With parkrun finally returning, one writer reflects on the rewards of reconnecting with yourself and your community through running and racing.
It’s a strange paradox that we often seek solace in exercising alone when in fact, we’re more likely to reach our full potential in a group.
We know that running in groups can make us faster, fitter and stronger runners. Known in psychology as the Köhler Effect, researchers at Kansas State University found that people who exercised with someone they thought was better than them increased their workout intensity by as much as 200%. Imagine what racing with 200 people can do to your effort capacity!
Over the past 18 months, it’s been nigh-on impossible to run en masse. Running alone for me, however, has always been a joy and it’s one that’s kept me sane throughout lockdown.
During the first lockdown in 2020, downloads of health and fitness apps grew by 46% worldwide. By March of this year, the app Strava alone had 76 million active users, with two million more coming on board every two months. In May 2020, more than 1.2 million athletes were taking part in Strava’s monthly 5k running challenges.
For many, these types of challenges have been the only way to run together in a socially distanced way – a temporary sticking plaster over the Parkrun-shaped hole in our lives.
At the start of July’s 2021 heatwave, I ran my first 10km RunThrough race at Olympic Park in east London. RunThrough races started gathering pace again when the Government Road Map allowed a return to organised outdoor sport on 29 March, and I knew that I had to take part. The camaraderie of a ‘safe space’ group running is what I needed to press ‘reset’ on my repetitive training routes and routine.
I was nervous, excited and energised with the optimism that comes from crossing a start line with other people. Having worked and worked out from home all this time, I’d done the coursework. I was ready for the exam and the chance to give it my all. This was the first time that I’d signed up to a race alone – something I’d never contemplated pre-pandemic.
I signed up to the race alone, something I wouldn’t have contemplated pre-pandemic. Now, I’m more comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. It freed me of any perceived expectations and I figured it would be cathartic just to run for the hell of it.
There’s an African proverb that goes: “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.” This event was the sweet spot, a performance enhancer, a compromise where I could go fairly fast alone and fairly far bolstered by others.
RunThrough races are the perfect mix of individualism and togetherness. Well organised and inclusive, groups of spectators have until now been discouraged (as per government guidance) and routes are enhanced with motivational signs and energetic marshals cheering from a distance.
We set off in socially distanced waves, relying on our chip time for our results rather than mass synchronisation. From the start, I felt part of something bigger than myself. There was no goal but my own sub-50 minute finish time and allowing myself to be ‘carried along’ on a wave of strength and positivity.
Running in a group but without a training buddy on the day allowed me to feel free in the crowd. I could be present to fully absorb the sights, sounds, struggles and let’s face it, the burn of a surreally swift 10km in 24°C heat before breakfast.
The first race post-lockdown is bound to serve up unknown quantities of adrenaline. The celebratory atmosphere was galvanizing but as the temperature rose, I was at risk of writing cheques my legs couldn’t cash. I told myself to stay calm.
I chose not to wear headphones to connect to my breath. I might have run faster with a high beats-per-minute playlist but it just seemed better racing etiquette, and more grounding in the moment to go without. Focussing on form, I reached my ‘flow state’ by the third lap and felt vaguely confused about the (incredibly simple) route. It dawned on me that muscle memory had got me home so often on my repeated local training loops without conscious thought. Thinking and running at the same time felt like a novelty!
Pre-lockdown, I ran with a Garmin watch but on race day, I decided to leave the data for later and relied on my fellow runners to help me set a manageable pace.
Like many runners who train alone, the variation of my pacing has narrowed. We tend to run the same runs in the same times – never pushing hard enough or slowing down for a proper recovery. The training pace of competitive runners, however, can vary by two minutes per kilometre or more. Their easy runs are really easy, and their fast runs – well you can guess.
It’s fair to say that the group got me over the finish line to where I wanted to be. Coming back together reminded me that race times aren’t the real currency; whatever your pace, there’s nothing like jumping feet first into a race to feel part of the running community. Showing up (in real life) and doing my best gave me the required emotional result. Pin on a race number and you’re halfway there.
Whatever restrictions have and may be in place, you don’t need to ask permission to start running. Running is freedom. After the race drought of 2020, runners like me are recognising the fact that local racing and communal running offer a feel-good route to human connection that’s more important than ever.
So, here’s to group runs and shared goals. We’re better together.
Want to improve your running form? Check out the Strong Women Training Club’s four-week Strength Training for Runners course.
Images: Andy Waterman