A Running Community

How one church started a running group to build community, battle mental distress and share the Good News.

Just a quick glance over statistics relating to mental ill-health in the UK clearly shows that the mental health and wellbeing of our nation was under attack long before the Coronavirus pandemic arrived at our shores. During this time of great uncertainty, which has generated isolation and anxiety in its wake, it can feel as though we have no choice but to stand back and watch as a tide of mental ill-health sweeps through our communities, often causing people to shut themselves away.

But how do our churches serve our communities in this difficult area, encouraging our communities to venture out again safely, and take positive steps towards improved wellbeing and hope for the future? There are some wonderful projects and activities operated in our communities, using singing, art and other activities to bring people together and encourage wellbeing. Although needing to adapt to the new restrictions, such activities continue to have enormous value. Southampton’s Ascension Church has found that running has been an extremely successful way in which the church can connect with its local community and offer something of real value in terms of promoting wellbeing and encouraging the pursuit of improved mental health.

Ascension Running Community is a social running community with a focus on wellbeing and mental health. All activities are free of charge and aim to engage with runners of different abilities, promoting wellbeing and good mental health through running together. Their principal activity (under normal circumstances) is the weekly ‘Run And Talk’ event, but they are also keen to support local schools and other community groups in exploring the benefits of running on their mental health.

Run And Talk is a campaign by England Athletics and supported by mental health charity, MIND, with the aim of improving mental health by running. Ascension’s Run And Talk event takes the form of a free, community social run open to anyone who can comfortably run 5km and is age 16+. The group makes clear that they are deliberately NOT a running club and this isn’t the place to pursue personal records and training, but instead, they stick together and run at a gentle pace so that recent beginners who’ve just finished a couch to 5km course can join in, and it remains easy to chat. The group’s Mental Health ‘Champions’ (trained Mental Health First Aiders) lead conversation starters and activities aimed at encouraging open conversation about wellbeing and mental health, whilst encouraging the group to get to know each other, having fun and general conversation. The role of the Mental Health Champions is never to diagnose, but to support and be ready to signpost individuals to further help as required. For beginner runners, the Run Leaders offer running courses which gradually build participants up to a level where they can comfortably join the group’s Run And Talk or sustain their only running through Parkrun events.

The group has observed that often people who have previously tried to get started with running but struggled (some with multiple failed attempts), have found success through the support of their beginners running courses. Some people have fallen in love with running, even completing a half marathon just 1 year after starting as a complete beginner on one of Ascension’s Beginner courses. Some people are quite honest that they haven’t fallen in love with running, but they continue to join in with the runs as they know they feel better after running and to stay in touch with this hugely supportive community. Huge encouragement, support and care for each other has grown naturally within this friendly group which represents a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Even on dark winter evenings, very low temperatures, or heavy rain, as many as 20 people have still dug out their hi-vis tops and turned up to run with the group.  Not bad for a group where many would say they ‘aren’t really runners’!

Ascension Running Community’s wellbeing emphasis is undoubtedly ‘Being Active’ but the community also provides opportunities to connect with others, learn (through getting started in running or developing this further), give (by means of encouragement and support within the group) and take notice (as we appreciate our scenery, feelings, energy levels, conversations and so on), thus elements of all five of the recognised activities known as the 5 Steps to Wellbeing are encompassed through their activity.

England Athletics’ Run And Talk campaign offers an easy way to connect running and mental health promotion in our communities and it is easy to get an event started through the RunTogether programme, with fantastic training and support. The Leader in Running Fitness (LiRF) course with England Athletics is just a 1-day training course.  Combine your run leader with a mental health champion (someone with Mental Health First Aid training), or initially equip your run leader with the MHFA training so they can fulfil both roles, and you’ll soon be ready to get a group up and running.

The current pandemic means that the rules about running groups (number of people etc) is subject to change in line with government guidelines. At the time of writing, England Athletics’ guidelines permit Run Leaders to lead groups of 5 people while observing social distancing rules. Although this might be restrictive for larger Run And Talk groups, offering a small beginner running group of just 5 people, led by the Run Leader, provides a very natural way to start offering running activities for your church and would provide a core group of runners who, in approximately 9 weeks’ time, will be achieving their 5km distance together and looking for further running opportunities, perfect for establishing your own Run And Talk group.

Furthermore, getting to know your runners through launching a beginners running course now offers an opportunity to identify needs in your community at this challenging time, and you may be able to signpost people not only to further mental health support, if needed, but also other excellent organisations which can support with other issues which are suddenly affecting our communities, to seek help for financial concerns, bereavement, relationship difficulties and so on. Importantly also, the connection with your local church enables runners to explore Christianity, in line with increased interest and involvement in online church services and prayer which has been observed throughout lockdown. Joining a friendly welcoming group is also a way you can encourage people who are anxious about going out (but not in a shielding category), and who might otherwise find themselves increasingly isolated and struggling with the effects of this on their wellbeing.

Ascension Running Community will gladly share their experiences and practical advice with you if you think your church might like to explore using running to promote mental health and wellbeing within your community.

Please just contact Anna at running@ascensionsouthampton.co.uk 


RunTogether (https://runtogether.co.uk/) has been created by England Athletics, the membership and development body for grassroots athletics and running in England, to provide fun, friendly, inclusive running opportunities for everyone in England. Running groups can be registered officially through RunTogether free of charge according to their rules and guidelines, and includes Run And Talk events: https://runtogether.co.uk/running-support/runandtalk/

Further information about the England Athletic’s training required for becoming a Run Leader: https://runtogether.co.uk/about/become-a-run-group-leader/

MHFA England - Mental Health First Aid training information: https://mhfaengland.org/

Ascension Church Southampton: https://www.ascensionsouthampton.co.uk/ with further information about the church and Ascension Running Community: https://www.ascensionsouthampton.co.uk/what-we-do/running-community/

Ascension Running Community information on RunTogether website: https://groups.runtogether.co.uk/AscensionRunningCommunity

Anna Gordon, 11/09/2020
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