What to expect at your first parkrun

If you like running then you will probably have heard of parkrun, the free, weekly, timed 5km events held all around the world, but if you haven’t taken part before then you may be wondering what to expect.

Each event is run by volunteers, so they’re doing this because they want to, and is a great opportunity for anyone to run or walk a 5k and get an official time as well as be part of a bigger community.

I ran my first parkrun in March 2018 as my “graduation” run to complete Couch to 5km and was pretty nervous in the lead-up with so many questions in my head, but they’re super friendly and inclusive and I really had nothing to worry about.

Also… it’s parkrun with a little ‘p’.. no capitalisation… that’s the way they like it.

Registering for parkrun

Although it’s free to take part, you will need to register online beforehand in order to get an official finishing time and get your times added to the parkrun results pages.

This is a quick and easy process that takes just a few minutes, and will give you your parkrun barcode to download and print off which will be scanned at the finish line to record your time.

parkrun screengrab

I have copy of my barcode in my wallet, and I also have bought an official keyfob from the parkrun website so that I’ll always have a barcode with me “just in case”.

In recent years they’ve also allowed you to use a digital barcode on your phone to scan too, which is great, but they do still encourage a physical barcode ‘just in case’.

You don’t need to go every week

Once you’re signed up you can go to parkrun whenever you want. That could be every week, once a month, or just whenever you want too.

You can also attend any parkrun now that you’re registered. Your barcode will work at all of them.

There are some runners who go every week and proudly display their branded t-shirts with ‘50’ or ‘100’ on them indicating some of the parkrun milestones, but personally I don’t get to go to parkrun as much as I’d like.

In the 5 years since my first parkrun I’ve been 22 times which isn’t a huge amount but for me the Saturday mornings don’t always work, so it’s easier to nip out for a 5km when I have the spare time. That being said, I did get to go to the Frankfurt (Germany) parkrun, and again just needed to have my barcode. Easy.

For others, they have made parkrun part of their weekly routine. Either way it doesn’t matter as you’re doing this for you, and any way you get out and exercise is great.

What to Wear at parkrun

It’s a relaxed event so wear what’s comfortable, makes you feel good, and helps you enjoy the event.

There are runners of a wide range of abilities and experience taking part, so whilst there will be some in all the latest gear, there are also others in hoodies and casual trainers. Experiment with what works, and the good news is that there isn’t a wrong answer as long as you’re safe and comfortable.

Me smiling at the camera at Nidda parkrun

The weather or time of year may affect your choices, so choose appropriate clothing. My other tip is to perhaps bring an old top you can wear before the run so that you can keep warm whilst you’re waiting for the start. This can then be left somewhere to recover when you’re finished.

Getting There

Each parkrun event has it’s own page on the parkrun website detailing it’s location, where parking and travel links are, so it won’t be hard finding it.

Most parkruns start at 9am so give yourself time to get there, so you don’t get flustered and have enough time to warm-up, pop to the toilet, etc. and also listen to the Run Director’s briefing.

Run Director’s briefing for first-timers

At each parkrun they will usually do a call-out for any runners who haven’t been to that particular venue and they will make you feel at ease and give you some helpful guidance about the route. 

Course Description

The parkrun website has interactive maps of all the routes, no matter what event you’re running, so I’d advise you have a look so you get some idea of what to expect.

It’s also accompanied by a detailed text description of the course. This is less about making sure you don’t get lost as there are markers and marshalls all along the route, but more about making you feel comfortable.

I find that if I know what to expect then I feel less anxious and can instead focus myself on the actual run instead. It’s also helpful in that it will detail any hills etc that may affect your pace.

Starting the Run

Usually there’s some milling around before the start, with people arriving at different times and having a natter and a chat with people they know.

Then a couple of minutes before the start the run director, who is a volunteer like everyone else helping out at the event, will call for runners to come to the start line. They will usually welcome everyone, give out safety messages, give a shoutout to any parkrunners who are reaching a particular milestone, such as their 50th parkrun, and give out any other messages such as the fact there may be cake at the end!

parkrun start

The cake thing does happen by the way, which is a nice treat. It’s not all the time, usually provided by a runner celebrating a milestone, or sometimes… just because.

There will then be a countdown as you’re off!

Where to start?

The parkrun official timer will start when they say go, so if the seconds matter to you then start near the front, and if you’re relaxed then you can stand nearer the back.

If it’s your first parkrun though then I’d say start nearer the back so you don’t get carried away by the fast runners at the front of the pack, and risk getting carried away and sprinting out too fast.

Start of the Nidda parkrun

I’ve been to parkruns with 30 runners and I’ve been to ones with 500 runners, so sometimes you don’t get too much of an option of where you start as if it’s busy you just muddle in.

Once you’ve run a few events then you’ll get a better idea of your own pace on the route as well as the expected numbers a that event.

During the Run

Once the race has started it’s all down to you and how you run it. There is usually some parkrun etiquette to observe, especially if it’s taking place in a park where there may be other members of the public. This is detailed on the course pages and also during the run directors pre-event breifing.

The route will be marked with bright yellow arrows and km markers, and there are also marshalls in high-visability vests standing in any points that may require a bit more guidance, for instance if you need to turn around and loop back.

These marshalls are volunteers too, so it’s nice to give then a smile, or a ‘hello’ or ‘thanks’ as you pass.

There will also be a “tail walker” who stays right at the back of the field and will be the last person to cross the finish line ensuring that all other participants are accounted for. This means that no one is ‘last’ and there’s no need to worry about your pace. In fact parkrun now allow walkers too, not just runners.

Finishing the Run

There will usually be a finish funnel at the finish so that participants cross the finish line one at a time. Your time will be recorded and you will be given a numbered token from another volunteer.

parkrun finishing funnel

This numbered token will match up to the finish time, so you will need to then get the scanned along with your parkrun barcode which will pair your parkrun profile up with the finish time so you can see the official results on the parkrun website later that day.

Remember to get the token scanned and give it back, rather than getting caught up in the adrenaline of finishing your first parkrun.

parkrun finishing barcodes

If you’ve registered your mobile with parkrun then you will also get a text message with your official time too.

After the event, many runners gather for a coffee and a chat. The parkrun community is very friendly, and it is a great opportunity to meet new people and compare notes about the run. 

Once results are published, usually a few hours after the event, you can find them online and see how you did compared to other runners.

Give parkrun a go

parkrun is a fun and friendly event, open to all ages and abilities with a focus on participation rather than competition. It’s great that it’s free too!

Having a official time is great motivation and a good way to track your running progression and your fitness, but it can also just be a good way to get out and get active.

For me my favourite parkrun memory is running the Nidda parkrun in Frankfurt, Germany in November 2019. Me and my wife were away for a weekend and I was able to squeeze in a parkrun. I didn’t need to register or anything else and was able to do my research on the course and location before I left the UK.

Adem at Nidda parkrun

It was super simple and I got my parkrun PB at that event! What a great way to experience something different in another country, and see some sights I would’t normally have.

Adem Djemil
I only started running at the age of 37, completing the Couch to 5k course, and since then I've been hooked, running 4 times a week and even completing several marathons and an ultra!