Park run phenomenon

Since its beginnings in 2004, parkrun has inspired people to be more active, volunteer in their community and enjoy keeping fit. Chrissie Wellington, the setup’s global lead for health and wellbeing, reports on how it grew into a global phenomenon.

On a dull autumn morning in Bushy Park, south-west London, nine men and four women lined up on an improvised start line. The year was 2004 and the organiser of this informal gathering was Paul Sinton-Hewitt. He took a photo and then shouted ‘Go!’, marking the start of the first Bushy Park Time Trial. 

The idea was simple: Paul wanted a way to connect with his running club friends while he was injured, with the post-run social being as important as the run itself. 

More than 12 years later, the organisation that grew out of that gathering – parkrun – has taken the world by storm. A non-profit setup, parkrun delivers 5k events that take place every Saturday at 9am (9.30am in Scotland and Northern Ireland). 

The next generation of parkrunners can be found at junior parkrun: 2k events for 4- to 14-year-olds held every Sunday morning. There are currently 460 5k parkruns and 170 junior parkrun events in the UK, with 140,000 weekly participants supported by 13,000 volunteers.

As well as the UK, parkruns can be found in 13 other countries, with more than three million people registered as parkrunners and a new parkrunner registering every 29 seconds.

So what is a parkrun? For starters, it is not a race. Parkruns give people the opportunity to be active, outdoors, on a regular basis – with the post-run socialising being as important now as it was back in 2004. Supported by a small head-office staff, parkruns are operated by local volunteer teams – organised by the community, for the community. 

Participants get a barcode when registering online before their first parkrun. The barcode is scanned along with a finish token given at the finish line, and parkrunners get sent their result via text or email later the same day. 

And the best thing of all – parkruns are always completely free to take part in!

Contrary to what the name implies, you definitely don’t have to be able to run to take part, because we have thousands of walkers who participate each week – and the volunteer tail walker is always the last to finish. 

The events are truly a family affair. Children of all ages can be found walking, running and volunteering, with parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents joining in. Adults can run with buggies at the 5k events and parents can also run with their children in the 2k junior parkruns.

And if you don’t fancy walking or running, you could always volunteer – there is a range of roles to suit everybody. No previous experience is required. Alternatively you can simply turn up and watch to see what all the fuss is about.

The mission of parkrun is to create a healthier and happier planet by continually breaking down barriers to participation and bringing people together from all walks of life, whenever they want to come along. Ambitious, yes – but that is what drives us each and every day. As a former professional athlete, I am passionate about physical activity and having previously worked in international development, my role at parkrun ticks so many boxes. 

But parkrun is so much more than a provider of physical activity – it’s a social movement that catalyses lifestyle change among individuals, and strengthens and builds communities. The benefits are many and you will get support from a welcoming community, enhance your health and wellbeing, and improve your fitness by walking, jogging or running.

Many healthcare professionals, including community practitioners, are already directing people towards parkrun, encouraging them to participate in whatever way suits them – as runners, walkers, volunteers or spectators. Our hope is that this becomes commonplace, and that parkrun is included within the suite of non-medicinal opportunities offered through social prescription, to help change the lives of thousands more people throughout the UK. 

With your help we can make this vision a reality. We look forward to welcoming you, your families and colleagues to the parkrun family. 

Image credit: Alamy

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