Why do people participate in Parkrun? A Systematic Review

Autumn / Winter 2022

This review highlights the potential for Parkrun as a public health intervention, with findings illustrating reasons for participation and continued engagement.

Corresponding Author: Tiffany Palmer1. Authors: Anna Baker1, Sarah Snuggs2 (1. London Metropolitan University, 166-220 Holloway Road, London N7 8DB, UK. 2. School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, RG6 7BE; School of Social Sciences – Psychology, London Metropolitan University, 166-220 Holloway Road, London N7 8DB)

Conflict of Interests – none to declare.

Any funding details – none to declare.


Parkrun is a collection of 5-kilometre free running events that take place every week. The purpose of this review was to examine the reasons people participate in Parkrun. The search produced 4251 papers resulting in four qualitative, four quantitative and one mixed methods study after screening. Using thematic analysis for qualitative papers, three themes were extrapolated with associative sub-themes: Accessibility, with sub-themes inclusive and convenient; Perceived Social Benefits, with sub-themes engagement through social capital and belonging to the Parkrun movement; and lastly the theme Health Benefits, with the sub-themes motivating factors and perceived psychological benefits. Descriptive statistics of the quantitative papers provided insight and were mapped onto the qualitative themes where relevant, highlighting improved fitness and perceived social benefits as reasons for initial participation as well as continued engagement. This review highlights the potential for Parkrun as a public health intervention, and the use of social capital in increasing engagement.


Parkrun, physical activity, social capital, qualitative, intervention.


Sedentary behaviours are rising in many countries with major implications for the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and physical inactivity presents a global public health priority. Running as a form of physical activity is rising in popularity in the UK with an increase of 72% of people running over the last decade and an estimated 2.4 million people running on a weekly basis (England Athletics, 2017). The majority of people that run every week in the UK are not affiliated to a running club, but running groups are emerging that are unstructured and informal (Hindley, 2018).

Parkrun began in Teddington, South-West London in 2004, created by a group of fellow runners who wanted to exercise together. They began organising a weekly, free, 5km timed run in a local park (Parkrun, 2019). Despite the expansion of participation in more casual running events, there is relatively little research on the behaviour, experiences and motivation of the people taking part (Wiltshire, et al., 2018). Research is in its infancy, but early indications from evidence on Parkrun suggest there is wide-reaching impact on health and wellbeing (Grunseit, et al., 2017). Exploring reasons for participation will be helpful in informing future intervention design and also in promoting the benefits of parkrun to a wider audience, which may increase participation.

Review Question

This systematic review will seek to address one primary question: ‘Why do people participate in Parkrun?’


Information sources

Searches were conducted using the following databases: PubMed, Web of Science, PsychINFO, SPORTDiscus, Cochrane. In addition, handsearching and backward and forward citations were conducted to ensure that relevant articles were not missed. Parkrun was contacted directly, requesting any links to ongoing research not yet published, for possible inclusion in the discussion.

Search Strategy

Searches included a combination of relevant search terms. Given that “Parkrun” has developed into a brand in itself, considerable thought was given to the search terms and guidance was sought from numerous professionals. Words associated with engagement in exercise interventions would be too broad so, following advice and guidance, the decision was made by all authors, to include the following search terms:

  1. parkrun
  2. park AND run

Inclusion criteria for the review were: 1) Published in English language; 2) Peer-reviewed publications; 3) Publication date after 2003 (creation of Parkrun); 4) Empirical studies; 5) Adult participants; 6) Reasons for participation examined, as a primary or secondary outcome. Given the limited number of peer-reviewed studies in this area, qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods studies were included in this review.

Titles and abstracts were screened by T.P. between May – June 2019, with a random 10% screened independently for consistency in coding (S.S). Full texts of potentially relevant studies were assessed against the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Data extraction was completed by a single reviewer and checked by an independent reviewer (S.S.). Disagreements between reviewers would have been resolved through discussion with a third reviewer (A.B) however this was not necessary. For quantitative findings, researchers used an excel spreadsheet to capture the data to be analysed. Customised workbooks and spreadsheets were designed for the review process.

Quality ratings

Quantitative and qualitative studies were assessed for quality using the Standard Quality Assessment Criteria (Kmet, et al., 2004). These two checklists were specifically designed for both types of data and therefore appropriate for this review

Meta-synthesis of qualitative data

Data were analysed thematically, and NVivo 12 (QSR International) facilitated data management. Each paper was reviewed for meaningfulness regarding the key research question of why people participate in Parkrun, using the authors’ themes to inform the dataset. Braun and Clarke’s (2006) guidelines for conducting a thematic analysis were followed. Papers were read by the researcher a number of times to become familiar with the text. Initial codes were highlighted, examined and revised. Similar codes were merged and used to generate themes. Codes that were not relevant to the research question were discarded, in line with the process for thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). The remaining codes were used to generate themes. Themes were mapped into overarching themes and sub-themes and relationships between them were examined. Once established the themes were defined and named.


The literature search yielded a total of 4251 potentially relevant articles; 3612 were removed based on title or abstract and 47 full texts were retrieved. After full text screening, nine relevant articles were identified. No further studies were found from hand searches. The final review examined findings from four qualitative papers, four quantitative papers and one mixed method (Figure 1). All studies explored reasons for participation in Parkrun. See Tables 1 and 2 for extraction data and quality ratings.

Table 1. Qualitative papers.
Table 2. Quantitative papers.
Figure 1. PRISMA flowchart of literature search results.

3.1 Qualitative Studies

Thematic analysis generated three overarching themes from qualitative papers; accessibility, perceived social benefits and health benefits (Table 3).

Table 3. Themes and sub-themes.

3.1.1 Theme 1 – Accessibility

This theme described the feeling of freedom that participants associate with Parkrun which initiates attendance in the first instance and contributes towards sustained engagement.


All four of the qualitative studies and the mixed methods paper highlighted inclusivity as an important element for participants. The level of diversity in participants was evident, in terms of age, gender, and running ability which contributed to the welcoming feeling that Parkrun emulates. This enabled families to exercise together with their spouse, parents, children, friends and even the family dog (Sharman, et al., 2019; Stevinson, et al., 2015), encouraging initial attendance and making people feel inclined to return (Stevinson, et al., 2015).


The second sub-theme, convenient, was included in three out of the four qualitative studies and the mixed methods paper.

Stevinson, et al. (2015) referred to the convenience of Parkrun as a theme they labelled “freedom” which they described as being particularly important for initial attendance. This referred to the flexibility and approachability to participation that minimised some of the common barriers to physical activity, for example cost and accessibility. The simple setup, with no sign-up fee, convenient time and various locations, are factors associated with making Parkrun accessible and reducing barriers to physical activity (Wiltshire and Stevinson, 2018).

3.1.2 Theme 2 – Perceived social benefits

The theme of perceived social benefits consisted of two sub-themes: engagement through social capital and belonging to the Parkrun movement.

Engagement through social capital

The idea of engagement through social capital was the web of connections in peoples’ lives that inform, encourage and influence their decisions and was evident in three out of four qualitative papers examined for this review. Sharman, et al. (2019) found that most people who attended Parkrun for the first time had been introduced by someone in their social circle, and it was therefore the role of social capital to initiate engagement. The majority of first-time Parkrunners were encouraged through social ties, supporting the idea of social capital as playing a role in facilitating attendance (Hindley, 2018).

Wiltshire and Stevinson (2018) claim that social capital is not just important for initial engagement but also has a role to play in sustainment of Parkrun attendance, especially when it comes to engaging people from low socioeconomic groups.

Belonging to the Parkrun Movement

The sub-theme, belonging to the Parkrun movement, was identified as a significant element of the Parkrun format, and all of the qualitative work highlighted its importance. Wiltshire, et al. (2018) describe this social aspect of Parkrun as “collective bodywork” (p. 2) – that is a collective context whereby participants describe their experience as belonging to a community and shared sense of responsibility. Wiltshire and Stevinson’s (2018) study suggests that people feel connected at Parkrun, and this belonging to the Parkrun movement further develops once connections have been made. All the qualitative studies discussed, in depth, the feeling of belonging to a collective exercise activity, a mass-community event that for many has become routine and is closely associated with personal identity.

Sharman, et al. (2019) describes the pattern of attending Parkrun becoming routine and for many an important part of their life, which has replaced other activities. This activity of exercising together in a supportive environment has been described as “collective bodywork” (p. 9) with the idea of “all in this together” (Wiltshire, et al., 2018, p.14). It has also been described as a “health practice” (Wiltshire, et al., 2018, p.13), “a third place” (a third place refers to a setting, important to our wellbeing, outside of work and home; Hindley, 2018, p.88), and a “social practice” (Wiltshire and Stevinson, 2018, p.52), all of which allude to the same idea of collective exercise in a supportive environment which by its very nature gives meaning to taking part in exercise and results in increased self-efficacy.

3.1.3 Theme 3 – Health benefits

The theme health benefits constituted two sub-themes: motivating factors and perceived psychological benefits.

Motivating Factors

For some, the friendly competition that Parkrun provides, is a nudge to keep going and “catch-up” with other Parkrunners (Wiltshire, et al., 2018). This is a commonality amongst Parkrunners, and these friendly rivalries are greeted with mutual support (Stevinson, et al., 2015). Parkrun is also used by participants as a resource to gain information on injury, performance or health as well as emotional support (Wiltshire and Stevinson, 2018). Parkrun is about both giving and receiving support (Sharman, et al., 2019) and this social support is a form of social cohesion that opens up dialogues (Hindley, 2018). In addition, the barcode and computerised result system provided by Parkrun, enables runners to check progress and acted as an incentive for people who want to record their improvement (Stevinson, et al., 2015). All four of the qualitative studies and the mixed methods paper in this review cited improved fitness and health as an incentive for participants to engage with Parkrun over time. Attaining personal goals and friendly competition with other Parkrunners, inspired people to make the effort to maintain attendance (Wiltshire, et al., 2018). The ability to see improvement via the Parkrun results was an inspiration (Sharman, et al., 2019) and they valued the opportunity to have their achievements week on week, facilitating continuing participation (Wiltshire & Stevinson, 2018).

Perceived psychological benefits                        

The second sub-theme under the umbrella of health benefits, was perceived psychological benefits. Three of the qualitative papers and the mixed methods paper cited perceived psychological benefits as a reason for attendance. Regular attendance of Parkrun increased participants’ self-efficacy and encouraged them to seek out other races and opportunities (Sharman, et al., 2019; Wiltshire, et al., 2018). In addition, the opportunity to be able to run with family members including children and dogs improved perceived wellbeing, (Stevinson, et al., 2015).

3.2 Narrative of quantitative studies

Evidence from quantitative studies illustrated key points that mapped onto a number of themes identified within the qualitative studies.

The study by Cleland, et al. (2019) of 372 people examined individual, social and environmental demographics. The number of non-runners at registration was high (53%), highlighting support for the theme of accessibility as described above. Stevinson and Hickson (2014) found that those people that identified as “non-runners” obtained the largest increase in performance based on their decreased run time and were more likely to report health related benefits and participate.

Cleland, et al. (2019) found that perceived benefits of Parkrun included: enjoyment, social factors (such as making new friends and running with children) and the safe environment. In addition, cultural norms, social support, self-efficacy for Parkrun and perceived behavioural control were all associated with participation. Evidence from all papers included in this review suggest that these perceived social benefits are an important element of Parkrun, for both initial engagement and sustained attendance.

Similarly, the mixed methods paper (Hindley, 2018) suggested that the perceived benefits from taking part in Parkrun consisted of social, physical and psychological elements offering support for the themes of perceived social benefits and health benefits. They cited getting exercise as the most significant reason for participation (78%), followed by social togetherness (31%), fun (29%) and enhancing well-being (29%), supporting the previous Stevinson and Hickson (2014) study.

The study by Grunseit, et al. (2017) reported that 97.6% of participants agreed that Parkrun was beneficial to their physical health. Findings from this paper map onto the theme of health benefits as well as perceived social benefits. With women there was a positive association between attendance and psychological wellbeing, whilst with men this positive association was with community connectedness.

Stevens, et al. (2019) found a significant relationship between group identification and participation with strong social identities in exercise settings as a reason for participation. This relationship may be reciprocal, with social identity being both a cause and effect of greater participation and satisfaction.

In alignment with the sub-theme, engagement through social capital, Cleland, et al. (2019) found that 30% of Parkrunners attended with someone they knew, and that initial attendance had been facilitated through social ties. Furthermore, they found a positive association with having a partner (who is also attending parkrun) and higher attendance with Parkrun, providing further support for the sub-theme, engagement through social capital. In addition, the perceived social benefits of Parkrun were acknowledged, with belonging to the Parkrun movement being positively associated with attendance. Furthermore, the perceived psychological benefits described in this article are; enjoyment and self-efficacy for Parkrun as being positively associated with participation. This is supported by Stevinson and Hickson (2014) who found that those who started out as non-runners were more likely to express the motivating factors of health outcomes as a reason for participation (16%). Cleland, et al. (2019), describe “cultural norms” (e.g. lots of people do it) relating to Parkrun and its community. Motivating factors such as social support were listed as being significantly associated with increased participation, from both their social circle as well as the Parkrun community. This is evidence for the generation of belonging to the Parkrun movement, as highlighted above.

Additional findings indicated that some participants expressed frustration at parking, and the increased busyness that makes it harder for faster runners to complete the course with a clear rout, (Sharman, et al., 2019). Generally, barriers to Parkrun are more generic and not specific to Parkrun itself (such as childcare and work). Though the name of “Parkrun” was enough to put some people off, who would never consider themselves as “runners” (Sharman, et al., 2019).


This systematic review examined the reasons people participate in Parkrun and generated three themes with associated sub-themes: accessibility with sub-themes inclusive and convenient; perceived social benefits with sub-themes engagement through social capital and belonging to the "Parkrun movement"; and lastly health benefits with the sub-themes motivating factors and perceived psychological benefits. Descriptive statistics of the quantitative papers provided insight and were mapped onto the qualitative themes where relevant, highlighting improved fitness and perceived social benefits as common reasons for initial participation as well as continued engagement.

Previous research has found some similarities with these results, particularly in terms of social influences. A systematic review on motivators of physical participation in middle-aged and older adults, found that social influences, reinforcement and assistance in managing change were facilitators for these age groups (Spiteri, et al., 2019). Additionally, social support from the practice of exercise can be a facilitator for people with mental illness (Pereria, et al., 2019). Furthermore, a systematic review examining physical activity in older adults, found that life satisfaction and social connection was more important to older adults than the health benefits of physical exercise (Morgan, et al., 2019).

The studies included in this review offer suggestions for achieving successful uptake of physical activity in harnessing existing social capital and creating social capital where it is absent. Evidence from Parkrun suggests that participation in green exercise led to significant improvements in stress, mood and self-esteem although there is no difference in the type of outdoor location, for example a park, woods, or a beach (Rogerson, et al., 2016). Furthermore, recent public health recommendations encourage outdoor activity to reduce the risk of transmission from viral infections such as COVID-19. Exercise improves immunity and offers protection against viral infections (Silveria, et al., 2021) such as COVID-19 as well as improved mental health and wellbeing, and reducing symptoms of anxiety (Duncan, et al., 2020). Schneider, et al. (2020) found that 82% of the UK population live within 5km of a Parkrun illustrating its wide scale reach within the UK. Globally, Parkrun has a presence in 20 countries, and this continues to grow. A systematic review on physical barriers and preferences in people with obesity, found that a fixed schedule time is preferred by people, as well as the opportunity to exercise close to home (Baillot, et al., 2021).

Using qualitative and quantitative studies, this review integrates the two together, bringing together the analysis and interpretation of the quantitative and the qualitative findings. However, the review presented with some limitations. Firstly, those participants that took part in all five of the qualitative studies, self-selected to take part and three out of five studies used a positive sampling technique based on participation in previous study groups. This potentially created a positive bias towards those people that had had a positive experience of Parkrun, meaning participants that had perhaps not returned to Parkrun for various reasons or had not volunteered to take part in a study were not considered.Stevinson, et al. (2015) found that few participants offered negative feedback, requiring further probing from researchers.

With physical inactivity related to poor health outcomes (Howlett, et al., 2018), the task of improving physical activity adherence is a local and national goal. The benefits of Parkrun as highlighted in this review – the social support, opportunity to exercise with family, free, accessibility, as a few examples – puts Parkrun in a position to continue growth and have an impact on sedentary behaviour with long term consequences of reducing pressure and burden on the NHS, as well as improving outcomes for patients (Tobin, 2018). The inclusive format of Parkrun and the feeling of being part of a Parkrun movement make the findings of this systematic review unique, highlighting the novel appeal of Parkrun not previously highlighted in other systematic reviews on physical activity.

Evidence for Parkrun's efficacy is still emerging in the academic literature and more empirical studies are required to compare with other forms of activity. In addition, longitudinal research is needed to gain a better understanding of long-term engagement to help inform and guide design and implementation for physical activity interventions.


This review highlights the potential for Parkrun as a public health intervention, with themes illustrating reasons for participation and continued engagement. Parkrun has accessibility and scalability potential providing all the elements of an effective large-scale intervention with huge impact on public health.The opportunity to exercise outside as well as the social opportunities that come with Parkrun provide an ideal setting for improving health and wellbeing in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.


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