Parkrun for Sheffielders isn't just about being fitter - its about mental health, happiness and life satisfaction

When parkrun finally returns to the Outdoor City professor Steve Haake will be considering the varying strata in the lines of people setting out for their first weekly timed 5K since March 2020.

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 6:00 am
Start of Sheffield Hallam parkrun in Endcliffe Park in 2015.

As chair of the parkrun Research Board, Steve has pored over surveys from tens of thousands of parkrunners and has a pretty good idea why so many people get up early on Saturday mornings and run just over three miles round their local park.“For the first few rows, the 15-20 minutes lot, it’s about competition and what time you get.

“ And for the ones at the back who get back in an hour, it’s about health and mental health, and you find health as a motivation increases as you go down the line,” he says. “But what’s consistent all the way through from front to back is feeling part of a community.”

Over the last month, many of the community of 2.5 million British people who’ve run, walked or volunteered at a parkrun since the free 5k runs began 17 years ago have been urging local landowners to agree that, yes, given the current risks and benefits, maybe the time is right to start the events up again.

A runner limbers up before Graves parkrun in 2016.

Much of Yorkshire needed no convincing, with Leeds and Sheffield two of the first major UK cities to give parkrun 2021 the thumbs up.“It wasn’t a terribly difficult decision to make,” says Sheffield director of public health Greg Fell. “Given where we are Covid-wise, the risk from outdoor events is really, really quite small. Having plenty of circulating air sweeps away the viral particles really quite efficiently.

“ The big caveat is that if you’re poorly, or got any symptoms that might be the Coronavirus, stay at home and don’t go out, that applies to parkrun as much as anything else.”

The national parkrun organisers had provided a good risk assessment, he added, which made the decision fairly straightforward.“Parkrun is a much valued institution, and there are a lot of them in Sheffield which seem to engage people who otherwise don’t do as much exercise as they should, people of all shapes and sizes from all over the city. Saying yes to parkrun seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Organisers recognised that around 80 per cent of English parkruns needed to restart at the same date to prevent overcrowding from enthusiastic runners travelling miles from locations yet to be given the go-ahead.

Sheffield Hallam Parkrun in 2015.

And since only 50 per cent of runs had agreed by last weekend (very few in London) the restart date was postponed from the 5th to the 26th of June.

Locally, all Sheffield, Chesterfield and Rotherham 5k runs had been given the thumbs up by local authorities for a 5th June restart, and the National Trust had said yes for Clumber and Lyme Park parkruns.

But Doncaster and Barnsley had not yet decided, and Bakewell was also delayed, with landowners the Peak District National Park authority saying “new applications are currently being assessed on a case-by-case basis, but only up a maximum of 200 participants.”

The authority will not guarantee events with under 200 people, however, and will only review the current guidance after 5th June. “This applies to all applications and is not specifically related to events organised by parkrun.”

Sheffield Hallam Parkrun: Mark Harris (left) and friend Martin Ward warm down.

Steve Haake recognises that local authority decision makers have had quite a lot on over the last year, but believes many are missing the bigger picture around a weekly event with 139,823 participants last time it ran in the UK on 14th March 2020, (2,240 of them in Sheffield, Chesterfield and Rotherham).

It’s not just a 5k run to make you fitter, he says, parkrun data shows that a big majority of parkrunners say their mental health, happiness and life satisfaction have suffered without the motivation of the weekly run alongside your own community of running, walking or volunteering friends.

“And that’s particularly true among young people, deprived communities and women,” he says.

“Clinicians tell us they’ve been seeing an explosion of mental health problems, and that’s going to be a major issue in the future.

Runners getting ready to start the test run for Millhouses parkrun in 2019.

So I’d ask local authorities to put parkrun back on their priority list, because it’s going to help them in the long run.”

Sheffield Hallam Parkrun in 2015.