Running is a wonderful sport, and many people start running every day. Their goals are different: Losing weight, getting fitter, wanting to compete in a road race, …
There are many „Couch to 5K“ training programs out there that are designed to provide a smooth and healthy entrance to the sport of running. Most of the time they follow the classic principle of sport: start conservatively, first raise the number of training sessions, then raise the duration of a session, and only in the end raise the intensity. This is a well-proven concept in sport and most of the training plans do it like that.
However, there is a problem with this type of plans. You need a base line of fitness to be able to run at all. And this base line is a lot higher than most people think.
It’s a bit hard to explain what I mean. Let’s take this example: Riding a bike is quite easy. As soon as you have the ability to ride a bike, you can do it without falling over. The faster you ride, the more „stable“ the bike becomes (because Physics), the slower you ride, the harder it becomes to keep the balance. So there is a minimum speed you have to ride to be on the safe side. Have you already seen those very old people on their bike riding so slowly that you always get the feeling they will fall to either side any moment? They lack the fitness to ride a bike safely. You need a minimum fitness to be able to reach this minimum speed to safely ride a bike. Most of us have this base fitness, of course.
With running, it is a bit different. The base fitness needed to run correctly is much higher than with riding a bike.
This seems contra-intuitive at first, because virtually everyone can run. And yes, you really don’t need a lot of fitness to be able to run, but you need quite a bit of fitness to run correctly. And running with an incorrect technique is what gets many beginners injured.
If you want to know, how this „correct“ running technique could look like, I would suggest this video: Correct Running Form
The most important aspects of correct running technique is a high enough leg turnover at about 180 steps per minute and a mid- or forefoot strike. Doing these things correctly lowers the danger of injuries significantly, and doing those things wrong is just plainly bad for the body. There are people that say that running is a sport where you just have to „listen to your body“ without worrying to much about anything else. I highly disagree with those people. Running a significant amount of kilometers in a harmful way is just the direct way to injuries, mostly knee, ankle and hip pain.
However, maintaining a correct running form requires quite a bit of fitness already. A nice running form requires a minimum speed too (because doing 180 steps per minute does not allow for really slow paces naturally, in my opinion the slowest allowed pace for a beginner should be 7:00 min/km [=11:15 min/mi]). Doing a traditional Couch to 5K program starts with the wrong things: Trying to run for a relatively long time, no matter the pace. So the athletes will get up from their couch, go out and run very slowly to keep their heart rate in the correct zone, putting impact forces on their joints that they are not used to.
So, how to do it better?
First you have to ask the question: Is it about running? If no (just losing weight, gaining fitness etc.) then do something else. Running really is not perfect for those goals. Get on a bike, do Zumba, whatever.
If it is really about running, then my suggestion is to reverse the traditional approach:
First, learn the correct running technique (up to a certain degree of course, no need to be perfect). Then run rather fast (at least 7:00 min/km, but I would prefer faster) using this technique, but in shorter intervals, with quite some distance of walking in between.
For example: If you can maintain a nice running form and pace for 30 seconds without having problems keeping a good technique up, then to 30 second intervals with 2 minutes of walking in between. Do this 10 up to 20 times in a session.
Make the intervals longer and the breaks shorter, and try to get the pace to between 6:00 min/km and 6:30 min/km. Do intervals as long as you can’t run at this pace while staying in the E pace area (determined by a heart rate of maximum about 75% of your HRmax). Train at an even faster pace every now and then, maybe going down to 5:30 or even 5:00 min/km, but stay at intervals.
If you want to do aerobic base building, get on a bike or do Nordic Walking. Really, running is not the way to go for not-so-fit people this early on.
As soon as you have reached a fitness where you can maintain a pace of at least 7:00 min/km for at least 30 minutes while staying in the E zone you can start using a traditional running training plan, because only then are you able to utilize the running movement for the different training concepts like aerobic base building, threshold training etc.
As long as you can’t maintain a proper running technique with a minimum pace, you can’t utilize the running movement to train the different types of endurance. So you shouldn’t. It will just harm your body, especially the joints.
TL;DR: A Couch to 5K plan should start with getting the base fitness up by running shorter intervals with higher intensity to get to a good running technique. Aerobic base building should be done with easier cross training like biking. As soon as a good running form can be used to do E runs, the running movement can be utilized to train endurance.