Factors affecting performance at Scottish parkrun events
This study has identified a range of potentially important patterns in participation and performance at parkrun events in Scotland which could be used to increase the beneficial impact parkrun has on communities both in Scotland and elsewhere. There is a substantial and continuing decline in the average performance of participants at Scottish parkrun events. This is not the result of participants becoming less fit, indeed to the contrary this study identified that individual participants are improving their performance. The decline seems to be occurring as the performance of new participants is declining over time suggesting that parkrun is continuing to become more inclusive and reaching more of the wider community most in need of increasing their level of activity. This is supported by the continuing negative association between parkrun ID number and performance.
These findings are consistent with a smaller scale study of worldwide parkrun results which also found overall performance was declining while individual performance was increasing . This study confirms this finding on a much larger scale. It also identifies several other novel associations within the parkrun results dataset such as better performance on harder surfaces and a reduction in performance with increasing elevation gained, particularly in older participants highlighting the potential for this dataset to generate robust findings.
Gender differences in performance
The study also found a substantial difference in the performance levels of men and women. This fits with the relative patterns of inactivity in the sexes [2, 4]. The lower level of starting fitness of women is also highlighted by the finding that women improve their performance faster over time and with increasing numbers of completed events than male participants. This shows that women on average benefit more than men from parkrun, something that might potentially be used to encourage more women to participate. It is also noteworthy that the gender gap was significantly wider when only the initial run of each participant was considered showing that men perform a lot better than women on their first run also indicating a higher initial fitness.
The sex differences in performance could be partly explained by greater competitiveness in men but the lack of comparable gains in fitness in men suggests it is more likely that women are comparatively less fit when they join. One reason men might be more competitive could be a higher engagement with the increasing gamification of parkrun. parkrun have received criticism for ranking individual times and maintaining course records . However, these are likely to be important motivatory factors for many to take part so these should be maintained. Furthermore, some elements of the gamification of parkrun are not biased towards those with higher fitness levels such as parkrun tourism through the number of different events attended . Additional gamification of parkrun could be targeted towards the less fit. For example, statistics based upon changes in individual performance. An established athlete beating a parkrun course record is to be admired but an overweight, inactive non-runner becoming an active, lighter, fitter, healthier runner has wider beneficial consequences in terms of the health of the community and its impact on mortality rates and health services. Therefore, promotion of statistics related to improvements in individual performance in addition to ranking absolute performance would be beneficial and could increase participation by those sections of the community who would benefit most. For example, these could include performance score PBs in addition to absolute PBs.
Sex differences in patterns of participation
This study identified several factors associated with the proportion of male participants at events. Those events on faster surfaces and which are closer to other parkrun venues had more male participants. Older participants were more likely to be male, with a female bias in participation occurring in the youngest adults, although there is a significant male bias towards boys amongst juniors. New registrants are more likely to be female, indeed there is a slight female bias in the most recent cohorts of registrants. Despite this it is only the remotest parkrun events that see a female bias in participation. The difference in registration patterns and attendances suggest there might be greater barriers to females attending parkrun events. Remote events could have a greater sense of community identity and as a result feel more welcoming. They might also have a smaller field with fewer elite athletes making them seem less intimidating. The development of strong social identities from being part of the parkrun community has been found to be an important component of participation and gaining health benefits from parkrun [22, 23]. If remote parkruns have a stronger social identity then they might be having a disproportionately large impact on the health of the communities they serve. The proportion of female participants was also higher at events run on trails and grass compared to hard surfaces. This could be because these parkruns are at more pleasant locations which could preferentially attract priority groups such as women and those with mental health issues . Tarmac and concrete surfaces might attract more competitive runners and make those events feel less welcoming to the less fit. In Scotland the tarmac and concrete events are also more likely to be in city centre parks with larger numbers of attendees with could also make them feel more intimidating. The strong association between age and the sex of participants suggests that older women are the least likely to take part in parkrun. This could be a result of long-hold social beliefs acting as barriers such as the expectation that women should not participate in sports. It could be fruitful to explore factors associated with relapsing at parkrun for example are older women more likely to relapse after attending a single event? Another barrier to participation in physical activity is the perception that it is potentially dangerous especially for those with long term health conditions, however the evidence suggests that the health benefits of attending parkrun considerably outweigh any risks [11, 25, 26].
Male participants could also be playing an important role in driving some of the patterns identified by this study. For example, the higher proportion of female participants at events on slower surfaces could be driven by male parkrunners preferentially attending events on faster surfaces. Although male participants selecting events on the basis of their speed could generate biases in sex ratios in areas where there are several events within close proximity this would not be expected to generate the female biases present at remoter events. These would be expected to have average sex ratios not the most female biased which suggests that fewer barriers to female participation are most likely responsible for this finding.
Age of participants at Scottish parkrun events
The average age of participants at parkrun events has started to show a consistent increase despite the average age of those registering for parkrun declining. A key factor in explaining this apparent contradiction could be the establishment of Junior parkrun, shorter 2km events for those aged between 4-14. Junior parkrun events were not included in the study but participants use the same runner ID numbers. This is likely to have encouraged more registrations of children for parkrun. The strong male bias in participation amongst children might suggest than girls find junior parkrun less intimidating than parkrun itself and preferentially attend junior parkrun events. It is also possible that decisions by parents are impacting this trend with parents perhaps more likely to bring boys than girls to 5k parkrun events.
Implications for parkrun
This study has identified significant patterns in the participation of parkrun events in Scotland. parkrun in Scotland seems to be becoming more inclusive as less fit individuals increasingly take part. The proportion of women taking part has also increased in parallel with this reduction in fitness. Women are particularly willing to take part in the most remote isolated events so these are likely to be having a disproportionately large beneficial impact on their local communities. Indeed, remote parkrun events have actually reversed the typical male bias in participation in organised sports by exhibiting a slight female bias in attendance. This suggests that the barriers to women participating present at other events could be absent from remote Scottish parkrun events or alternatively that there are more barriers to male participation. parkrun could try to encourage the creation of events in more remote locations. Alternatively, it might be the case that people that live in remoter locations are naturally more likely to be active in their local environment. It might be interesting to explore the proportion of the local population who attend these events to determine if it’s higher because more women participate or lower because fewer men do as they have other potential options for outdoor pursuits.
The proportion of female participants was also substantially higher at events run on trial paths and grass. parkrun could encourage the creation of softer surface events in areas dominated by hard surface events to provide a less intimidating alternative for female participants which some of the more competitive runners will avoid. Furthermore, the parkrun practice initiative might be increasingly effective if practitioners prescribe not just attendance at a parkrun event but at an event that a new relatively unfit participant will find most welcoming. Finally, an increase in gamification targeted towards improvements in performance could also encourage more participation by those individuals who would benefit the most.
A study of why people stop attending parkrun events would also be useful. For example, are women more likely to relapse after attending a single event? Is this more likely to happen at larger, more urban events with a greater proportion of elite athletes? Understanding what factors are creating barriers to continued participation could be as useful, if not more useful, than studying patterns in participation itself.