Tell You How I got fit for free and transformed myself into a 5k runner in just 9 weeks

Faith knew she had to take up a sport she loathed – running

Juggling two children and a part-time job meant my exercise regime was rather sparse. And by sparse, I mean non-existent. Strapped for time and money, I turned to running in an attempt to get fit on a budget.

Most exercise seems to require pricey equipment, expensive membership, loads of time and far-off facilities.

So realistically, when it came to frugal fitness, I was looking at running.

Now, I am not a natural runner.

I cannot sprint to save my life, and when forced into the 800m race at school sports day, I was lapped by other competitors.

My physique is hardly suited to running. When trying to train for a sponsored race in a local park, some teenage girls shouted encouraging comments along the lines of “wear a sports bra”. Embarrassingly, I already was. So much for training – I ended up as the woman who walked the Race for Life.

But back in March, I was forced to admit the advantages of running.

It’s free, with no gym or membership fees. The equipment is minimal. You can do it straight from your front door. Plus, there are loads of free training programmes out there.

How did I do it?

I decided to have a go at the Couch to 5K plan .

The exercise programme that really works

It’s a 9-week programme designed to take you from couch potato to running 5 kilometres, just by committing about half an hour three times a week. Realistically, you may need to add a whole load of time afterwards to recover.

The real bonus is that once you download a couch to 5K app or podcast, you get someone in your ear, telling you when to start and stop running.

This means you don’t have to faff around with a stop watch or timer, clasping a bit of paper and forgetting how many repetitions you’ve done.

There’s a bunch of Couch to 5K apps out there, but personally, I like the free NHS podcasts , which come complete with encouraging, if unfamiliar, music.

I did flirt briefly with the latest free NHS Couch to 5K app , part of the Live Well campaign supported by the BBC.

The app is designed to be used with your own soundtrack, and goes silent between instructions, but in the end I preferred the simplicity of the podcasts.

There’s also a friendly NHS Choices internet forum focused on Couch to 5K , where you can post your progress and get support.

What equipment do I need?

Good shoes are your best friend

If you look at any motivational ads for running, all you seem to require is a fancy pair of trainers and a swishy ponytail and you’re good to go.

In practice, suitable shoes really are important to protect your feet and joints.

Years ago I went to one of the specialist shops that video you from unflattering angles and flog you expensive running shoes.

I hadn’t used my fancy shoes for so long that I couldn’t find them at first. I ended up starting Couch to 5K in a pair of extremely elderly trainers, and wasn’t sure which of us was more likely to collapse. It was a relief when I finally unearthed my official running shoes.

Otherwise I recommend decent running socks and a cast iron sports bra.

But I didn’t splash the cash on other running equipment.

I just wore ordinary tracksuit trousers and cotton T shirts. I listened to the podcasts on my smartphone via the headphones that came with it.

Rather than fancy sports drinks, I carried tap water in an ordinary plastic water bottle with a sports cap. I didn’t really need the water to stave off dehydration, but drinking was a distraction when feeling particularly exhausted.

Where do you run?

The great thing about running is that you can do it straight from your front door, rather than in an expensive gym.

However, instead of pounding the pavements, I head for softer paths in the local park or nature reserve. No cars, no fumes, and usually fewer people to see me red in the face and incapable of speech.

Mostly I run along an old railway track, which has the benefit of being pretty flat. I’ve also tried running by the side of a canal (flat) and along a seaside promenade (also flat). Think you can see the common theme that I’m not a fan of hills.

Personally, I prefer running outside rather than on a treadmill. Although I usually run the same route, the weather and wildlife provide variety.

I have returned blinded by sunshine, blasted by wind, sodden from driving rain and mud spattered after stumbling round puddles.

Doves, blackbirds and robins swoop ahead when I run in the early morning, and a rabbit hopped across the path when I went out at twilight.

Now I look forward to getting outside, even for half an hour, rather than being stuck behind my desk.

How to get out of the door?

The first couple of times I was pretty excited about going running.

Later on, not so much. Some days I really had to dig deep to get myself out for a run.

The top tips that kept me on track:

1. Laying out my kit the night before

This meant I just had to stumble into it, and couldn’t use missing items as an excuse to avoid going.

2. Get charged up

I checked my phone and any exercise tracker were fully charged, so a flat battery couldn’t put me off running.

3. Plan when to run

I aimed to run every other day, usually straight after dropping my children at school. I just went, regardless of whether I felt well enough, or had enough energy or enough time or the weather was good enough.

4. Squeeze runs into your schedule

During school holidays I ended up running really early in the morning, while my husband was still around to look after the kids. Some weekends I ran first thing or early evening, so it didn’t interfere with other plans. I even packed my running stuff when we went away.

5. Embrace your inner five-year-old

I had my very own sticker chart, by sticking a star on the family calendar every time I ran.

6. Mark each run

Pop a quick post on Facebook or Twitter, text your mum, or otherwise mark each run. I started tweeting when I was keen, so that later on I felt embarrassed to skip a session and miss a message.

So what actually happens on Couch to 5K?

Faith found it exhausting at first

Couch to 5K involves going out running for 30 to 40 minutes, three times a week. Typically you repeat the same session three times, before moving on to the next week.

Each session starts with 5 minutes of brisk walking to warm up, and finishes with another 5 minutes’ brisk walking to warm down.

The hard part comes in the middle.

The first week only involved 8 minutes of actual running each time, in between the warm up and warm down walking. You switch between 60 seconds of running and 90 seconds of walking, repeated 8 times.

The second week felt like a big leap, even though it only actually went up to a total of 9 minutes of running. However, each individual run was 50% longer, as you alternate 90 seconds of running with 2 minutes of walking, repeated 6 times.

In fact each week felt like a big leap. Each time I thought “Whaaat?” or “You must be kidding me” when I checked what I was supposed to be doing.

Successive weeks push you to run for 3 minutes straight, then 5 minutes, then 8 minutes.

Weeks 5 and 6 both have three separate sessions, finishing with running for 20 minutes and 25 minutes, and then the time gets stretched until by week 9 you’re running for 30 minutes non-stop.

Each time, I tried to grit my teeth, trust in the programme, and run despite my disbelief. I tended to struggle the first time, then find it slightly easier the next time and the one after.

Some days felt much harder than others, although with no particular rhyme or reason to it.

Some people prefer to repeat sessions until they feel comfortable moving on to the next. I recommend attempting a session – even it seems far too hard – as you may surprise yourself with what you can achieve. I certainly did.

Without the structured programme, I would never have pushed myself so far, so fast. It still seems a minor miracle that after struggling to run for a minute when I started, I can now keep going for 30 minutes.

How I managed to get through it

Listening to podcasts can help

Generally I found the first five minutes the hardest, getting out of breath and thinking “I’m never going to get through this”.

I tried to break the sessions down into smaller chunks – ‘I’ll just finish the next 90 seconds/3 minutes/5 minutes’, ‘I’ll keep going till I reach that big puddle”, ‘I’ll check my watch when I reach that patch of shade’, ‘I’ll have a drink after that bench’, ‘oh help there’s a dog walker coming towards me, I’ll keep running till I pass them’.

By running the same route, I started to recognise landmarks that meant I’d run for 5, 10 or 15 minutes, and gradually reached further along the path.

Hearing the podcast tell me I’d reached half way, and turning to come back, was always a big relief. Then I knew that every step was taking me closer to home, and hey, I might as well run than give up and walk.

The voice of Laura on the podcasts was a great encouragement.

One phrase starting week 5 really struck a chord, when Laura described the session as being “more of a mental challenge than a physical one”. This helped me hang on in there and keep going, however slowly.

There were plenty of runs when I questioned my sanity at the start, but afterwards I was always glad I’d gone. Finishing each session gave me a sense of achievement, alongside the exhaustion.

My final laps

Parkrun lets you join races for free

Early on, I decided that I wanted to mark the end of Coach to 5K by doing an actual 5K race.

Parkrun organise free 5km timed runs every weekend, with 500 to choose from throughout the UK.

Coming in to my last week of Couch to 5K, I read the course descriptions for the three nearest to me, and settled on the one that sounded flattest. All I had to do was register on the website , print out a barcode and show up.

The only drawback was that although I lasted for 30 minutes during the last week of Couch to 5K, I was running so slowly that I didn’t actual reach 5 kilometres.

I only found out when I used another app to measure the distance covered while doing week 9 of Couch to 5K.

The free versions of apps like MapMyRun and RunKeeper use GPS to show things like a map of where you’ve run, how far you’ve run and how fast you ran each kilometre.

According to the apps, it took me about 7 minutes to run a kilometre, so a 5K run would take 35 minutes rather than 30 minutes. Believe me, that extra 5 minutes sounded a very long time.

I wish I could describe a real Hollywood ending, as I surged round the parkrun, slashing minutes off my best time.

In the end, I arrived at the parkrun later than intended, got all flustered, fumbled with my phone, set off far too fast and had to walk for several sections. But I did eventually finish, crossing the 5k line after 35 minutes and 41 seconds.

It’s safe to say that Jessica Ennis has nothing to worry about, and I won’t be troubling the Olympic selection board. But I am distinctly fitter than a few months ago.

Originally, I just wanted to complete the programme and collapse. Now I have a new goal. Next time, I really want to do a parkrun without stopping. One step at a time.

Faith Archer is an award-winning money journalist, who also writes the blog Much More with Less about moving to the country, living with less and making the most of it.

DailyMirror