After two years as an England Athletics run leader, I became a fully-licensed running coach in Sept 2016. I had been organising free fitness and running groups that summer with little success and quickly realised that there was an abundance of provision and availability for people who were already active, healthy, motivated and confident enough to join organised sessions (to the point where these fortunate individuals had seemingly endless choice). On the flipside, there appeared to be a severely limited number of ‘outreach’ groups or events that actively sought to connect with people and communities who could benefit most from organised physical activity.
Faced with this, I decided to try to find organisations in London who would be interested in partnering to provide free, organised running sessions in disadvantaged areas or catering for groups experiencing poor health. Those groups who could potentially benefit from an approach where their barriers to participation were understood and removed.
Early on in my research, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the work of HERON (Health Inequalities Research Network). HERON is a network between researchers, community members and health practitioners. It provides a forum for people to share their experiences of, opinions and ideas about health inequalities as well as how to address them.
HERON were keen to get involved and after initial discussions about viability and suitable target groups, in February 2017 we applied for funding to offer free coached running sessions for young mental health service users aged 16-35 years in the London borough of Southwark.
In May 2017 the funding was provided (by the Maudsley charity) and between August and October this year, we ran the inaugural ‘HERON-RUN’ course on Wednesday evenings at Southwark Park in south London. Over a ten week period, 9 young people and 5 care coordinators from a local community mental health care service attended on a drop in basis, with sessions supported by three HERON members who had been through their England Athletics Run Leader qualification. The sessions were aimed at absolute beginners/improvers and were tailored to support a range of abilities with each session providing a warm-up, movement & technique drills, a running challenge, strength work and a cool-down. The course culminated in a 5km parkrun at Burgess Park, Southwark.
It was wonderful to see the idea come to fruition and fantastic to see the young people and their coordinators putting in such great physical effort and feeling the collective positive buzz that you can get after a participating in a group fitness session. The pilot was not without it’s challenges however. As expected, we had to work significantly harder to generate interest with this group and struggled to build and maintain a large enough number each week to put on the sessions we had intended. Also, when you are feeling low it can be difficult to stay motivated so there was rarely a week where we were able to have the same group of young people attend as previous, this somewhat hampered continuity of themes and progression. And lastly, the British summer. Think about the thought process you go through as a fit, well and motivated individual when you’re due to go for a run and there is a torrential rain downpour - you have second (and third/fourth) thoughts. It wasn’t a surprise to discover therefore that we had no-one show up during one particularly wet Wednesday evening in August.
Based on the experiences of this summer, one of the things I am keen to learn in this journey is how those working in these challenging areas overcome these difficulties (and others) so that these learnings can be shared. That way, these much-needed initiatives can improve and prosper to give them the best chance of receiving the support and funding they deserve and can continue to provide sessions that could potentially change someone's life.
I would like to thank the brilliant team at HERON-RUN (Lisa Aschan, Charlotte Woodhead & Oliver Schaurman) whose hard work, passion and dedication made an idea a reality and Southwark Council for allowing us to run around their parks like headless chickens without us having to pay any fees.
Here’s to HERON-RUN 2018!