parkrun is well on its way to becoming a global phenomenon, with almost 2 million parkrunners, around 600 locations, and frequently popping up in the news, it has grown massively since it started with 13 runners in a West London park in 2004. But what is it, how has it got so popular, why should you do it, and what do you need to do to take part?
What is it?
parkrun is a series of weekly timed runs over 5k. They take place on Saturday mornings at 9am (the times may vary in other countries) and are completely free. They are not a race, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to run fast! Rather they are friendly timed runs, where each finisher is given an official finishing time. They happen every Saturday and with so many locations in the UK, the chances are there is one happening in your local park.
How have they become so popular?
Because they’ve hit upon a winning formula. They’re free, friendly, communal events where everyone is welcome. You can run, jog, or walk. The distance is 5 km (or a touch over 3 miles) which is ‘just right’: a decent challenge for people new to running; a comfortable distance for those who have been running for a while and want to improve their times; and a short blast for the speed demons who can fit it into their training plans to gauge their fitness ahead of their target races. You can turn up, meet friends, get a nice run in, and be finished in time for breakfast (or brunch if you want to chill out in a nice cafe, or second breakfast if you’re a hobbit).
Why should you do it?
Because parkruns are good fun. There’s something wonderful about seeing so many people, of all shapes, sizes, ability-levels, and walks of life, getting together for some good, wholesome running in the park. If you run at your local parkrun often enough you’ll be able to keep track of your progress, which can be very motivating. Keep running parkruns and trying to push yourself, and the process of doing a hard 5 km run every week will almost certainly give you a fitness boost.
So how do you do it?
First things first: register. Just go to the parkrun website and fill in your details. Then print off your barcode – preferably onto stiff card, or pop it through a laminator – and turn up ready for the start on Saturday morning. Once you’ve registered, you’re registered for life and can run at any parkrun anywhere in the world. You cannot register at an event, and you will not be given a result if you run without a barcode, so it is important that you register before your first parkrun and keep your barcode with your running kit.
Each local parkrun event has its own webpage on the parkrun website. Check the webpage for the event you’re planning on running to check if there have been any cancellations due to the weather or other events beyond the parkrun team’s control. Cancellations are rare, but keeping an eye on the webpage could help avoid disappointment if you turn up and you’re the only person in the park. The webpage will also show the route, list previous results, explain where the start is, and name that week’s volunteers. It’ll also let you know if there are toilet facilities nearby, so you don’t get caught short.
Wear comfy clothes, just as you would for any other run. There can be a little bit of standing before hand while you wait for the safety announcement, so consider wearing a warm layer in the winter that you can leave with a friend or by a tree while you’re running. You’ll be leaving it at your own risk, mind.
parkrun provides no food or drink, so you’ll have to sort that out yourself if you want anything. At only 5 km, you shouldn’t need anything to eat while you are running and you might not need to drink anything unless it is particularly hot. If you would like a bottle handy before the start or after the finish, and don’t want to carry it during the run itself, then you can always leave that with your kit, or with a friend while you’re running.
A warm-up is a good idea, to get your body ready for running. It’s up to you how you do this, but 5 minutes of easy jogging is a good place to start. There is usually somewhere to park near a parkrun, but why not walk, run or cycle there as a warm up?
Before the start of every parkrun, the Race Director will give a safety briefing. You should listen to this, even if you’ve done other parkruns, as there may be information about hazards on the day, such as slippery corners or changes to the course. There is also a separate briefing for first-time parkrunners, so listen out for that if you’re a newbie.
As the clock gets closer to the start time, everyone will line up behind the start line, like in a race. If you’re a quicker runner, looking to go under 19 minutes, then you may wish to start near the front so you have fewer people to overtake. If you’re likely to take longer than 30 minutes, lining up near the back will be more comfortable as you’re likely to have people of a similar ability to yourself to run alongside. The average finishing time is 28 minutes, so line up near the middle of the bunch if you think you’ll run it in that sort of time.
A quick note on the above: parkruns differ widely in size, from a few dozen runners at the smaller events, to 1,000+ at the more popular ones. The finishing time you are given is taken from the time the run starts, not the time you cross the start line. At the biggest events, it might take a minute or two to get everyone over the start line, so if you’re a middle of the pack runner looking to set a new personal best, it might be worth keeping an eye out for a smaller event where you’ll have less congestion to contend with. You can see how big a parkrun is by looking at their webpage.
The start hooter will sound and the run will start. For your best chance of running a good time, start easy and build into it, trying to run at an even pace throughout the whole run. Some parkruns have a lead bike to show the front runners the way. There may be pacers who will act as a moving marker for people looking to hit certain times. All events have a tail walker who is there to support those near the back of the pack. You never have to worry about being last at a parkrun as the tail walker will always be behind you.
Though running with music isn’t banned, parkrun prefer you not to run with music as it is safer if you can hear the marshall’s instructions or other runners coming up behind you. They also encourage you to say hello to your fellow runners and it is tricky to have a natter if you can’t hear other people.
You don’t have to finish. So if you’re starting out as a runner and want to build up to 5k gradually, you could build up 1km at a time until you can do the whole thing. If you do stop, move over to the edge of the path first and warn your fellow runners so that they don’t run into the back of you! If you drop out because you’re ill or injured, there will be a marshall nearby to help.
Once you cross the finish line, you will go into the finish ‘funnel’. Runners must stay in the order they crossed the finish line until given a small plastic token with their finishing position on it. Once you have your finish token, you will be directed towards volunteers who will scan your finish token and your personal barcode. After the event, the finish line volunteers will input the finish times that correspond to each finishing position. You will then get an automated email or text message telling you your time and position. This often seems to come through as you’re enjoying your Saturday lunch, so you won’t have to wait long to find out your result.
What should I eat or drink beforehand?
This is down to personal choice and may involve some trial and error for new runners, as you balance the need for energy with wanting to avoid having too much bouncing around in your stomach. As a starting point, consider the following:
If you’re an early riser, you may wish to have a decent breakfast before you run. Eat something like peanut butter and jam on toast, or porridge with a banana, that is easily digestible, with plenty of energy in it, between 6 and 7 am (for a 9 am parkrun start). Drink so that you are nicely hydrated and not thirsty. Your wee should be clear or a pale yellow colour.
If you get up a bit later and are cutting it fine before the 9 am start, then you might want a snack before the run. Just bear in mind that eating and drinking too soon before running can result in it bouncing around your stomach and feeling uncomfortable, so eat something you are familiar with and is unlikely to cause you any problems.
After the run, eat and drink something soon afterwards so that your body can start the recovery process of repairing muscle damage and replenishing your energy stores.
Experienced runners may be able to get away with no food before a parkrun, but this isn’t recommended unless you have trained your body to have gotten used to it. Always make sure you eat something afterwards though.
Is there anything else I should know?
Some courses are wheelchair suitable, so get in touch with your local event through the webpage if you use a wheelchair and would like to take part. Visually impaired runners can run with a guide and many events have runners who are ready to volunteer as guide runners. Again, check with the local team first.
Some parkruns happen on days other than Saturdays – such as Christmas or Boxing Day – and are organised by the same local volunteers that look after the Saturday runs. Check your local event’s webpage for details of these. Occasionally, these ‘special’ parkruns will happen at times other than 9 am, which means it may be possible to do two parkruns in one day. For example, in Southampton on New Year’s Day there are some people who will do the Netley Abbey parkrun at 9 am, then run the 7 miles to Southampton Common ready for a 10:30 am start there!
Volunteers are responsible for running each local parkrun, with duties including marshalling, timing, result recording, PR, and results processing. They are headed by an Event Director and Run Directors. If you’ve enjoyed running at your local parkrun, why not offer to volunteer and help out every now and then?
As well as time, the results include your age-graded score. This is worked out by comparing your time to the world record for 5 km for people of your age and sex. This is expressed as a percentage, with 100% being the world record. By comparing age-graded scores, you can maintain friendly rivalries with friends or family members that are of a different age and ability to you.
Each course is measured with a surveyor’s wheel, so it will be possible to accurately compare your times on different courses. Many are flat, but some courses can be tricky, with hills, uneven surfaces, or twisty corners. It’s this local variation that gives each parkrun event its own character, and is why a lot of people engage in ‘parkrun-tourism’ where they try to run in as many different places as possible.
If you do a lot of parkruns, you can claim a t-shirt when you hit certain milestones (eg: 50, 100, 250, 500 runs, etc.). You can also claim special volunteer t-shirts if you volunteer more than 25 times. These are free – you just have to pay for the postage – and are a badge of pride for many parkrunners.
Children over the age of 4 can register and run, but will need to run with an adult if they are under 11. Dogs are welcome, but there are some rules and these may vary depending on the course, so check the webpage first.
To maintain the friendly, inclusive atmosphere of parkrun, please familiarise yourself with the parkrun code:
- Please pay attention to the pre-run briefing
- Respect everyone’s right to participate in their own way
- Under 11s always with arm’s reach of a parent or guardian
- One dog on a short lead per person
- Be mindful of your local environment and other park users
- No barcode, no time, no exception
- Have fun, it’s only a walk, jog or run
- Thank the amazing volunteers
As mentioned above, parkruns are sociable events and plenty of running friendships have been made there. They’re a fun, relaxed, light-hearted introduction to running for thousands of people (though you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to!); and are also a chance for serious runners to try and push themselves against others. This is why parkrun has become a global phenomenon and it is something you can be a part of just by registering on the parkrun website and turning up at your local park next Saturday.
And remember, if you see someone in a Lonely Goat top, give them a wave!