In 2004, Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE led 13 of his running friends to Bushy Park in West London where they completed the first ever 5km parkrun. Now eleven and a half years later more than half a million runners are part of the parkrun organisation. I spoke to Tom Williams, the Managing Director of parkrun UK about how parkrun is reversing worrying trends in British fitness.
parkrun’s appeal extends way beyond its obvious physical benefits, Tom emphasises that parkrun is “much more than just a run” and appeals to the general public’s “innate desire to be outside, be with other people, contribute to their community and do good things and generally be a part of a community”. Although the obvious focus of parkrun is the 5km event, Tom’s vision of parkrun was one of community spirit rather than social physical exercise:
“I don’t think it’s about as much breaking down the barriers to participate in a run which we do, for me it’s more about breaking down the barriers to be involved with your community”
parkrun is accessible to everyone. Tom reiterated “it’s absolutely not a race, it’s a free, weekly timed run or walk” and it is this accessibility that is hoped will counteract the movement in British society to exercise alone. Recognising the “a massive need” in Britain for more social exercise, Tom gave the example of how parkrun can appeal to the entire family unit. Tom laments that it has become the norm for all members of the family exercise individually, and used his own example of spending his Sunday morning with his wife and two children at the junior parkrun, relishing in a too rare opportunity to be “as a family, outside, being active all morning”.
“hopefully [parkrun]is contributing to changing that back to the most valuable exercise you can do which is outside and social and fun”
Tom, a former lecturer in exercise science at the University of Leeds and founder of the Leeds Woodhouse Moor parkrun (the first outside London), left his academic role and joined parkruns team of only 13 dedicated staff in 2010. In his time with the Leeds parkrun Tom witnessed students and members of the wider community mixing outside of their usual friendship circle, the ability for the parkrun to cross age, gender, religious and racial groups. Allowing people to socialise in groups they may not normally.
For students, the opportunity to not only participate but to also volunteer at parkrun offers “immense” transferable skills attractive to employers. As an employer Tom was keen to reiterate how volunteering at an event like parkrun was an easy way to satisfy “students’ need to differentiate themselves” in the post-graduation job market. Parkrun relies on more than 8,500 volunteers every week to run their 391 parkruns across the United Kingdom.
For anyone worried about joining in with parkrun Tom offered the following advice, “the most important thing is that everybody is fit enough to do it”, parkrun’s maxim “run, jog, walk, volunteer” allows anyone of any ability to get involved:
“if you’re really worried about participating, then volunteer. It’s a really great way of getting to know people and if you’re worried about that then just come along and watch”