Running Routes: Tools + Tips On How To Plan Your Next Run

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From tracks to treadmills, city parks to mountain trails, neighborhood roads to sandy beaches, running routes can take on almost any type of terrain, setting, and style, which is one of the best things about running as a sport.

Moreover, virtually anywhere you live in the world or anywhere your travels may take you, you can find a place to run and a running route to get your workout in, if not also enjoy the scenery along the way.

However, many runners fall prey to sticking to the same old running routes day after day, or might even log all their miles on the treadmill or track. This could be due to the fear of running out in the open where drivers and passers by can see them or because they feel intimidated about venturing out on a new route or knowing “where to go”.

Fear not. If you’re looking to expand your literal and metaphorical horizons, keep reading for our guide on how to plan your running route along with tips for running route planning.

We will look at: 

  • What Is a Running Route?
  • Common Types Of Running Routes
  • What Makes a Good Running Route?
  • Factors to Consider When Planning a Running Route
  • How to Plan Your Running Routes

Let’s jump in!

A woman running on the road.

What Is a Running Route?

A running route is simply the course you take for a given run. It might be a loop made by following certain roads, a path through the woods behind your house, a meandering set of roads and fields in your neighborhood, or any other number of configurations. 

Although it’s certainly not mandatory to vary your running routes or to run outdoors in the first place, there are many benefits to doing so. Varying your running routes can reduce boredom, prevent overuse injuries by mixing up the terrain and muscular demand on your body, and stimulate your mind.

Common Types Of Running Routes

Runners love their lingo, and while it’s not necessary to learn every common term in running parlance, knowing the terms for the common types of running routes can help you have a better sense of race courses or unfamiliar routes shepherded by your running buddies or a running group.

For example, if you’re looking to run a marathon and you see that the course is an “out-and-back,” you can quickly eliminate this race if you know what this type of running route entails and find that you don’t enjoy it.

A person running on a trail.

Although not every running route will 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 is one of the simplest types of running routes. This type of route takes you from your starting point along some course to a turnaround point, which marks the halfway point of your run. Then you simply return to your starting point by following the same course in reverse.
  • Loop: As the name describes, a loop running route starts and ends at the same place but takes you around a loop or square, such that you’re not retracing your steps along the course.
  • Point to Point: 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 after meandering through however many miles the course is. This type of course is great when you’re using running as a mode of transportation in addition to all its other benefits.
  • Figure 8: With this type of running route, you’ll venture out on a loop that comprises of about half your run, brings you back to the starting point, and then takes you around another loop in the opposite direction from your first loop to complete the rest of your miles. 
  • Lollipop: A lollipop running route is essentially a hybrid of an out-and-back and loop. The course you take heads out in one direction, then eventually turns off and completes a loop of sorts, before returning by reversing the initial part of the route.
  • Cloverleaf: The basic premise of the figure 8 style of running routes can be expanded to encompass running routes with multiple small loops branching in different directions from one common central starting hub. A cloverleaf course has four little loops.
A person's feet, running on a trail.

What Makes a Good Running Route?

While some running routes might be better than others (more scenic, more challenging, more peaceful, etc.), the only real requirement for a running route to be “good” is that it’s safe. 

Safety is paramount, especially if you’re running alone. 

When it comes to safe routes, the concept of safety applies to several things, all of which are important. 

Your running route should be free from high-traffic roads, and should avoid numerous and significant road crossings because stopping at every red light or stop sign not only gets tedious, but also because it increases the risk of getting hit by cars who run a light or fail to fully stop at stop signs.

To optimize the safety of your route, a road with a sidewalk is ideal, so that you’re up and off the road away from vehicular traffic. A wide shoulder along the road is a visible option as well, though less safe than a designated sidewalk offset from the road.

A person running on a path.

Running in designated running paths in parks, or along streets that meander through neighborhoods and school zones is ideal because the speed limits are slower, so drivers are theoretically more mindful and able to move over when passing you. 

Finally, your route should be confined to safe, low-crime areas that are populated enough that you won’t put yourself in danger, and if you’re running in the dark, the course should be well lit, or you’ll need a good headlamp.

Factors to Consider When Planning a Running Route

Once you have the ever-important safety box checked off, you’re free to play around with other factors that make a good running route, based on your personal preferences and the logistics of where you run.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you plan your next route:

A person running on a sidewalk.

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 you have to pick your kids up for school, you need a short route that you can complete in 30 minutes. You won’t have time to drive anywhere, so it should be something you can do right from your front door. 

As another example, if it’s a sticky hot, blazing sunny day, a treeless, open road route would not be the best choice; it would be safer and more comfortable to run on the trails or find a shady bike path.

In a final example, if you normally love running by your kids’ school during your lunch hour but you got held up and find yourself there later, you might have to fend off bus traffic, lines of parents in cars picking up kids, and students all over the sidewalks rather than enjoying open parking lots and wide, vacant sidewalks

A group of people running in a park.

Does the running route fit your goals and fitness level? 

Your route should be appropriately challenging for your current fitness level. 

For example, if you’re building back up 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. 

If you’re training for a race, try to plan a route that has some specificity relative to the race course. In other words, if you’re training for a notoriously hilly marathon, try to replicate this challenge by mapping out a hilly running route for your long runs, which will better prepare you for your race.

As another example, if you’re training for a trail 10k, it’s a good idea to do at least 1-2 trail runs per week to get used to the technical challenges and form modifications necessary to succeed on uneven terrain.

A person running at night.

Can the running route be modified? 

Having options to shorten or lengthen your running route is a really nice perk, particularly if you’ve had an injury, don’t feel that well, or want to potentially get in a long run if you feel surprisingly strong.

Is the running route enjoyable? 

Ideally, your 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 Plan Your Running Routes

With just a little bit of planning and practice, you can 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 in the greater world around you. 

Finding your next favorite running route can be as simple as choosing a starting place, or heading out your front door, and running wherever your heart takes you. 

A person running on the road.

With that said, if you’re more of the planning type, or worry that you’ll get lost or stumble upon seedy areas, here are some tips for planning new running routes:

#1: Ask Other Runners

Enlist the help of your running buddies, running club, or local running store staff for recommended running routes in your area. Runners tend to love sharing the details of their favorite courses and may even take you on a guided tour.

#2: Explore the Roads In Your Car

You can take a drive and survey the area in your vehicle first. Keep your eyes out for runner-friendly sidewalks, wide shoulders, and long stretches of road with few stoplights. 

#3: Use Apps or Online Running Route Mapping Tools

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 On The Go Map, where you can find routes saved by other local runners or chart out your own routes and calculate distances. 

A running app on a phone, headphones and sneakers.

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.

#4: Look for Rail Trails and Bike Paths

Depending on the town or city in which you live in, there might be a rail trail or bike path, which often offer long stretches of scenic miles closed to vehicular traffic, making them great for out-and-back running routes.

#5: Explore the Parks

Is there a park in your area? 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 which roads have sidewalks.

A person running on a path.

#6: Check Out Race Course Maps

If your town holds any road races or hosts a park race series, look up 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.

#7: Don’t Forget Trails

It can be harder to plan trail runs, but there are tools available for that as well, such as hiking guidebooks, contour maps, and online trail mapping tools.

For example, Komoot is an awesome paid running, hiking, and mountain biking route planner tool. Where Komoot really distinguishes itself is in its impressive topographical maps of even the most remote wilderness areas.

If you are a trail runner, this is the best online route mapping tool for running distance, elevation, and gradient. You can even view inch-by-inch surface, way-type, and elevation analysis in the route making panel, and you can clearly differentiate between hiking paths, singletracks or paved roads at a glance. 

There’s no single correct answer about where your feet should carry you on your run. As long as you’re safe and enjoying your running, it’s a perfectly viable course to take, but don’t be afraid to explore new areas. You might just discover a new favorite running route.

For safety on the road and trails, check out our running safety guide, here.

A runner looking at their gps watch.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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