Some runners love getting up early on the weekends – whichever days their ‘weekends’ tend to fall on – to crush their training goals while getting relief from the work grind. For me, weekends are usually dedicated to “sleeping in,” until any time after 8 a.m. and usually going on a run in the afternoon.
The only time I’m excited to get up super early is when I have a race on the weekends. The idea of stretching my legs, feeling free and pushing myself to obtain that “runner’s high” after a stressful week is all the motivation I need to not sleep in – for that I’m eager to join fellow runners for a refreshing competition. Unless there’s an organized and sponsored competition that includes 100 runners or more, I often refrained from getting up before the sunrise to hit the pavement.
I changed my mind about sleeping late on the weekends after I stumbled upon a free community running program, sponsored by one of the biggest running organizations in New York State – New York Road Runners (NYRR). It’s fun, simple and mimics a 5K race. What piqued my interests in these leisurely runs is that the free community runs are closer to home than most competitions and provide health benefits to everyone in the Brooklyn community who loves to be active – but at a slower, more enjoyable pace.
In spring of 2017, NYRR established the exciting running program – at no charge to participants (of course – runners love free stuff!) where residents gather at their local park for a 3-mile run/walk. Sponsored in collaboration with the New York City Parks Department, the program is known as “NYRR Open Run NYC.”
Your state or region/community may have similar programs, clubs or teams (sponsored by a running group, health organization or park officials) offering a no-cost fitness event that takes place on a regular basis.
I was finally convinced to join the local running group after seeing a notification on social media about NYRR’s free “open runs” in my neighborhood, which is accessible to all ages and all types of athletic experience. With our community park being close by, I didn’t mind starting my Saturday morning crushing a few miles! I wouldn’t have to travel far, as I do for most races in the city, and I soon found there were a plethora of advantages to joining volunteer-led treks that catapulted my energy to get my weekend started.
At the group run meeting, location inside of the park were energetic volunteers, including a couple of women who participated in the NYC TCS Marathon, as they sported their medals and shared the tumultuous experience of pounding the city’s pavement for more than 4 hours. Their love of running was infectious and I respected their high spirits as they guided the group of about a dozen residents through helpful and relaxing stretches – which is an impossible task for volunteers to carry out at a race with hundreds of runners!
The free run traveled around the park 3 times and – similar to bigger races – volunteers cheered all of the runners on as we completed each lap. Unlike the scrutinized and timed 5Ks I’d paid $25 – $40 for, this free community run was just about having fun, enjoying the environment and reaching a simple short-distance goal.
I soon realized that my mind wasn’t focused on getting ahead of others or beating my PR. There were no distance markers or timing mats to cross and there were no volunteers equipped with Gatorade along the short route. Despite the simplicity of the run and the “professional competitiveness” components that were missing, I wound up appreciating its quaintness and how it helped get my blood pumping. I was also surprised and grateful to meet a couple of participants in the group who were former marathon runners and now took advantage of free community runs just to keep themselves physically active and take a break from hardcore training.
The end result was a fun and surprisingly energetic time with those living in my neighborhood – without the pressure of performing as well as I would during a timed race where 300-plus runners battle to cross that finish line as the clock hauntingly continues.
There are so many great reasons to get involved in and sign up for free community runs – whether you’re a beginner or a more advanced athlete who’s demolished dozens of marathons! How can joining a free running program or club in your community help your running/training and motivation? Let’s count the ways!
There’s Help For That “Couch To 5K”!
We’ve all heard about creating a “Couch To 5K” program for ourselves. Sometimes, running or training for a 5K race for the first time can be a lot of pressure and peeling yourself off that couch and heading out the door can be the biggest challenge!
What makes free community runs and group runs an ideal place to start 5K training is that you don’t have to think of them as actual “competitions” and many will agree 5Ks are very beginner-friendly!
You may be more likely to join a fun run knowing there’s no mental burden to compete with a large crowd when you’re still working on improving your skills. There’s also no pressure for timing or sharing space on the road! If you’re the type of person who needs company to get going and you cringe at starting a fitness routine by yourself, running programs in your neighborhood can ease you into training and help build your confidence.
A lot of people who want to start running, especially those who don’t know how to create a schedule for themselves, can test out their endurance and skill levels during free runs. If you find that you’re generally lazy and uninspired – but have aspirations to make running part of your life – these types of programs can provide structure and a basic fit life foundation on which to build your long-term goals.
Maybe you don’t even know how to prepare your muscles for a run! Joining a free community trek will most likely expose you to a wealth of veteran runners and more experienced athletes who can share pacing strategies and stretching techniques.
Another advantage of free running programs is that since they’re held on a regular basis, you can build up your stamina as a beginner with the group and proceed to take on bigger challenges afterward. Once you see how easy it is to stick to running with a group just for fun, your ‘Couch to 5K’ plan may become easier to conquer on your own.
Not Going The Distance
What else is going to get you off that couch? Probably knowing you don’t have to travel too far while simultaneously feeling the anxiety of running among others who can pull off a 5K in less than 20 minutes!
Depending on the targeted distance of the free community runs, you’ll probably have a more enjoyable time working on your running technique, speed and interval timing knowing you didn’t have to drive or take transportation hours away from home. If you do decide to join a running group – make sure getting to the location doesn’t stress you out to the point where you don’t get enjoyment out of the run itself! You may also begin your running journey with the local running group and feel so confident in your speed and abilities that you don’t mind traveling out of the way for a more serious competition.
Spending less time traveling, which some runners have to do for races outside of their community, will help store that energy you can use for training instead.
Luckily my venture to the free community run in my neighborhood was a 10-minute walk to the local park where I originally began training years ago, conditioning myself to run non-stop for a half hour.
Familiar Faces Help Those Running Paces!
Many running clubs and groups have the same participants, organizers, and athletes joining the event every week. Unlike large-scale races where the crowd is never the same, you may find the local comradery more supportive, inspiring and motivating in small group runs where you’re with the same pack all the time.
Another benefit to engaging with the same individuals at local running groups is becoming more comfortable with your peers, offering feedback and getting/making suggestions from those who have seen your running style/technique each week. If you run at the same pace with the same people during every fun run, you’ll be able to boost each others’ confidence and offer recommendations and feedback that most strangers would be too shy to provide or be honest about.
In addition to seeing familiar faces among your running teammates, you’re probably more likely to convince a close friend or family member to run with you if they don’t have to pay a fee! It can feel like quite an obligation to ask your best friend to spend money on a race they have no intention of training for. Want to convince them it’s going to be a good time without dipping into their pockets? You’re in luck! Free group runs can be a great opportunity to simply get together with your loved ones and enjoy a scenic trail at your own pace.
What if it’s a close neighbor or co-worker who’s apprehensive about starting a fitness regimen but they’re also eager to start a running routine and need some support? Having familiar company enables hesitant individuals to surrender their fears of the “athletically unknown” and just go for it!
Studies show that people who join running clubs and groups are more likely to stick to a fitness routine when they know others are being a positive influence on them and are holding them accountable for their progress.
Unlimited Health Benefits!
One of the most obvious advantages of partaking in local running events are the health benefits! No matter what age you are or what condition you’re in, your cardiovascular health and mental health will benefit from positive habits.
If you happen to be overweight and don’t want to join a gym where you feel obligated to burn off those calories for hours on a treadmill, open runs with a group are less judgmental in structure and their main focus is getting everyone out and moving in the fresh air. Some community running events also allow an alternative that burns calories just as effectively – a brisk walk along the trail completing the same distance as the run.
If you’re an older individual and want to ward off osteoporosis and arthritis or combat the effects they’ve had on your body, regular exercise like walking or light jogging keeps the joints fluid and prevents joint pain. As long as you consult with your doctor before signing up for the treks – and keeping your fitness routine low-impact and habitual – you will reap the benefits of joining others who want to stay healthy.
One of the things I learned each week joining the free community runs was that I needed to stick to them every week to stay focused. My personal training time being scattered all over the place at different times and days – and being discouraged by frigid temperatures at night – meant I had to force myself to commit to signing up for the community runs routinely.
The concept of sticking to training and feeling an obligation to myself to join the group each week helped get me back on track. As runners, we always tell ourselves to stop making excuses and push ourselves to do what we love the most.
If we need a little push along the way, at least we know we can surround ourselves with like-minded runners who crave the same motivation.