The Couch to 5K founder reveals tips for running beginners

Josh Clark’s journey to becoming a lifelong runner began with a painful breakup in 1994. To help himself recover, the then-23-year-old public television producer started to run, an activity he hated. “There was probably a little bit of self-punishment to it,” said Clark, founder of Big Medium, a digital agency and design studio.

Indeed, his first weeks pounding the pavement were difficult and decidedly unpleasant. His body hurt. But then something surprising happened: Clark started to enjoy running. His runs had become easier and calming, and he loved the feeling of his body in motion. So when Clark’s mother was searching for a fitness routine a year later, Clark immediately suggested running, with the zeal of the newly converted.

There was just one issue. He knew how agonizing his first few weeks of running had been, and he did not want his mother to go through that. So Clark drew up a nine-week exercise plan that combined walking with running to ease her into it, dubbing his plan the Couch to 5K program.

Twenty-five years later, this plan is considered one of the most popular exercise programs in the world. Now nicknamed C25K, it’s even endorsed as an official exercise plan by the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. CNN Wellness talked with Clark to get his thoughts on why his plan is so effective in helping countless beginners start a running habit that sticks.

Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: A lot of people find it difficult to start running. Why do you think this is?

Josh Clark: Almost always, we start out going too fast or too far. Giving ourselves permission to be gentle with ourselves, and kindly easing into this new running routine, is key to success.

CNN: What was your main goal when creating Couch to 5K for your mother?

Clark: I did not come to this running schedule with a “no pain, no gain” approach. I was writing it with the love of a son for his mother. I wanted this to be a good experience for her. I didn’t want her to get hurt. I wanted her to succeed; I didn’t want her to run into early defeats. And so I wrote a schedule that was gentle and kind, and that — I believed — could have her running a 5K over the course of nine weeks. And she did!

CNN: Did you base this program on scientific research or did you think it up yourself?

Clark: I wish I could say I came to this with any kind of scientific knowledge or grounding in physiology, but I didn’t. It was just this instinct of, “How can Mom go from literally a couch to 5K? What can I imagine her doing?” It turns out, in retrospect, I was intuitively using a lot of the now well-established principles of physiology and fitness regarding physical effort and rest.

CNN: Your plan begins with alternating one minute of running with one-and-a-half minutes of walking for a total of 20 minutes. Then it builds from there. Why does this work so well?

Clark: C25K is really accessible to people. You only have to jog for a few seconds at a time, and then you can walk. It gives you time to get used to it. For many of us, walking for 20 minutes is completely doable and accessible. Or even walking for 5K. But for nearly everyone, trying to run that distance right away is going to feel awful. So why not combine the two and gradually move from walking to running?

CNN: What is your program’s most important rule?

Clark: Don’t take yourself so seriously. We set ourselves this metric for what success looks like, and what being fit is, and what being a runner is. And if we don’t hit this metric, we fail. It’s an almost self-punishing aspect of fitness. So be kind to yourself as you’re developing this new habit. This program is a guideline, it’s not a strict set of rules. It is OK to skip a week and try again the next week. It’s OK to take a day off. Listen to what your body wants, because “no pain, no gain” is not a good motto for newcomers to fitness.

CNN: What do you think is the secret to C25K’s lasting popularity?

Clark: C25K is very portable in the social media world. It really accelerated in popularity when people began sharing their plans and experiences with it on Facebook. The other aspect is that it is attainable. You can do the first week of it. It might be hard, but you can do it. You have early victories instead of defeats. Through luck or intuition, I got the levels right so that it’s a challenging plan, but not impossible. It’s satisfying as it stretches you.

CNN: A lot of people have told you over the years that this program changed their lives. Is C25K really about running, or is it about something more?

Clark: Certainly, it trains your body and brain to run a 5K. It also opens up a universe of activity and fitness that many people thought wasn’t for them. More broadly, it changes what people’s expectations are of themselves. I hear over and over not, “I ran my first 5K,” but “I got the confidence to apply for a new job,” or “I asked my partner to marry me,” or “I did this thing I was scared to do because now I have this new confidence.”

That just makes me shiver to talk about, because this program is fundamentally changing how people see themselves and their potential. It’s mind-boggling. And without a doubt, creating Couch to 5K will turn out to be the most meaningful thing I will have done in life.