Most Saturdays you can catch Richard Leech at a park run somewhere in the UK, although he is not likely to be running, and he is not a volunteer either.
Instead the PhD student is undertaking research looking at the health benefits of recreational running and to what extent it can contribute to problems such as osteoarthritis – or put simply to discover if are you at risk of greater injury when you are running than not, and whether we are storing up problems for the future.
The international study is being led by researchers at The University of Nottingham, as part of the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis, and over the next 15 years, the Health of Adults’ Longitudinal Observational (HALO) study, with the approval of the parkrun Research Board, will follow the fortunes of the volunteer participants to assess whether recreational running puts people at greater risk of developing osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee in later life.
Richard was at the Eaton Park run in Norwich, UK, at the start of October handing out leaflets about the research, which has so far taken him to parkruns across the country from Edinburgh to Southampton.
He is even planning to head along to a parkrun in Melbourne after presenting his finding to experts in Australia, where the study is also being carried out.
“I am looking at the association between running and joint health,” he said. “So we are looking at symptoms related and indicative of arthritis, and at the onset and progression of joint disease.
“What I am doing at the moment is going through parkruns – I am doing parkrun approved research which is why I am here today.
“I try and do a different parkrun every Saturday, engage with the runners and promote my research so that they take part. The things I can’t do is give out clinical advice.
“Parkrun wise – Edinburgh was the furthest north I have been and the furthest south I have been is Southampton.
“I’ve tried to do one every week. It becomes a blur to a certain extent because it’s amazing how similar the set-up is at park runs. But there again everyone is equally brilliantly unique as well.
“They have all got their own fascinating quirks and personality, so that’s nice.”
So what sort of runner is he looking for?
“Anybody. We are looking for non-runners, anybody that doesn’t do running, and we are going from the full spectrum, from there to elite long-distance runners, so anything.
“Parkrun’s like a micro-society of runners, I suppose. So you get the really keen runners at the front and then you get the people that have done couch to 5k and are coming into it that way.
“That’s why they are really nice and everybody is so amazingly friendly.
“We are looking at particular running behaviours and associated lifestyle factors. We are looking at other risk factors as well associated with that and how that correlates again to those kind of indicators of joint health being primarily pain and stiffness, creaky joints, that type of thing.
“In simplistic terms, we are kind of looking at a dose response of running. So is there such a thing as too much running that you can do?
“But it’s likely that it’s not going to be as simple as that – it’s probably going to be individually different for everybody.
“Everybody has got their own particular sweet spot, but if we can help to define that and profile it, then I think that’s useful for clinicians really.”
So when he talks to the runners are they engaged in what you are saying?
“Yes. I think that everybody has got their own personal experience of either having pain in their knees or having no pain and perceiving it as a beneficial effect.
“So I think it’s really interesting to hear everybody’s personal circumstances, and putting a face to it, and the anonymity of the online questionnaire. You don’t really get the personal stories behind the answers that people give, whereas again everybody is so friendly at parkrun, you can approach everybody, and if they are not interested, they are not interested.”
Aims of the research:
The HALO study is aiming to recruit at least one per cent of all parkrun participants across the 350 locations in the UK (8,000) and a further 1,500 parkrunners in Australia.
Not all parkrun participants run – some walk the 5k route while others sign-up and volunteer at events. This will allow the study to recruit across the spectrum of physical activity. Additionally the research team will also be aiming to recruit 700 ‘sedentary’ volunteers.
Participants are asked to complete a questionnaire about their age, height, physical activity, their running habits, hobbies and pets, general health and injuries, osteoarthritis, knee problems, pain and stiffness.
With agreement, the researchers will then follow up with participants at 12 months and every two to five years subsequently until the end of the study in 2030.
They will also be offered the opportunity to get further involved in the research by volunteering for a number of sub-groups within the study. One subgroup will be invited to use a series of physical tasks to assess the potential link between knee function and potential risk factors for knee OA for recreational runners compared to non-runners and high-performance runners. Another sub group of 600 willing participants will be asked to give blood samples that will allow researchers to extract their DNA and assess whether they are genetically more at risk from injury and disease.
The hope is that in addition to providing evidence on the link between running and knee OA, the study will give us a much clearer picture of how other lifestyle factors such as diet and general physical activity impact on our risk of developing injuries and diseases.