Finding the motivation to run can be a challenge no matter who you are. If you’re not accustomed to running alone outdoors, there are additional barriers—personal safety, traffic, and knowing where to run, just to name a few. It’s enough to cause some to forgo running altogether.
Minneapolis-based runner Amanda Brooks can relate. A frequent traveler, she found herself ill at ease for years when faced with going out for a run in unfamiliar cities.
“I’m not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of runner, so I always want to know where I am going and what I am going to see,” she says. “For me, not knowing the lay of the land means that sometimes I would give up before I started and not even go for a run.”
This eventually prompted Brooks to develop a distance-based routing app for runners, called FASTZach, to make it easier to map out potential running routes. She found that being able to plan a route ahead of time and having voice navigation guiding her not only gave her confidence to get out the door, it also got her excited to tackle the miles ahead.
Brooks isn’t alone in sometimes feeling wary about outdoor training. Depending on where you live, even running around your own neighborhood can be intimidating for a whole host of reasons.
“Some worry about safety or finding a route,” says Eve Schaeffer, a USA Track & Field–certified coach based in San Francisco. “But also, many people are self-conscious about how they look running outside and they worry they are running incorrectly, running too slow, warming up improperly, or not wearing the correct gear.”
Reservations aside, there are countless advantages to getting in your mileage outdoors. Studies show that varied terrain and wind resistance make for a better, all-around workout than logging miles on a treadmill. Many coaches will say these factors also contribute to lowering your risk of common overuse injuries. What’s more, when researchers compare indoor and outdoor workouts, they find that when people exercise outdoors, they report higher levels of enjoyment, vitality and enthusiasm, in addition to feeling less tense and fatigued. Studies have even found that people tend to work out longer when exercising outdoors compared to indoor sessions.
If you’re unsure of where to start to establish an outdoor training regimen, a bit of forethought and planning can go a long way toward making it a safe and enjoyable activity. Consider the following tips in your quest to get out and pound the pavement (or dirt, grass and sand, for that matter).
Select A Route
There are countless ways to identify a desirable running route. While you can scout a location by driving or biking first, going online to check out crowdsourced running maps or utilizing a routing app on your phone are more convenient options.
Brooks suggests considering a wide variety of things when selecting the route. “I always like to survey the safety of the area—I like to know wherever I am, I’m going to encounter other people, which makes me feel safe and not isolated,” she explains. “I consider things like traffic patterns, pedestrian traffic and how many city streets with stoplights that I will have to traverse. I generally don’t like to stop once I’m running, so finding solid paths and trails is key for me.”
If you aren’t sure about whether an area is safe and well-populated, look on a map for sidewalks and parks that indicate a pedestrian-friendly environment. There are plenty of online forums that offer crime statistics and other data that can help you determine if a particular neighborhood is safe. No matter the route you choose, be sure to let someone know where you’re going in case of emergency.
Identifying bathrooms and water stops are also at the top of many runners’ wish lists when it comes to route features. This is another reason it can be handy to choose a run that goes near a park. Just be sure to check municipal websites to determine if the facilities are operational.
If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, New York City–based coach Elizabeth Corkum suggests starting with a simple out-and-back route. “For someone really new to outdoor running, an out-and-back can be great because you can run by time—head out for half the time you plan to run and then simply turn around,” she explains.
Keep Daylight In Mind
While running in the light of day is arguably safest, it isn’t an option for everyone. If you plan on running in the dark, it’s important to be equipped with the right gear and frame of mind.
“For safety reasons I wouldn’t wear headphones when running in the dark, and I recommend purchasing a running headlamp that is light and comfortable and features a bright headlight and red flashing lights at the back of the head,” Schaeffer says.
“Wear bright colors like neon yellow, run defensively, leave the earbuds at home and stay aware of your surroundings,” says Corkum. “Dusk tends to be tough for visibility, especially for folks in cars.”
Awareness is key during morning or nighttime runs. Be mindful of the fact that while you may be able to easily see an approaching car, a driver may not be able to see you. What’s more, it is also important to stay alert for other safety issues you may encounter involving human beings, animals or just potholes in the road.
Watch The Weather
Running outside presents a number of factors out of your control, especially when it comes to weather. Learning how to dress for the conditions will help keep you comfortable and happy. The rule of thumb is to dress like it’s 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature. While that might mean you feel a bit chilly stepping out your front door, your core temperature will increase after just a few minutes of running.
“Be mindful that humidity and direct sunlight will affect your level of comfort,” Corkum adds. “Avoid cotton, and protect your eyes and face with sunglasses and a cap in the summer.”
If you’ll be running in hot and humid conditions, consider carrying a water bottle with you or choosing a route that goes by a water fountain. In most cases, this is only necessary for runs that exceed an hour. If you find yourself frequently in need of hydration, there are plenty of runner-friendly bottles and packs available that can make carrying water an easy task.
For rainy days, Schaeffer says, “The key to comfort is wearing a hat with a brim to keep the rain out of your eyes.” You will also need to simply be okay with getting wet—regular rain gear will trap heat and make you overheat.
In general, if you’re not sure what to wear, layering allows you to shed extra garments if you find you’ve overdressed. This is especially true for winter running. When you mix and match, you always have the option to take off a layer and tie it around your waist.
Flexibility is key when it comes to running in extreme conditions—think summer days with a high heat index or winter days when the roads are icy. Swapping an outdoor run for a treadmill session or turning back early is always better than risking a heat-related illness or a fall on slippery paths.
If you’re new to running altogether, make sure to be strategic about not doing too much too soon. Even if you’ve been logging miles on a treadmill, running outside is a different animal. Give your body time to adjust by conservatively easing into your miles.
“Many runners under-utilize certain muscles on the treadmill, and the changes in terrain and slight changes in stride length outside make a difference,” Corkum explains.
If you’ve been running on a treadmill, she suggests starting by running around half of your mileage outside and slowly adding more outdoor training if you choose to do so. In general, most coaches will recommend following the “10 percent rule,” which means adding no more than 10 percent in mileage from one week to the next.
Dial In Your Tech
While a run is a nice way to unplug from technology, a cell phone can be a vital navigation tool, especially when you’re first trying to establish a suitable route. What’s more, most smartphones allow you to store medical and identification information in case of emergency.
“A phone is important to carry for safety and, if needed, for navigation,” Schaeffer explains. “I make sure to have a waterproof case so I can carry my phone in the rain.”
Headphones and GPS watches are other favorite tech accessories among runners. Depending on the runner, both can be excellent training tools. The key is not to let them distract you from the task at hand. If you find yourself fiddling with your playlist or obsessively checking your watch, try ditching the tech for a run or two to see how it changes your experience.
Follow The Rules Of The Road
“Be aware of your surroundings—every environment has different challenges,” Corkum says. “Always run against traffic, and don’t assume all drivers see you, especially at stop signs.”
Not only should you keep your eyes open for traffic and other potential hazards, you don’t want to zone out and become one yourself. By following the rules of the road, you better ensure your safety and the safety of others. This means running on sidewalks where available, running against the flow of traffic on roads, following traffic lights and signs, sharing paths with cyclists and always looking before you merge or cross a street or path.
“It’s so important to pay attention to what is around you, especially in areas you aren’t familiar with,” Brooks adds. “If I’m running with music or receiving turn-by-turn directions from FASTZach, I always have one earbud out so I can sense what’s going on around me.”
Trust Your Gut
The large majority of the time, running outdoors alone shouldn’t be scary. Even still, things happen. In those cases, trust your instincts. “If something doesn’t feel right, turn around, shift direction and relocate yourself to somewhere more populated,” Brooks advises. “Don’t ever let anyone make you feel silly about trusting your gut.”
With time and experience, you’ll gain confidence in the places you’re running and the routes you’re taking, but in the beginning when you’re running in unfamiliar areas, being alert is especially important. When alarm bells are going off in your head, respond and change course.
Many female runners report feeling safer when they bring an added layer of security with them on their runs. For some, it might be a digital app that allows family and friends to keep tabs on you and see your exact route while you’re out. (Click here for a list of options.) For others, it’s bringing their dog with them. There are also a range of personal-safety products from companies like SABRE designed with solo runners in mind.
Schaeffer says that she’s seen many runners get concerned with comparing themselves to more experienced running peers, friends and colleagues. “The result is worrying about not looking like a real runner,” she adds.
It’s important to remember that if you’re out there running, you are a runner. Of course, that is easier said than done. Knowing that you will gain confidence over time can be comforting in the early days of training outdoors alone. It’s all about taking the time to find a great route, getting the right gear and cultivating an attitude of openness to new experiences that characterizes outdoor running.
“Once you realize that nobody is watching or judging you, running outside is an incredible feeling,” Corkum says. “You get to notice things about your surroundings and yourself in a different way than you would on a treadmill. I tell my nervous runners to make the run fun by relaxing their pace and looking at each run as an adventure.”