How to Plan Your Run Route
Need help plotting your miles? Here's everything you need to know to become an expert running route planner.
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One of the best things about running as a sport is that it can be done virtually anywhere. From tracks to treadmills, neighborhood roads to sandy beaches, city parks to mountain trails, there’s a type of terrain, setting, or style of running to suit everyone. However, many beginning runners fall prey to sticking to the familiar treadmill or track for fear of running out in the open where drivers and passersby can see them. Other runners may feel intimidated about venturing out on a new route or knowing “where to go”, so they run the same route day in and day out.
It’s not mandatory to vary your routes or run outdoors or on certain types of roads, paths, and trails to be considered a “runner,” but there are many benefits to it, from reducing boredom to preventing overuse injuries by mixing up the terrain and muscular demand on your body. But running route planning can feel overwhelming, and many runners may not know how to plan a new running route or what even makes for a good running route; if you fall into the camp of routinely plodding through the same couple running loops, you’re not alone.
With just a little bit of planning and practice, though, you can easily expand your horizons and learn how to plan good running routes, which will open up your world of adventure and variety as a runner and keep you growing and exploring in the sport and greater world around you.
Ready to venture off your well-trodden path? Ahead, we share different types of running routes, what makes a good running route, and how to plan new running routes.
Types of Running Routes
There are a few different types of running routes, and while it’s not necessary to categorize your routes, knowing the lingo will help you have a bird’s eye view understanding of an unfamiliar route shepherded by your running buddies. If you join a group run, it will help you communicate the general overview of the route you’re about to embark on. Plus, like any cool club, knowing the lingo of the sport is fun and helps you feel like you belong! Though not all running routes will necessarily fit neatly into one defined category, the following list includes the most common types of running routes:
- Out and Back: An out-and-back route takes you from your starting point along some course to a turnaround, which marks the halfway point of your run. Then you simply return to your starting place by following the same course in reverse.
- Loop: A loop course starts and ends at the same place but takes you around a loop or square such that you’re not retracing your steps.
- Lollipop: A lollipop course is essentially a hybrid of an out-and-back and loop. Your route will have you heading out in one direction, eventually turning off and completing a loop of sorts, and then returning by reversing the initial part of the route.
- Figure 8: With this type of running route, you’ll venture out on a loop that comprises about half your run, brings you back to the starting point, and then ventures off for another loop in the other direction to complete the rest of your miles.
- Cloverleaf: The basic premise of the figure 8 style of running routes can be extended to courses with multiple small loops branching in different directions from one common central starting hub. A cloverleaf course has four little loops.
- Point to Point: Point-to-point running routes are great when you’re using running as a mode of transportation in addition to all its other glorious benefits. Like the famed Boston Marathon course, which takes you from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in Boston, point-to-point running routes start in one place and end somewhere else.
What Makes a Good Running Route
The only requirement for a running route to be a “good” one is that it’s safe. Safety is paramount, especially if you’re running alone. Your route should be free from high-traffic roads, and avoid numerous and significant road crossings because stopping at every red light or stop sign not only gets tedious and forces you to come to full stop or jog in place while waiting, but also increases the risk of getting hit by cars who are pressing their luck, trying to speed through a light that’s already turned red. A sidewalk-lined road is ideal so that you’re up and off the road away from vehicular traffic, and a wide shoulder along the road takes a distant second place in terms of safety. It’s ideal to run on designated running paths in parks, or along streets that meander through neighborhoods and school zones because the speed limits are slower, so drivers are theoretically more mindful and able to move over when passing you. Lastly, your route should be well lit if you’re running in the dark (or you’ll need a good headlamp), and it should be in safe, low-crime areas that are populated enough that you won’t put yourself in danger.
As long as you have the ever-important safety box checked off, the factors that constitute a good running route are really up to your personal preferences. With that said here are a few things to consider about your running route:
Does the running route fit your goals and fitness level?
Your running route should be appropriately challenging for your current fitness level. For example, if you’re just building back from an injury, you’ll want a relatively flat route—ideally with soft surfaces—rather than one that takes you up and down all the biggest hills in your town. Beyond that, if you’re training for a race, it’s great if your route has some specificity relative to the race course: If you’re training for a trail 10K, it’s good to take on at least one trail run per week. If you’re training for a notoriously hilly marathon, try to replicate this challenge by taking on hilly running routes for your long runs. You’ll be better prepared for your race if you train on similar routes and terrain.
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Is the route practical?
Practicality can take different forms depending on the day and your needs for the run. For example, if you only have 30 minutes to get in a quick run before your kids get off the bus, you need a short route. You won’t have time to drive anywhere, so it should be something you can do right from your front door. Alternatively, if you’re having a big group of your best running friends over to do your long run together, you’ll ideally want a route that has a wide enough area for at least two runners and a course that can be lengthened to accommodate your goal mileage for the day, without doing so many tiny loops that everyone is bordering on dizzy by the end. And a treeless, open road route would not be the best choice for a hot, sunny, summer day; you’d be better served taking to the trails or finding a shady bike path.
Can it be modified?
Having options to shorten your route should you get tired or feel a niggle can be a nice safety net, especially if there isn’t anyone home who can come pick you up.
Is the running route enjoyable?
As touched upon, your running route should be something you want to run. Whether it’s nice scenery, varied terrain, ending at your favorite brunch spot, or the challenge of a big hill that you love to dominate, a good running route is like a good restaurant—it should leave you wanting to come back again.
How to Discover New Running Routes
Discovering your next favorite running route can be as simple as picking a starting place, or heading out your front door and running wherever your heart takes you, but if you’re more of the planning type, here are some suggestions for finding new running routes:
- Scope out the roads in your car. Jump in your car and survey the area. Keep your eyes out for runner-friendly sidewalks, wide shoulders, and long stretches with few stoplights.
- Enlist the input of other runners. Ask your running buddies, running club, or your local running store for recommended routes. Runners love to share the details of their favorite courses and may even take you on a run in their favorite spot.
- Use running route websites and apps. There are many websites and apps dedicated to helping you find and plan good running routes, such as MapMyRun, RunGo, Strava Routes (available with Strava pro), and Komoot. You can also use Google Maps to chart routes and calculate distances. If you have a GPS watch, you might be able to find and create routes online and then download them to your watch, receiving turn-by-turn directions on the run. Some of the higher-end Garmin models are compatible with Garmin Connect, a route creation feature that allows you to do just that.
- Look up local race course maps. If your town hosts road races or a park race series, check out the course map and replicate the route on your own. Most race courses are relatively scenic and safe, so they are somewhat pre-vetted for you.
- Make use of parks. Depending on the town or city you live in, there are probably a few parks you can check out. Many parks have walking/running paths around them, which can be good for running loops free from cars, making them great options, especially if you’re traveling and unsure of what roads have sidewalks.
- Consider rail trails and bike paths. Rail trails and bike paths offer safe (and often long) stretches of scenic miles closed to vehicular traffic. They are great for out-and-back routes.
There’s no single correct answer about where your feet should carry you on your run. As long as you’re safe and enjoying the journey, it’s a perfectly suitable running route. With that said, don’t be afraid to venture off your familiar stomping grounds—exploring brings a sense of adventure and excitement to your routine, and can progress your training. You might even discover a new favorite spot, a new running buddy, or something new about yourself as a runner and as the athlete that you are.
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