The number of people attending Parkrun events has declined by up to 15%, according to the charity behind the initiative.
The weekly running events began again in July after closing for 18 months under lockdown rules, but senior figures at Parkrun Global say they are concerned about the number of runners who have chosen to stay away since events restarted.
Russ Jeffreys, head of communications at Parkrun Global, said last week that the drop in attendance showed the pandemic could “set us back a number of years” as the charity tried to address health inequality.
The first communal Parkrun event was held in 2004, and the movement has expanded rapidly all over the world. It became a private company in 2015 before Parkrun Global registered as a charity two years later
The charity’s chief executive, Nick Pearson, told the BBC in August that Parkrun had seen a “10 or 15% participation decrease” in England since it returned after coronavirus lockdowns.
He added: “As I think with just about everything post-Covid, there is a suppression of numbers and demand.
“We are probably [seeing] around 10 to 15% lower numbers on a comparable event-by-event basis, so there is definitely some work to do to get the numbers back to where they were.”
Asked why participation might have fallen, Pearson said younger runners were staying away in larger numbers and that “good habits get broken quite quickly”.
Pandemic has ‘set us back’
These comments were echoed by Jeffreys during a Cumberland Lodge webinar on Wednesday about the social impact of sport.
Asked how Covid-19 had affected the number of people attending their local Parkrun event, Jeffreys said that “the trend seems to be that participation numbers are down”.
He praised the work done by Parkrun and other sports bodies “in breaking down barriers to participation for those that really have the most to gain potentially from access to physical activity” but said the evidence suggested that “it is those people who are probably less likely to have come back”.
Jeffreys said that “it feels like this is going to set us back a number of years”.
He added: “I think as a sector we have an awful lot of work to do to get back even to where we were 18 months ago, where we were starting to increase participation across those harder-to-reach or more vulnerable communities.”
Parkrun Global did not respond to questions about runner and volunteer numbers at events. However, data published by the charity yesterday shows that around 134,000 people took part in Parkrun on the bank holiday weekend, its busiest day since events returned. The comparable number was 167,000 at the end of August 2019, suggesting a fall of just under 20%.
During an online question and answer session at the end of September 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Parkrun Global revealed that its latest survey of members showed 16% were unlikely or very unlikely to return when events restarted.