks in between.
Attempting this for the first time was a lot harder than it looked. Out of breath and broken, I remember telling my celebrity coach (who guides you through the process) to f**k off when suggesting eating a banana at the end. I think it was comedian Sarah Millican, so I assumed she was joking and logged on to Just Eat and prescribed a burger.
The next morning wasn’t pleasant, with aching limbs and plenty of regret for starting such a silly idea. My feet were already blistering from all the turning, barefoot, as I ran between my sofa and conservatory in a vague attempt to prove you could ‘stay home’ like Boris wanted and still be healthy.
Reporting my sore leg muscles to a colleague, they cheerily suggested I might be suffering from ‘DOMS’. I didn’t bother researching it, as it sounded fatal and might have put me off.
Remarkably, within the first three runs I was suffering no major ill effects the next day. I was shattered immediately afterwards but it was heartening not to wake up like a centenarian with osteoarthritis the following morning.
I quickly discovered my feet were the main issue while training indoors. With shoes out of the equation because of a dirt-fearing partner and not wanting to wear out the laminate flooring, it was a choice between barefeet and socks. After an enthralling period of research I selected socks as the best option.
The programme recommends taking a day off between each run. This was easily the best bit! I quickly learned to listen to my body, though, and days off weren’t for fun but for recovery.
In the early stages, sometimes I would need an extra day for my feet to recover but I could still complete the three runs which make up a ‘week’ in the programme in good time.
‘Week’ five: heading outside
The first few weeks progressed smoothly and I reached run three of week five – the first major mental hurdle of the process. You have to run for 20 minutes without stopping, when previously the longest run without a walking break was eight minutes. No matter the science behind the supposed brisk walking and runs adding up to about 20 minutes, I did think they were having a laugh.
I headed outside for the first time. Lockdown rules had been eased and we were no longer restricted to one session of daily exercise. Previously, family had taken precedence and our daily walk around the block with Albie put paid to any outdoor runs.
At this point I also wanted to test how I was doing – was the indoor running a realistic way of doing it?
My first venture into the outdoor running club saw me complete 1.86 miles in 20 minutes, just over halfway to the 5k mark. It was hell. As I put it at the time: “I say ran, a good half of it was like how Albie walks when he’s done a poo.”
I returned indoors and occasionally ventured outdoors when there was a non-stop run to be done. By this point most of the ‘training’ had been completed and the rest was building up fitness and increasing running times.
Taking a turn for the worse
Things were progressing great. By ‘week’ seven I had my first 5k in the bag – three days before my 29th birthday. Lord knows what happened, but the planned 25 minute run turned into a 37 minute epic. I’d cracked it with time to spare.
I was determined not to simply quit and vowed to see the whole thing through. I carried out into ‘week’ eight of nine, taking me to May 29. My next run wasn’t until June 17.
There are always plenty of excuses not to go for a run. A busy day at work; a manic evening chasing a toddler round the house as they fight getting their pyjamas on; generally feeling knackered and old. There were plenty of those bad days along the way, but also many others where I managed to summon the motivation to run in spite of one or all of the above.
Health got the better of me during this period. I suffer severely from hay fever and after years of struggling, I am now being seen by consultants to try much stronger treatments than the usual over-the-counter options.
In context, my daily dosage of medication is around 90 times stronger than the equivlalent you would buy in a pharmacy. Crucially, this was discussed with medical experts, with whom you should always seek advice when it comes to treatments.
This kept my symptoms at a manageable level through to the end of May, which was a welcome change from years gone by. But when the hot weather hit, things went quickly downhill and suddenly the meds were barely helping at all.
I am due to start injection-based immunotherapy later in the year, which will hopefully ease symptoms by approximately three-quarters within two to three years. In the meantime, I was prescribed a short course of steroids to calm my immune system.
The steroids really did the trick. My hay fever was under control and barely noticeable, and symptoms continue to be manageable.
But during my worst hay fever and while taking the steroids, I was feeling terrible and running had to take a back seat. The hay fever was blocking my nose, clogging up my lungs with phlegm and causing constant headaches and fatigue. While taking the steroids I went from being a night owl to a state of extreme tiredness, feeling like I should go to bed at the same time as Albie.
The final stages
Last Wednesday, June 17, I got back on the road. 25 minutes and 3.46km completed the eighth week, followed by the programme’s first 30 minute run on Friday to kick off the final trio.
Two 4.3km runs led me to the final session, which I had decided must be a 5k regardless of the time taken. Remember, my first 5k was about 37 minutes; the break had set me back a bit and the 30 minute runs were not as easy as they might have been, so I wasn’t expecting to manage it anywhere close to 30 minutes. It was going to be a challenge.
It was. Not helped by my pre-run meal. We had run out of food in the house so decided to order a takeaway. I smartly judged Indian to be the best, on account of the fact it came with rice – surely that boosts your energy levels?!
Wrong. When combined with mild spices and a bit of cream, it creates a stodgy lump in your tummy which becomes really quite uncomfortable, very early into your 5k attempt.
I felt close to quitting, nowhere near halfway through. I had never cut a run short in the whole thing, though, so was determined not to make the last one a failure. Somehow, with three runs up and down our short close to get over the mark, I cracked the 5k barrier in 34 minutes and 27 seconds, nearly three minutes better than my personal best, equating to about six minutes and 50 seconds per kilometre.
I’m no Mo Farah, but at least I have completed the challenge!
I posed the question: have I caught the running bug? That is a tricky one to answer.
I completed a longstanding goal of running a 5k – a challenge I’ve started working towards before and failed very early on. This time I was motivated, although the lockdown and pressure of doing it for charity were significant factors in getting me over the line.
I can’t say I’ve become addicted to running, but something other than the above motivations got me outdoors every few evenings and I think I’ll keep it up in some form. I need to keep fit and don’t want to return to a state of Greggs gorging with no calorie burning.
It will be refreshing to set my own schedule. If I feel like a quick 20 minute run I can do so, without worrying that I need to do ‘x’ minutes because an app dictates it. There will be flexibility, and I can add more concrete goals if I feel like it – although a 10k seems a long way off.
In summary, I would highly recommend the Couch to 5k programme. It is challenging without being unachievable and the transformation as you progress is remarkable. I have come across so many people who have done this, and I’ve not heard many bad things. My top tips would be:
1. Listen to your body. Allow some flexibility in your schedule for recovery but be wary of losing motivation – only take a break if you feel it is really necessary, and you will have the willpower to get back on it.
2. Think about diet. This is something I fared poorly with. Too many takeaways and/or poor choices before a run can really affect energy levels. This includes eating too little throughout the day.
3. Be positive. Don’t become wound up in time splits, or distances run. You will get there, at your own pace, and you’re unlikely to feature in the Olympics any time soon so the stats really don’t matter!
4. Choose a running time. I am rubbish in the heat, so night-time running was a staple for me (morning running wasn’t happening. I’m not THAT transformed!). This fitted around family life and the limitations of my feeble body.
Good luck to anyone embarking on their Couch to 5k journey. I hope my story has inspired you to try it.
A big thank you to everyone who has donated to date. A certain war hero pensioner decided to eclipse my fundraising efforts for the NHS and raised millions of pounds. I maintain I got there first, if not undertaking as impressive a feat.
I’d also like to thank Hanna for bearing with my insane ideas, sacrificing plenty of ‘us’ time in the process…although she did get a chance to clean and tidy up with both Albie and I out of the picture for a while!