How amazing to have parkrun back.
For the first time in 16 months, the results have come in and I’m feeling the post-parkrun buzz of a Saturday morning.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my “parkrun-eve” excitement last night, and getting up this morning with butterflies in my belly.
And when I was finally on the start line, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. We stood in our socially distanced space and listened to the run director’s notices, before he ushered us toward the start line.
As we ran off I felt an emotional response come over me that I wasn’t expecting.
Goosebumps. Joy. An uncontrollable smile.
Returning to (or starting) parkrun can be an exhilarating experience. But it doesn’t come without its challenges. In this blog, I share with you how my first morning back at parkrun went, and tips for avoiding the common pitfalls I found myself falling into.
Despite being a parkrun fanatic, I haven’t really got too involved in the social side of parkrun. I know a few people to chat with, but I tend to be one of those who rocks up, runs and leaves, plus I volunteer a few times a year. Yet – after a 16-month break – today reminded me how much I’ve missed the sense of community I feel when I’m at parkrun.
But I have to say, that first run back was tough.
I realized – in all the excitement – my good intentions to mentally prepare myself had gone out the window. So when I became victim to several common pitfalls within the first 10 minutes of my run, I decided to write this blog. In the small hope I might prevent someone else doing the same.
5 mistakes to avoid when returning to (or starting) parkrun
Even though I spend my life reading, writing and talking about exercise psychology, I’m not immune to the mental effects of ego, expectations and excitement.
Here’s how my morning went, and how by doing things a little differently you can ensure your first parkrun back (or first parkrun ever) is as fulfilling as can be.
Mistake 1: Rushing out the door with 10 minutes to go
It’s not like I haven’t had any time to prepare – we’ve known for weeks that parkrun is coming back today. Yet somehow, I still managed to be clambering around for my barcode, water, and rushing around cleaning my bathroom (as the builder was due in straight after) until 8.50am. I finally walked out the door with just enough time to run the 5 minutes it takes to get to Princes parkrun, dump my stuff and make it to the start line as the announcements started.
What I realized during this process is that I’d forgotten “how to do parkrun”. My habitual process of getting ready from before the pandemic had gone (see my blog about breaking habits if you’d like to understand why), and I needed to re-learn what to take, what to prepare and what time I needed to leave.
How to be prepared when returning to (or starting) parkrun
Give yourself time to get ready and prepare what you need in advance (e.g., kit, barcode, water, door keys). Leave early so you can have a leisurely start and take in the amazing moment that is returning to parkrun.
And don’t forget your barcode! (I didn’t, but I did drop it on my way and a fellow parkrunner fortunately rescued it for me…).
Mistake 2: Setting off too quickly
Anyone who has done a parkrun, or any running event, will know how easy it is to get swept along with the crowd. You set off at pace, feel like you’re running on air, and you’re just enjoying the high of the moment. The problem is – you often don’t realise just how fast you’re actually going (and how far this is off the pace you intended to run).
Today it only took a few minutes before I felt the familiar feeling that “I started too fast and I’m never going to keep this pace up”. I then spent most of the run battling to keep going, feeling like I was going backwards whilst everyone else left me in their wake. Which is fine of course, but it does make the experience a little more mentally challenging.
How to start at the right pace for you
Covid restrictions are actually helpful with this, as the new parkrun guidance advises you to position yourself according to how fast you expect to run. For example, if you’re aiming to run a 35-minute 5k, stand a little further back and let the faster runners get out of the blocks first.
Then challenging as it is, try and stay focused on yourself in those first few minutes. Go at a pace that’s right for you, and resist the temptation to be swept along with the crowd. Trust me, it will pay dividends later on in the run. You’ll find your breathing is better, your legs feel stronger and you’re the one leaving others in your wake.
Mistake 3: Trying to keep up with others around you
This is especially important as we’ve all just had a break of 16 months. You know what you’ve been doing in that time, but you don’t know what your parkrun nemesis has been doing. And if you haven’t been training as you’ve been used to (as many of us haven’t), trying to keep up with that person who’s been running regularly with their club is only going to make for a miserable experience.
On today’s run a group of three men ran passed me, two in front of the third. I could hear them discussing pace and the man at the back said to me “they said they wanted to go a gentle pace, we’re doing sub 8-minute miles”. I could see he then tailed off and began to run his own race.
How to run (or walk) your own race
When you’re returning (or starting) parkrun, you’ll enjoy it most if you walk or run at a pace that is right for you. Focus on yourself and listen to your body. If your friend wants to go quicker, you can always meet up with them at the end. And when you get to the finish line, celebrate your own personal improvements, regardless of how your time compares with others. This is the first time you have completed a parkrun in 16 months (or ever!) and that’s a remarkable achievement.
Mistake 4: Expecting to run the same pace you did 16 months ago
Even if you’ve been keeping up some training, chances are you haven’t done anything with the same “push yourself” power that parkrun gives you.
When I was running today, I realized I’d fallen into the trap of complacency – thinking “I’ve been training, I’ll be fine”. And whilst I knew I might be a bit slower than usual, I hadn’t thought about the fact I was no longer used to pushing myself mentally. My lockdown runs have mostly been a comfortable pace, go with the flow, focus on distance rather than pace. Any high intensity bursts have been short in duration.
My training hadn’t prepared me to just turn up at parkrun and pick up where I left off. Instead I found I was experiencing a mental challenge I hadn’t anticipated. I wasn’t used to pushing myself for such a long duration and with this came fear, uncertainty, and a desire to give up.
I realized if I want to get even close to the parkrun performances I’d become used to pre-pandemic, I need to train both my body and my mind. Essentially, I need to get used to feeling uncomfortable for longer (without giving up). Quite an embarrassing revelation for someone with a PhD in exercise psychology.
How to manage your expectations when returning to (or starting) parkrun
When you’re returning to (or starting) parkrun it’s important to mentally prepare yourself. Try not to go in with expectations about pace, finishing position, or times. Instead take things slowly and focus on enjoying the experience. Depending on how much you’ve been training, you might even feel like you’ve gone back to square one.
But remember when you first started and how easy it was to get PBs (personal bests)? If you start from scratch now with a “post-pandemic PB”, you can celebrate your achievements along the way. Take one step at a time and before you know it, you’ll soon be back at where you were.
Mistake 5: Being so focused on running you forget to look around you
When I’d finished my run today, I went back to run with Sandra, who is a remarkable individual I met at parkrun a couple of years ago. As we ran, Sandra said to me “look at those flowers, aren’t they beautiful”. I realized then, I hadn’t even noticed the huge expanse of flowers on my previous 3 laps. And they were indeed beautiful.
How to enjoy the beauty around you
This final point is perhaps a message to myself for every parkrun.
parkrun is about community, place, people and shared experiences. Many parkruns take place in beautiful outdoor locations, with flowers, scenery and wildlife to take in. We can all benefit from taking time to be present and enjoy these moments.
If you’re someone – like me – who enjoys pushing themselves at parkrun, perhaps take a week every now and again to volunteer or take it a little easier. And use that opportunity to take in the beauty around you.
parkruns are free, weekly timed 5k events that happen across the world (9am Saturday morning in the UK). The aim of parkrun is to create a healthier and happier planet through making physical activity fun and accessible for all ages, abilities and backgrounds. It’s got two podcasts (With Me Now and Free Weekly Timed), and even has its own You Tube channel.
Although the name “parkrun” suggests it’s a run, it doesn’t have to be. Many people walk, walk-run, or run – it’s up to you. And if you don’t feel ready to take part yet, volunteering is a great way to start and has been shown to have more benefits for our wellbeing than taking part in the run/walk itself.
And if you’re contemplating returning to (or starting) parkrun, but haven’t yet got up the courage, check out this video for a reminder of how welcoming parkrun is.
Hope to see you at a parkrun somewhere soon!
Please comment below to share how your first parkrun back (or first parkrun) was, and ask me any questions/fears you have about returning.
Dr Paula Watson is a HCPC-registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, Director of Made Up to Move Ltd and part-time lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.
Made Up to Move offers affordable psychology services to help people with the mental aspects of exercise and physical activity. If you’d like further support in understanding and changing your own relationship with movement, please find details of 1-to-1 support here.