How Couch to 5K helped my mental health

I’ve never been good at sport.

As a child, I was into gymnastics until I fell off the high beam and I gave netball a good go until I went to secondary school, but that’s about as far as my experience with exercise outside of education went.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy going for walks, and before certain aspects of my life started to take over, I went along to at least three – if not four – aerobics classes a week. A few years ago I ever had a personal trainer for six weeks and really began to see vast improvements in all aspects of my health. Did I keep it all up I hear you ask? Did I heck.

Rewind to the beginning of September and I was in a really bad way with my mental health. I’d been suffering from some pretty bad anxiety for a while, and despite having had issues with it in the past that didn’t make it any easier to talk about, so I just bottled it up until one day, I found myself unable to get up from my bedroom floor because it was just that bad.

My physical health and appearance had also had a huge impact on my mental state. I struggle to feel comfortable in the clothes that I wear and dread having to stand in front of cameras for photos – especially in landscape *shudders*. And while I wasn’t struggling to keep up with people on the street – I’m a fast walker, as my pals will tell you – I was fully aware – and still am – that my weight is no way near what I should be for someone my age.

After picking myself up off my bedroom floor, I took my second trip to the doctors in a week. Once again, they asked me a handful of questions before proceeding to give me a cocktail diagnosis of mental health problems before putting me on some meds and suggesting some simple things that I could do to help me start to take the right steps in getting myself back on track. One of their key suggestions was – drum roll please – exercise.

A few days later I was on a trip with my brother, who suggested to me that I should consider giving Couch to 5K a try. At this point, any time that I’d tried to run in the past I’d failed miserably. Instead of training myself properly, I’d just decided to see how far I could run until I couldn’t go anymore and let me assure you, the outcome was not good.

The Couch to 5K programme, created by the NHS and tried and tested by thousands of professional couch potatoes across the UK, is designed to get you from walking to running a 5K within nine weeks by heading out for a jog three times a week, which sounds pretty crazy when you’ve never run any further than to the shop up the road to buy a bottle of milk two minutes before it closes.

Not long after returning from visiting my brother, I was sat on my bed when I could feel the anxiety creeping in. Without a second thought, I hit download on the One You Couch to 5K app, selected Sarah Millican as my trainer, grabbed my old, battered trainers and headed out on my very first run.

I thought week one would be an utter breeze; a minute of running alternated with one and a half minutes of walking for a total of 20 minutes. Approximately 10 minutes into my first run and I felt like I was going to throw up. My legs were hurting, my lungs were burning and I wanted to just get home as quickly as possible so I could go back to my state of Couch Potato. Not to mention the whole time I was attempting my 80% walk 20% run, I was constantly worrying about people looking at me with their little eagle eyes because let’s be honest, I probably looked like a bit of an idiot.

But despite the ache in my legs, the burning in my lungs and the slight anxiety, something in me made me want to keep going. The further I ran, the less I began to dwell on all the fuzziness that was clouding my head. I focused on the beat of my music, the thud of my feet as they hit the ground, my surroundings, my breathing. By the time I got home, the negativity had someone been washed away, and weirdly, I couldn’t wait to get back out and run again.

With each run that passed I could feel myself getting stronger, my stamina improving and my runs getting longer. Five weeks passed and I was still sticking to the plan and I was I actually looking forward to heading out three days a week so that I could shove my phone in my pocket, stick my headphones in, crank up the volume on my dedicated running playlist and ignore the craziness in my life, even if it was just for 20 minutes.

As run three of Week Five came around, I was gearing up for my first proper run – 20 minutes, non-stop. The thought kind of terrified me, so I brought my eldest brother along for support. And despite thoughts that I might throw up or pass out or both, I smashed through the 20 minutes.

Fast forward and I’m now able to comfortably run for half an hour, which is an utter miracle considering I couldn’t even keep it up for 60 seconds just a mere few weeks ago without getting the mother of all stitches.

Running is something that I never thought would help me deal with my mental health, let alone something that I’d end up enjoying, but thanks to the Couch to 5K app, I think it’ll be something that’ll help keep me going even when times get tough. And who knows, maybe next year I’ll be fit to run a 10K?

Remember, it’s never too late to start running and it won’t cost you anything if you head outside and discover new places and new routes. Click here to download the Couch to 5K app. And, if you need an extra boost of confidence, I highly suggest you read Jog On by Bella Mackie.

Happy running!

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