For the most part, we run locally. We grow to know our immediate area very well, and after a while it starts to feel “samey”. It can become hard to motivate ourselves to go for a run, and we long for expensive trips away to mix things up.
Of course, we all love to travel to far-flung locations: oh, to run on different terrain, see stunning scenery, experience another culture, sample unfamiliar food, and all whilst tragically “practising” a foreign language.
But before we book our tickets to the other side of the world, pack our bags and start worrying about the expense, the travel arrangements, dog kennels, emptying the fridge and offsetting our CO2 emissions; have we considered travelling locally?
2020 has been a year of largely local travelling for me, and I’ve discovered countless exciting terrains practically on my doorstep. All without the hassle, stress or cost that long-distance travel entails. One just needs to know where to look.
Finding Fresh Routes
My philosophy when planning a route is simple: try to avoid running the same path twice. In practice, this involves:
- Planning each route as a loop, so I don’t retrace my steps
- To the greatest extent possible, routing along paths I haven’t taken before
It’s amazing how much variety you can often find within a runnable radius of your home. But, if even this begins to tire, just move your search radius a little further out, to include a short transit on public transport (or car). Here, you’ll find your options really multiply.
Techniques for planning varied routes
- Scope out the terrain just beyond your usual running radius, and search for paths & interesting geographical features. Hills, valleys, woods, lakes, castles, points of interest can all serve as interesting waypoints on your route
- OpenStreetMap offers excellent free maps with trails often marked at a considerably greater level of detail than Google Maps
- Check your local country-specific mapping
- In the UK, that’s primarily Ordinance Survey maps (the paid versions are required for sufficient detail, but are an excellent source of information. Online and physical options are available, with either ownership or subscription models)
- In the UK, also consider Harvey maps (a popular alternative to OS covering just the most popular hiking areas of the UK, touted as being easier to read for hikers, offering both online and paper options)
- Many other countries have equivalents: for example, in France, it’s IGN maps, and in Germany it’s BKG
- Leverage Google Maps Street View to get an idea of what the trails are like (it’s often possible to zoom to Street View where roads intersect a path, and thereby get a visual snapshot of a section of a trail)
- Look for well-trodden paths; or, conversely, seldom-trodden paths. The former are probably clear trails, whereas the latter offers more of a gamble: sometimes routes are overgrown or non-existent on the ground, but other times you can stumble upon some real gems
- Choose a town or locality you’d like to visit as the midpoint of a circular route
- Pick a railway line, bus route, or any other method of public transportation that’s available, and run as far as you care to along it. When you’re done, hop on public transport back to the start
- Look at your Strava Heatmap (a subscriber feature): where haven’t you run yet? Use this to guide your exploration, and try to fill in the blanks
- Other people’s GPS plots
- Follow your friends, note routes you’d like to run and (again, in desktop mode) use the Create Route or Download GPX options
- Pop the name of your town/city into the athlete search box on Strava’s website, and you’ll be presented with a list of athletes in that location. You can then peruse their running routes
- Use the Segment Explore section to discover local segments
- MapMyRun, or whatever your friends use
- ViewRanger has a good selection of user-submitted routes, often complete with descriptions. Note that ViewRanger doesn’t like to share the GPX data, so unless your watch supports ViewRanger (or you use your phone), just use the routes for inspiration and plot your own
- Routes published by organisations
- Paths publicised by your local council
- Many councils publish pamphlets and directories of routes, since they are tasked with maintaining them after all! Google your local council’s name along with “walking routes” or such.
- Race routes: search race directories published by the UK Trail Running Association or the International Trail Running Association, Ahotu, and so on. Check for race routes published by your local running clubs.
- Footpaths you’ve spotted whilst out and about
You get the idea: the options are endless.
So, now you’ve got an idea where you want to run. How do you actually run the route? If you run at a slower pace, or don’t have a GPS watch, you might like to try orienteering. There’s something endlessly rewarding about finding your way with a paper map and compass!
However, if you’re like me and just want to run without distraction, then you’ll want a plotted route to follow on your watch or mobile. 90% of the time, this is what I do, although I always allow myself to deviate if I so choose.
So, what tools should one use to plot your route?
Ah, easy! Use the desktop version of Strava’s Route Builder: recently revamped with its global running heatmap built-in, the capability to route over your preferred terrain, or to your desired elevation.
I find this an invaluable tool to quickly generate a new local route, sync to my watch, and go.
Note that the desktop version of the Route Builder is, as of writing, considerably more configurable than the mobile version. So, you’re best advised use it on a laptop or desktop computer (you could try a large screen mobile device, such as a tablet with its browser in desktop mode; but usability will be considerably compromised).
For short or simple routes, the mobile Route Builder’s ok too, and I expect Strava will rapidly add more features from the desktop version into it to approach feature parity.
Whilst Strava has the most data on running route popularity and terrain, and consequently has the best routing tool (that I’ve found to date); if you’re not a subscriber, don’t fear. No matter which tool you use, it’s ultimately just a means to plot GPS coordinates and export a GPX file to sync to a watch, or follow on a mobile device.
If you use a Garmin device, I’d recommend Garmin Courses as the next-best option, since this does have a limited heatmap of sorts, and is obviously trivial to sync to Garmin devices.
To Plot or Not to Plot
Here’s an idea: do as I sometimes do for fun, and try memorising a route using mental cues. This adds an extra element of risk and reward, along with training the ol’ hippocampus.
I recommend using memory techniques such as the mnemonic peg system to help with this. If you haven’t tried something like this before, give it a go!
For example, I might say “I know the route until:
- The left turn into Rosebury Close. 1 – Gun – visualise I’m firing into a garden, with the gun in my right hand (being right-handed); but instead of a bullet, the petals of a bright pink rose slowly emerge from the barrel, wrapping around to the left (so that I can clearly see them, as the gun’s in my right hand), followed by its thorns and stem, before gradually floating to the ground.
- A hard right onto a footpath before the church. 2 – Shoe – a huge walking boot the size of a building with a tread pattern in the shape of a single cross. I’m visualising the right boot (my dominant side), with the toe pointing to the right. As the shoe walks right , it carves huge cross-shaped markings in the mud, with point in the direction of travel, whilst mud splatters behind it, against the rightmost wall of a beautiful stone church.
And so on. If you’ve a more creative mind than me, you should be able to have some fun dreaming up far more outlandish visualisations!
Note that I always recommend taking a phone/GPS device with your route plotted as backup, in case you go off-course. (In my experience, that’s every time, guaranteed: what looked like an obvious straight-ahead on the map ends up looking like a 50:50 fork on the ground!)
Ordinance Survey Maps
I know I’ve mentioned the Ordinance Survey already, but it’s worth calling them out again for UK runners. If you don’t own the OS map covering your home location, why not? I keep a paper copy and a digital copy, and find the latter especially useful.
I’ll often have it open when I’m plotting a route, and cross-reference my path against the OS map. Does the route I’m planning follow a marked bridleway, footpath or track? Not all rights of way are marked on OS Maps, but it’s a very good starting point.
I’ve had it happen before whereby I’ve plotted (lesser) routes that did show some level of activity on Strava’s heatmap, but which – on the ground – turned out to be private tracks with no public right of way. Whilst you can often re-route yourself around such obstacles in realtime without too much hassle, it’s advisable to be aware of such risks, and have a detour prepared should you need it.
What If You Get Lost?
Always have a backup plan! This is increasingly important the more rural and remote your location. If you get lost (or “temporarily navigationally challenged”, as I was taught to say), what are you going to do?
Carrying a phone capable of loading Google Maps is all well and good, only so long as you have phone signal and battery.
Judge the risk involved in your route and ensure you’re taking appropriate measures. I adopt a layered approach to navigation: the more risk involved, the more options I add:
- GPS route on my watch
- Cash for a taxi
- … with Google Maps saved offline
- … with a more detailed map application (normally OS Maps) with the relevant map saved offline
- Paper map and compass
- Powerpack and charging cable for my phone
- … and for my GPS watch
Start simple, and don’t overthink it: pick main paths that you haven’t yet run. When you exhaust these, choose lesser paths, and move your search radius further out. Mix it up with transits to locations slightly further afield.
When you run out of ideas, look to some of the ideas above for inspiration. And then mix it up yourself.
Take routes you’ve run, and run them in reverse. Take sections from two separate routes and join them together. Run a route you ran in the summer in winter; or a route you ran in the morning, in the evening during sunset. Take a route you ran easy, and inject intervals. Pause at the outdoor gym, or to soak up the forest/grassy knoll/lake. Instead of grunting over the “annoying big hill” and moving on, turn that into a hill session and grow to master it.
You’re only limited by your imagination.