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Parkrun: nine options for your Saturday morning 5k

Loved by many runners, parkrun has arguably shaped the nature of running in the UK (and around the world) more than any other single event or organisation. Parkrun democratised running, hastening its movement away from the preserve of serious beanpoles in club vests, and turning it into something all of us could get involved with. Running became a community and a social event, centred on Saturday mornings in the local park, always with coffee afterwards. Dogs, children and babies are welcome. The equally welcome addition of parkwalk, and the tail walkers, have further widened access to our favourite event. As parkrun says: 'free, for everyone, forever'.

Given the popularity of parkrun, it’s no surprise that many of my runners ask me to make sure that their plan always involves a parkrun on a Saturday. I’m always happy to accommodate this, and it leads to some great discussions about how we can use parkrun in different ways to allow people to be present at their favourite event, but still have the variation and balance in their training that’s required to progress. The biggest challenge tends to be for folk who are used to ‘racing’ parkrun every week. I don’t recommend doing this; it is hard to improve at something if you keep on going out and doing exactly the same thing every week, and there are other sessions which will improve your parkrun time more quickly than repeated racing. For runners who always use parkrun as a chatty, social run, it can be an interesting experiment to find out if you enjoy running it at a higher intensity. I always admire how open my runners are to my suggestions for doing things differently; read on for nine ways you can shake up your Saturday morning.

1. Easy effort

This is the staple parkrun; the one that should be the biggest part of the parkrun diet. Running parkrun at an easy effort allows space in the week for other training sessions, ones which will develop your pace for the occasions when you do choose to race. The easy efforts are a great opportunity to catch up with friends, running at a chatty pace (which also provides a way to make sure the pace stays easy). You could run with friends who you might not see so much of normally if their pace is slower than yours. If you find it tough to avoid the temptation to race parkrun, I often suggest…

2. …Pacing!

An excellent way to ensure that you stick to your easy plans is to act as a pacer. Whether by picking up a pacing bib or offering to informally pace a friend, others are relying on you to stick to that pace, and you can avoid the lure of trying for a new PB.

3. Parkrun sandwich as long run

If you’ve got a weekend long run in your plan, a parkrun sandwich can be a really enjoyable way of doing this. It’s very simple; run to parkrun (timing your arrival to coincide as closely as possible with 9am), run parkrun (at an easy effort!), run home. Some of my clients use this as an opportunity for some parkrun tourism, picking a parkrun to visit that gives the correct length of the long run overall. Some planning needs to go into this; you’ll need to check your route and plan your departure time. A means of navigating on the move may be helpful, either using your phone or loading the route onto your watch.

4. Walking/tail-walking

For injured runners, not being able to go to parkrun is often one of the worst things. Not only are you missing out on your running, you’re missing your parkrun family and the social contact of your normal Saturday morning. If you’re not so injured that you can’t walk, think about walking parkrun, or even volunteering as tail walker. You’ll get some low aerobic exercise, an hour out in the fresh air, and be cheered up by seeing friends.

5. Volunteer

If even walking is out of the question (or you just fancy a change from running it!), give something back and volunteer. Lots of runners alternate their parkrunning with volunteering – one volunteer role for every four runs, for example. We all know that parkrun runs (pun intended!) on volunteers, and there are lots of different roles; there is something to suit everyone.

Reading all the above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I am against the idea of ever racing parkrun! Not so; I just suggest doing so in moderation. Read on for ways to make parkrun part of your higher intensity training.

6. Progression run

A progression run is a good option if you’ve had a break from training through illness or injury, are nearing the end of a post-race recovery period, or are tapering for a bigger race. As the name suggests, in a progression run your pace gets progressively quicker. Start at an easy pace, and try to make each km faster than the previous one, until for the final km you are pushing hard. I like progression runs because you are in control of the pace – you can go as hard or as easy as you feel on the day. Progression runs are also an excellent tool for building pace awareness and control – if you go too hard in the second km, you’ll find it hard to keep progressing, so you have to manage your pace and hold back in the early stages.

7. Tempo effort

If you are training for longer races (half-marathon or marathon), parkrun is a good choice for a ‘tempo’ run. This is a comfortably hard pace, around a 7 out of 10 effort, so a slower pace than an all-out 5k race effort would be. At tempo pace, the purpose of the session is to improve your lactate threshold, which is your body’s ability to manage the production of lactate – the side product of energy production which kicks in at higher effort levels and is responsible for that heavy feeling you get in your legs at faster paces. We train lactate threshold so that you become able to run faster and further while still removing lactate from the bloodstream – the heavy feeling starts when the lactate accumulates faster than you are able to recycle it. Parkrun is a great opportunity for this tempo effort because you can latch onto a pacer or another runner who is going at the pace you want, so you don’t need to concentrate so hard on maintaining the pace.

8. Parkrun sandwich as tempo

Some people training for longer distances like to put their tempo efforts into their long run. This isn’t for everyone – personally I prefer to keep my tempo efforts in a standalone session and keep my long run easy. But if you’re comfortable with tempo in a long run, a parkrun sandwich can be a really easy and effective way of doing it – run easy to parkrun, run the parkrun at tempo pace, and run easy home.

9. All-out race effort

Finally! The one you’ve been waiting for. Yes; my runners do absolutely race parkrun. I suggest a racing frequency of once every 4-6 weeks, depending on how much you enjoy it. This ensures that between race parkruns you have had time for other training sessions. While repeatedly racing works well at the start of your running career, the effectiveness plateaus with time, and so you need to include different training stimuli. Racing selectively also helps avoid disappointment if you don’t get faster every single week.

If your parkrun diet has become a little bit monotonous, why not challenge yourself to try out one of two of these alternatives?

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