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Participants take part in a Parkrun event at Bushy Park in London Aug. 2, 2014.

Neil Hall/Reuters

On a trip to Regina earlier this month, I signed up for my very first Parkrun – a milestone that, given everything I’d heard about the global Parkrun phenomenon over the past few years, felt like an initiation into a cult.

“We often joke that that’s exactly the reaction we get when we tell people Parkrun is a free event,” the Regina run’s co-founder, Craig Herrington, admitted. “They always look at us a bit funny, looking for the catch.”

Parkrun is a network of free, weekly timed five-kilometre runs held every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. in almost 2,000 parks in 20 countries around the world. Since the first one was held in London’s Bushy Park in 2004, more than four million different people have participated. The first Canadian event, in Kelowna, B.C., started in 2016; there are now 35 locations from coast to coast (listed at parkrun.ca), and I’m one of more than 15,000 Canadian registrants.

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Of course, five-kilometre races aren’t exactly rare. But Parkrun’s model fills a different niche, somewhere between big, annual mass-participation events and more informal group training runs. Although the courses are measured and the runs are timed, the events are deliberately low-key and billed as “time trials” rather than races. You can choose to race hard or jog comfortably, and either way you’ll have plenty of company.

One key difference between Parkruns and typical races is that they take place every week at each location – even in Regina, where winter runs in wind chills of -35-degrees Celsius were still drawing up to 40 runners, Herrington says. That consistency makes it well-suited for people trying to establish an exercise habit, as opposed to training for a one-off event then stopping.

The fact that the events are purely volunteer-driven also gives them a community feel. Until recently, would-be event organizers needed to raise money from sponsors before launching a new event. But a national sponsorship from Saucony, along with cheaper technology that allows crews to handle event timing with a simple phone app reading bar codes that each runner prints out at home, has lowered the barriers: all you need now to launch a new location is a small core of volunteers.

The results, according to two dozen academic studies that have explored the Parkrun phenomenon, are encouraging. A study published last year in the Journal of Public Health followed 354 new Parkrun registrants for a year, and found that they got faster by 12 per cent on average, had weight loss of 1.1 per cent and had modest but statistically significant increases in self-reported happiness and decreases in stress. The biggest gains, not surprisingly, accrued to those who were least fit when they started.

Other studies have found that Parkrun successfully attracts people who are (initially, at least) non-exercisers or overweight, a notoriously tough-to-reach demographic, which has led to an initiative from Britain’s Royal College of General Practitioners to encourage doctors to “prescribe” Parkrun to their patients.

Perhaps the most crucial research question is how Parkrun inspires such devotion from its initiates. That’s the focus of a continuing study from two researchers at the University of Regina’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Julia Totosy de Zepetnek and Cory Kulczycki. One clue: in a British study of 289 Parkrunners published earlier this year, those who reported the strongest sense of group identification were mostly likely to participate regularly, and also reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their exercise and their lives in general.

This devotion was on display when I showed up at Regina’s Wascana Lake run. It was the weekend of the city’s annual GMS Queen City Marathon, which attracts pretty much every runner in town. But there were still 31 people there, many of whom planned to race the next day but didn’t want to miss their Parkrun. A month earlier, 253 people had shown up, setting a new high-water mark for Parkruns in Canada.

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It was a beautiful morning, and I’d planned to jog easily along the lakeside trail. But somehow, infected by the group’s contagious energy, I found myself eager to push hard – and suddenly, I understood why people keep coming back.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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