An inspirational insight into the life of a Run Leader and Mental Health Champion

Inspirational Run Leaders and coaches are the key foundation to our sport. They support new and existing runners to enjoy their running journey, join a community of like-minded people and progress regardless of ability.

We recently caught up with an incredibly dedicated Run Leader, Mental Health Champion and emergency services worker, Michael Parish of Haywards Heath Harriers to see what motivates him with his own running and to support others to achieve their full potential.

When and how did you get in to running?

I work within the emergency services and five years ago found I was suffering from work-related stress and anxiety. I knew I needed to do something and decided to download the NHS Couch To 5k app. The first session, I had to run for one-minute, easy! I was in for a shock as it turned out I couldn’t run for one minute. From there I joined parkrun on the recommendation of a personal trainer and discovered the amazing community behind running. I went on to run local events up to 10km and began training for my first half marathon. Through parkrun, I met the chair of Haywards Heath Harriers, Marion Hemsworth, and she encouraged me with three free sessions with the club to try them out. I loved it and joined, becoming an England Athletics registered athlete in the process.

Can you describe why you decided to become a Run Leader?

Running has given me so much, and I feel so passionate that I thought it would be good to give something back, especially as running clubs can rely on volunteers to keep them going.

What is your favourite thing about being a Run Leader?

I love to lead runners and see their achievements both big and small. Whether it is their first 5km, 10km or seeing an improvement in their physical and mental health, I enjoy helping people to reach their own potential through running. I found being a Run Leader throughout Covid extremely rewarding. Throughout the lockdowns, the emergency services for which I work, were going through an extremely challenging time. For many, this included working for up to 12 hours in a sedentary role. When lockdown ended as a Run Leader, I wanted to hold a #RunAndTalk event as a thank you for all the staff, to show the positive effects of running for good physical and mental health.

Haywards Heath Harriers with Mike Parish

Why did you choose to become a Mental Health Champion?

Somebody once told me that you don’t need a big event to cause anxiety and stress, in a lot of cases it’s an accumulation of things, “every contact leaves a trace”. Working in the emergency services this is very true, knowing first-hand the effects stress and anxiety can have on you, I felt I could support other people.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a Mental Health Champion?

The most rewarding thing is recognising when someone is having difficulties and signposting them to support to help them back to the path of good mental health. The England Athletics programme #RunAndTalk isn’t about sitting opposite someone at a table, it is instead about exercising and having somebody literally by your side to talk to.

How do you help runners/members at your club as a Mental Health Champion?

I am one of two Mental Health Champions at Haywards Heath Harriers, and one of us is always at training and available to talk. The club also has a wellbeing email address people can contact for support virtually. I aim to offer personal #RunAndTalk sessions through the club. If someone has a problem and would like to run (which allows people to talk more freely) then we can arrange that. For #RunAndTalk runs, I advertise right across the town to attract new runners including, major supermarkets, the railway station, and men’s hairdressers.
The #RunAndTalk sessions are open to anybody from any club (affiliated or not) to talk about good mental health with a run and coffee afterwards. During the challenges of Covid, once the restrictions allowed, I was able to take out small groups as a Run Leader and Mental Health Champion to ensure regular training sessions resumed and runners had an opportunity to talk.

Do you have any advice for people thinking of joining a running club/RunTogether group as a complete beginner?

Running with others starting from the same point will enable you to achieve so much more than running on your own. Joining a club and working with a qualified Run Leader or coach will help you to improve, whether that be your fitness, how to avoid injury or to receive some top tips from an expert. You will also join an incredible community of runners and have the chance to build great friendships.

What advice would you give to a runner who is thinking about becoming a Leader in Running Fitness?

If you are thinking about it then you are already 50% of the way there. Seeing runners you’re leading soar is an amazing feeling. You are an important part of that success, you should be proud of them and proud of yourself for the part that you have played. You are also ensuring the survival of local running clubs by playing a part in the decision making.