Chris completed his first ParkRun in 2019, while we were house sitting a short walk from the Daventry Country Park event. We walked together to the start line, with little Chihuahua Jessie – our pet for the week – by our sides. At the time there was no question that I would take Jessie for her walk while Chris took part in the ParkRun. I “wasn’t a runner”, so this made sense. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2020 that Chris convinced me to join him for the Holkham ParkRun in Norfolk, again while pet sitting nearby, and I completed my first ever ParkRun! Since then, we’ve both enjoyed completing ParkRuns all over England, from Kent to Nottinghamshire and everywhere in between, as we travel all over the UK with our pet sitting business and converted camper van. If, like I did, you don’t think you’re cut out for ParkRun, let us tell you why you NEED to complete a ParkRun!

What is ParkRun?

ParkRun is a collection of 5km events that take place every Saturday morning, at more than 2,000 locations in 22 countries! At the time of writing, there are 1,165 events in the UK alone. Participating in a ParkRun is completely free, though participants are required to register so they can receive a barcode – this is scanned at the end of each event in order to give you your time! Though it’s called a ParkRun, the event is open to runners, joggers and walkers alike, and participants with dogs or those pushing buggies are welcome too!

Finding your local ParkRun

To get started, you’ll need to register on the ParkRun website. This is a simple process as you’ll just need to fill in a few details about yourself, in order to receive your barcode. This is sent to you via email, so you just need to print the barcode and bring it with you on the day of the event for the stewards to scan once you reach the finish line! Once you’ve registered on the website, head to the Events page for a map of every event, where you can search for your closest ParkRun. Every event has its own course page, so if you’re lucky enough to live in an area where there are multiple ParkRuns it’s worth checking out the course for each one to find which will best suit you. Some events have challenging terrain so will be tougher for your first time, while some take place in central locations and therefore draw more participants. If you’re nervous about your first ParkRun, it might be worth attending one with fewer participants or finding a friend who’s willing to join you!

What to expect at a ParkRun

On each course page for ParkRun events you’ll find the course description, which tells you where the start and finish lines are, as well as a brief overview of the course that highlights any points of interest to use as way markers. You’ll find the address for the location here too, so come ParkRun day you’ll know where to go! The start time varies by location, though most begin at 9am, so you’ll want to aim to arrive early to ensure you don’t miss the start. Depending on your needs, you might need to allow time to find a car parking spot, or to warm up if you haven’t already done so at home. Around ten minutes before the start of the run, a ParkRun steward addresses participants in a briefing, welcoming newbies, highlighting any milestone runs (for example, if someone is running their 100th ParkRun. No matter the number, everyone will applaud!) as well as letting participants know if there is anything to be aware of along the course – such as the terrain being slippery after heavy rainfall, or any temporary diversions to the course.

When it’s time to begin, everyone heads to the start line and a ParkRun steward will mark the beginning of the event! Don’t worry about memorising the course map – each event’s course is marked with signs and/or stewards to ensure you don’t go the wrong way! All the stewards at every ParkRun we’ve completed have been incredibly friendly and supportive, and they’ll cheer you on around the course.

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When you cross the finish line, a steward will note the time and you’ll enter a funnel. The funnel is effectively two barriers on either side of the finish line that create a narrow walkway, which ensures participants remain in the order that they crossed the finish line. It’s important to stay in order in the funnel so your time doesn’t get marked as someone else’s! At the end of the funnel you’ll receive a numbered token, which you take to a steward to scan along with your ParkRun barcode. This links your number, and in effect finishing time, to your runner profile. Later in the day, the event results are published on each course page (you may receive a text or email if you’ve opted into these) and you’ll be able to see your finishing time, as well as where you placed in your age and gender category. ParkRun is not a race, so we don’t pay attention to our finishing number or where we placed in our age and gender categories, but we do like to keep tabs on our times at each event. In any case, some weeks the event may draw 100 people and the next week it’s 200, so your finishing number doesn’t count for much other than to link the finishing time to the participant.

The benefits of ParkRun

In our opinion one of the greatest benefits of Park Run is that it’s a completely free event! When you join a gym or hire a trainer it’s an upfront cost, and one that puts people off beginning to exercise in the first place. For anyone just getting started with running or jogging, or even struggling to get motivated to go for a walk, the fact that ParkRun is free gets rid of that cost barrier and makes the event accessible to everyone.

Once you’ve found your local ParkRun, having a regular time and place to exercise motivates you to get out for some fresh air and move your body each week! It gives you accountability as you head into the weekend, knowing that the event will take place with or without you, so you might as well join in! ParkRun holds space for you to take it as seriously as you want to, whether you make it a weekly occurrence or only join for the first event of each month. Across every ParkRun event we’ve completed, we’ve seen it all – from those who sprint like they’re at the Olympics, putting in the work to beat their personal best time, to those who power walk the course or gently jog while pushing a little one in a buggy. Participants with four-legged friends are permitted with one dog to each person, meaning your doggo can get in some exercise in the morning too! When Chris and I take part in a ParkRun, we wish each other luck on the start line and then find our own paces, reuniting after we’ve both finished. Whatever your pace, there’s space for you!

It’s also a fantastic way to meet people. As we travel full time we miss out on making local friends, but even we like to talk to other participants on the finish line – especially if we’ve been neck-and-neck with them for the duration of the course! At one of my first ParkRuns I made a couple of friends early on during the course, and we jogged together right up to the finish line. If you’re local to one area, it’s a great way to meet people with similar interests. Most ParkRuns invite participants to have a cuppa and chat at the finish line, space permitting, to actively encourage participants to meet new people. If you’re nervous about going alone, bring a friend and meet people together or use the event’s Facebook page to find someone to buddy up with on the day.

Every steward at ParkRun is a volunteer and they’ll be there on the day, at the start line, finish line and along the course, to cheer you on. It’s this support network that makes ParkRun stand out from joining a gym or going jogging on your own. I didn’t realise how unfit I was until I was on the course at my first ParkRun, and believe me – every single clap, cheer and word of encouragement along the way helps! At popular events, where there are a lot of volunteers for stewarding, volunteers can put themselves forward to run the course as pace markers. We first saw this at the Hove Promenade ParkRun, where volunteers running the course wore bibs with their expected finish time printed on the back and front. This really helps if you’re aiming for a certain time – at one Hove ParkRun I managed to sprint past the 30 minute pace marker just before the finish line to achieve my personal best ParkRun time!

No matter your experience, your finishing time, your reason for joining the event – the main benefit is that it’s fun! While we might sometimes feel tired after completing a ParkRun (I just got a flashback to the hill at Kingdom ParkRun…) we never actually feel worse for having got up and out, to start our day with some fresh air and exercise.

Advice for beginners

It’s a cliché but it’s true: We were all beginners once! No matter how sweaty you think you look or how slow you feel when you run, you’ll always be surrounded by people who once thought the same thing about themselves. Our advice when you first start taking part in ParkRuns is to make sure you arrive early enough for the ‘first timers’ briefing before the event – around 15-20 minutes before the start – which will tell you what to expect on the course before the steward addresses the whole group. You should also find a spot near the back of the group when you’re on the starting line. This way you won’t get overtaken by hardcore sprinters dashing past (especially if the course path is narrow) and you’ll be able to find a comfortable pace once the group spreads out along the course. Don’t worry about ‘going too slow’ or being the last one to cross the finish line – a dedicated ‘tail walker’ walks the course at the back of the group at each event to ensure every participant crosses the line safely.

It might also be worth stewarding in the beginning to get a feel for the event. On the day of Chris’ first ParkRun at Daventry Country Park, I got chatting to two stewards who alternated between stewarding the event and running it each week. They were the first people to tell me that you could walk the course and you don’t have to be a pro at running! The stewards are always so knowledgeable and friendly, and it could be a good way to get into the ParkRun event as a whole.

If you’re ready to participate in ParkRun, but you’re not a regular runner or jogger, consider when and what you’ll eat on the Saturday. When I first took part in ParkRun, I got up extra early in order to have Weetabix for breakfast and allow time for it to digest before running. More recently, I choose to have a banana half an hour before the run or keep one in the car to eat just after I’ve finished, as a little reward! This brings us to another point: Water! This is important for any run but especially so if you’re attending a ParkRun in the summer – consider investing in a light water bottle to carry while you take part in the event or, if you drive, keep water in your car to re-hydrate after you’re finished.

If you regularly run by yourself, taking part in ParkRun gives you a good feel for what it’s like to run with other people, and prepares you if you’re training for a race or marathon. Since starting ParkRun we’ve both completed the Brighton 10K, and Chris has gone on to complete the London half marathon. Attending so many ParkRuns got us accustomed to the atmosphere of running amongst a crowd of people. It’s also surprisingly motivating to run or jog in a group – we often find ourselves singling out other participants to use as our personal pace markers, or to motivate us to up the pace and overtake them! It’s like a form of gamification to encourage you to keep going, and ParkRun has tapped into this by providing milestone merchandise in their online shop. Here you can buy everything from vest tops to water bottles displaying the milestone number of ParkRuns you’ve completed – currently available for 10, 25, 50, 100, 250, or 500 ParkRuns. There’s also volunteer milestone merch for sale too, so even if you don’t run the course you can still wear a ParkRun milestone with pride!

The best part about ParkRun is that there’s no commitment – sometimes life gets in the way, and you don’t have to attend every week. ParkRun is there for you to join in as often as suits you, which is perfect for us – we often miss ParkRuns if it falls on the last day of a house sit when we’re packing up! Unlike a gym or exercise classes that require you to commit to membership financially, you don’t need to feel pressure to attend ParkRun every week. (Unless that’s what you need to keep motivated, in which case, find an accountability buddy to encourage you to keep showing up!) You only have to attend one of the unusually-crammed ParkRun events for Christmas or New Year’s Day to realise you’re not the only one to dip in and out!

Still not convinced?

Nothing motivates us like a challenge, so once you’re familiar with your local ParkRun and in need of a shake-up, take a look around at what other ParkRuns you can attend! Think of it like a ParkRun bucket list: Take part in the flattest ParkRun (Hackney Marshes, London), or – if you’re feeling really brave – the toughest ParkRun (Great Yarmouth North Beach, Norfolk). Then there’s the more quirky ParkRuns, like the Severn Bridge ParkRun that begins in Wales and takes you over the bridge into England and back. For some sight-seeing while you run, jog or walk, check out the Eden Project ParkRun in Cornwall, or the Fountains Abbey ParkRun situated within the National Trust site in Yorkshire. At both of these events, participants get free entry to somewhere you’d usually have to pay for! Who knew ParkRun could also be a great way to motivate you to get travelling as well as moving?

We’re incredibly grateful that ParkRun exists for free, for everyone, every week all over the UK. At the best of times it’s given us motivation for morning exercise, camaraderie, and beautiful scenery, and at the worst of times it’s provided us simply with a reason to get out of bed. We hope we’ve inspired you to get out and join a ParkRun this weekend!

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