couch to 5k problems running program

Couch To 5k Training Plan: Gail’s Problems (And How To Fix Them)

A little while ago, I received an email from a listener (we’ll call her Gail)  who was struggling with her couch to 5K program and wanted to know if she should change her training plan.  She was using the official Couch to 5K program from and was getting very frustrated with how she was progressing.

Gail was having a hard time keeping up with the required schedule and was stating that she was nowhere near ready to proceed to Week 4.

You see, week 4 is where the plan makes a big jump. The first 3 weeks ease you in with small intervals of walking and running, but in Week 4, the duration of the running portion increases significantly.  Because of this dramatic increase, Gail was highly concerned that she would not be able to complete the program in the suggested 9 weeks.  After a brief email exchange, I was able to spot a few problems with her 5K training and make some recommendations.

1.  The Couch to 5K Plan is a Guide, Not a Contract

Let’s face it, each of us are different in a lot of ways.  Genetics, age, and different fitness backgrounds (or lack of) all play into how we adapt to any kind of exercise. Because of these variances, we need to realize that no training plan is perfect.

To be fair, the Couch To 5K method does suggest repeating a week if you need to, but it’s hard for participants to hear that message amid the repeated clamor of “Run a 5K in 9 weeks.”  As a species, we are naturally inclined towards instant gratification and will often move on to something promising us a “quick fix” in lieu of taking our time.


Always use the feedback your body gives you to direct your next steps.  If it feels too hard, take an extra week or two at the same intensity and distance level, and your body will adjust.  It just may be that it takes you 12 weeks to run that 5K. In a few cases, I have seen it take 6 months or longer for people to get to a point where they could run a 5K.  You’ll get there, you just need to be patient.

2.  Sweat The Small Things!

running tip - get enough sleep

A training plan is really just a small piece of the overall puzzle. The little habits, like getting proper rest and improving your nutrition, are what make a real difference.  If you’re only getting 6 hours of sleep a night, not dealing well with stress, and eating poorly, your odds of successfully keeping up with your 5K training are slim.

I talk about all of this at length in my podcast “How To Establish Strong, Healthy Habits and Improve Your Running” – check it out if you want to learn more about the small steps.  And remember, even though it’s hard to stay committed to all the little things, these are the pieces of the puzzle that drive your success, so don’t give up!

3. Eat Before You Run!

Ok, let me explain this one. Most people store enough energy in their body to fuel them on their run. When you eat, carbohydrates get broken down into glucose and stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. It’s a real complex process that would bore all but the geekiest of physiologists, but basically think of what you eat as fuel.

While talking to Gail, she informed me that she skipped breakfast most mornings and then worked out after she got her kids off to school. A lot of pEat before you runeople, however, do not eat before a run (like when you first wake up in the morning) because they want to save time or even lose weight.


Eat a light snack 30-60 minutes before you run, along with 8-12 ounces of water. This “tops off” the muscle glycogen levels that you lost while you slept overnight or have used during the day. A light, pre-run snack will not only regulate your blood sugar levels, it will also give you the energy needed for your workout.

Some Final Thoughts:

Gail has promised to make some minor modifications based on what I suggested and to give me an update in 6-8 weeks on her progress.  As soon as I hear back, I will update this post.  In her case, she was not getting enough sleep (about 6 hours per night on average) and was skipping breakfast and eating low-carb, low calorie meals, which I believe was starving her body and its ability to maintain exercise.  She also had an unrealistic expectation of completing this program in 9 weeks, based on her years of inactivity.

In her case, I do not think she should abandon the Couch to 5K program, but rather work on the suggestions I provided to enhance it.  I have also written a Couch To 5K Review , based on my experience with it and that of some of the runners I’ve coached.  Be sure to check it out as well.

How has the Couch to 5K program worked for you?  Share your positive (or negative) experiences on our Facebook page.

Happy Running! Photos courtesy of Patty Maher and Ali Edwards