Monday, March 9, 2009

Couch to 5K: An Appreciation

I was interested to read Gina Kolata's article last week on women taking up running in middle age. While Kolata's piece is more about the athletic opportunities available to women now, I was more interested in the discovery, later in life, that your body could do things you hadn't thought it could do. I will never be a competitive runner, and I will never even run particularly fast. But as a person who thought, for 20+ years, that she couldn't run but somehow started at age 41, I remain amazed that I can run at all.

The short version of my non-running life is this. When I was 18, I rowed on the freshman crew team in college. Part of our training involved running hills and stairs, and eventually I got tendinitis in my knees. When I was not quite 20, I broke my ankle hiking, and the doctor told me I couldn't run. (Well, he said, "If you run, it will hurt, and if it hurts, you should stop.") Since I didn't really want to run anyway, this was not a problem.

And so, for the next 20 years, I swam and hiked and walked and biked, but I didn't run. For the past 7 or 8 years, I've also logged many, many hours on the elliptical at the gym, and I thought that that would be the closest to running I could get. On the elliptical, I could run at a decent clip, and I was satisfied.

Until I wasn't anymore. Last spring, I was bored and wanted to shake up my workout routine. (When people you don't even really know say that they expect to see you on a particular elliptical machine at the gym, that's a sign that you're in a rut.) I added in some time on the stairmaster and the bike. I returned to the dreaded treadmill, but somehow, walking uphill wasn't very satisfying. So, just for the hell of it, I ran a minute here and a minute there. My ankle didn't hurt. My knees didn't hurt. Hmm, I thought, I wonder . . .

And then I read somewhere about Couch to 5K. It's the beginners' running program put together by the Cool Running folks, and the amazing thing about it is that it works. The program sets out a schedule where you run (0r walk/run, as the case may be) 3 times a week for 9 weeks, and in very tiny increments, non-runners become runners. The first week, you're only jogging a minute at a time, the third week three minutes, the fourth week five minutes. (These jogging minutes are interspersed with walking minutes, so your total time out or on the treadmill is about 35 minutes, including the warm up and cool down.) Somehow though, amazingly, when you get to the end of week 5, and the third day's workout includes a 20 minute run without stopping, you're ready. At least I was. It did help, I will admit, that I was already in good shape when I started. But the beauty of Couch to 5K is that if you don't feel ready to move on to the next week's workouts, you don't have to. You can repeat the same week's intervals for as long as you want. It's a very forgiving program that way.

Couch to 5K is also excellent for anyone task oriented--there's even a chart to follow. And breaking anything down into tiny bits makes it seem much more manageable. I started out on the treadmill, but once the weather got nicer, I started running on the bike path near my house and around a local reservoir. What helped immensely with this were these podcasts. I didn't like most of the music, admittedly, but it was very helpful to have someone telling me when to start and stop so I didn't have to keep checking my watch.

I started in April, and by the summer, I could run for 30-35 minutes without stopping. On my birthday, in September, I ran for 45 minutes in the early evening light, and it was lovely. That may have been the highlight of my brief running life--2 1/2 weeks later, I hurt my leg, and things went downhill from there.

The flip side, though, is that having trained myself to run once meant that I didn't have to start from scratch when I started again. The fall was mostly lost to me, between the leg injury and a seemingly endless cold that also curtailed my gym time, but by late December, I was still back to running 20 minutes straight on the treadmill. Of course, what followed that was a month of little exercise (and fried food) in India and another lingering cold when I got back, but for the past month, I've been back on the treadmill a couple of days a week once again, and I'm working back up to where I was. A year ago, I wouldn't have been able to imagine this, but now, it just feels normal. I still check in with my knees and ankle to make sure nothing hurts, but mostly, it doesn't.

I can't end this without one admission: I don't, actually, like to run all that much, and I certainly can't imagine that I will ever love it the way I love to swim (though I do love that I can do it by walking down my driveway, rather than having to plan my day around the pool hours.) But the satisfaction of being able to run is huge, and that makes up for a lot. After all of those years of thinking I couldn't run, I'm happy every time I do it to realize that I can. So it probably won't ever become my favorite kind of exercise. That doesn't really matter. Thanks to Couch to 5K, I have the choice, and for now, at least, I'm choosing to run.


Susan said...

This is so so inspiring!! And... did I know you rowed crew? How exciting.

I ran 20 minutes yesterday and thought of you. And thought, I CAN DO IT.

Robin Aronson said...

I feel *exactly* the same way! I love to swim! I'll never feel that "oh yes!" feeling that I feel in the pool on a run, but i'm also so glad not to have to go to a poll to exercise, and I'm very proud to be running. You were my inspiration to keep going, Couch to 5K really helped me, and now I'm even more motivate. Thanks, Sue!