Finding new routes
Discovering new places is all part of the fun of running. We work out where to go, which places we prefer, and those we would rather avoid.
Over time, we develop a heightened sense of distance. When non-running friends and family casually ponder the distance between two places, we’re able to tell them precisely, complete with different route options, such as which roads have fewer crossings and where the muddy bits are.
We also build up a detailed map of our local area that would perhaps only be bettered by the posties, taxi drivers and take-away deliverers.
Much of this knowledge builds up gradually over time. Sometimes, though, we want to help the process along a little bit. Perhaps the following applies to you:
- You are new to running and wondering where to go;
- You have moved to a new area and have a blank ‘mental map’ that needs filling in;
- You are building up the mileage and find you are going further afield than before;
- You’re incorporating more trail running, but are still unsure of where to go;
- You are tired of your usual routes and want to find somewhere new to regain your mojo.
Whatever your reason for wanting to find new routes, this article aims to help you by looking at three key methods: High tech, low tech, and no tech.
In the last few years, there has been a boom in online services to help you find new places to run. Some of them will even sync with your watch or phone to provide you with directions while you’re out running.
Before we dive in, please note, these aren’t endorsements and this isn’t a comprehensive list of every service out there, because new ones are always being added, or a manufacturer might drop a feature from their range. However, it does illustrate the kinds of products that are out there to give you some idea of what to look for.
Remember, there are thousands of fellow runners in our Facebook Chat Group, so if you’re wondering whether a watch or app is any good, it is likely there is someone in the group who has already tried it out. Pop a question in the group and see what the response is.
Here are some of the services we’ve spotted:
Strava, Komoot and RunGo
There are a few services that provide the ability to map out a route online – either through a website or app – and then send it to a compatible phone or watch to help you navigate, either by displaying a map, giving audible turn-by-turn directions, or both.
Each of them do things slightly differently, so you may wish to play around with them to decide which you prefer. Typically, though, they combine the ability to manually draw a route yourself, with automatic route creation.
For instance, Strava uses the data of it’s 50 million users to work out which routes are most popular and uses this information in its Route Builder feature.
Komoot also uses user-provided data, but includes the option to highlight which places are most worth visiting. This means the routes aren’t just based on the most popular places (which could be used a lot because they’re convenient, but boring), but the most interesting.
RunGo is built solely with running in mind (Strava and Komoot also include cycling routes) and includes the option to take part in virtual events or follow famous race routes.
With each of these platforms, there is a free option that offers you some of the available features, and a paid option that gives you full access.
Garmin, Suunto and TomTom watches
Whereas Strava, Komoot and RunGo can all send navigation information to a compatible watch, you may find that your watch already has the ability to help you find new routes without needing a third party service or app.
Some Garmin models offer round trip routing (tell it how far you want to go, and it suggests three route options for you to choose from) and turn-by-turn navigation. Their mapping software also takes into account the data from other Garmin users to suggest popular routes.
Suunto offers watches with detailed maps that show which routes are most popular with their users, to help you decide where to go.
TomTom watches don’t have the full maps that the others have, but you can plan a route on their online platform, then load it onto your watch. The route appears as a line on the screen and the watch then shows your current position relative to your planned route using GPS.
The high tech options above help you work out a route by offering mapping suggestions based on your input. You may prefer, however, to look at a map and work out a route yourself. Here is a summary of a few of the most useful maps for runners.
In the UK, the Ordnance Survey produces maps that cover the whole country. They are available in paper format (great for laying out on your living room floor and planning adventures) and online. OS Maps have a few features that make route planning easier, including colour coded roads and paths.
Fine, dashed lines in woodland and open spaces show the existence of paths, but these may not always be accessible to the public. To be certain that you can run somewhere, look for dotted green lines (public footpaths), dashed green lines (public bridleways), dotted orange lines (permitted footpaths) and dashed orange lines (permitted bridleways). These are all open to runners and are a great place to start when exploring.
Other marks worth looking for are green diamonds (recreational routes, such as long-distance footpaths), big orange dots (traffic-free cycle routes), and big green dots (other routes with public access that don’t fall under the above categories).
Roads go from white (the calmest, local routes), through yellow, orange (B roads), dark pink (A roads), to blue (motorways).
Contour lines (the faint orange, squiggly lines) that tell you how big and steep the hills are. A lot of contour lines bunched closely together indicate a steep hill, whereas widely spaced contours (or no contours at all) show flatter land.
Icons on the maps show useful features, such as car parks, pubs, phone boxes, or landmarks like towers and churches.
These are great in cities and other urban areas. They don’t include the same detailed geographic information as an OS Map, but will show all the roads in an area, plus their names.
Therefore, they’re useful when trying to work out an urban route, where your directions are more likely to be “turn left on to Lonely Road, then right on to Goat Street”, than using natural landmarks. You can find more information here.
National Cycle Network
Sustrans, the charity working to make it easier for people to walk and cycle, works with other agencies to create and maintain the National Cycle Network in the UK. This is a network of routes that have been marked out as being relatively safe and comfortable for people to cycle on.
“But I’m running, not cycling”, you say. That’s true, but it is almost always the case that wherever you can cycle safely, you can run safely too.
You can find a map of the network (either the whole thing, or just the parts local to you) on their website, or buy a paper map.
The map indicates the parts of the route that are completely traffic-free and those that go on roads. To be safe, when running, it is probably best to stick to the traffic-free bits, as the road sections might not have pavements. Once you’re on a route, it’s well signposted and easy to follow.
This is an online, free map that aims to cover the whole world with data submitted by local mappers. It’s a similar concept to Wikipedia – any person can help build it or use it however they wish.
For all but the most remote places, the detail is very good (similar to OS Maps) and is useful for working out where you can run.
Because the map data is free for others to use, there are other services that present the data in ways that can be helpful for runners trying to work out where to go. These include FootPathMap and MilerMeter, which allow you to play around with how the information is presented, or trace a route on the map.
Google and Bing
The standard maps are unlikely to show you information that you couldn’t get on any of the other services mentioned above. The satellite imagery, however, is useful as it then helps you visualise what somewhere actually looks like.
For example, you might have spotted a suitable footpath on a paper map, but want to zoom in on the junctions to help you recognise it when you run there.
Or, you might have spotted a road that looks like a good running route, but want to use Street View to see if it is suitable. It can take a bit of time to click your way along a long road, but that’s preferable to getting miles from home only to discover you’ve got to run along a fast, busy road with no pavements to get back.
Carry navigational aids
Smart phones can carry detailed maps with you wherever you go. They’re small and light enough not to be too obtrusive when running.
However, they’re not fail safe, as the batteries can run out or you can have no signal. In these instances, a paper map is always going to work.
If you don’t need a full map, but need to carry some prompts to help you find your way, then think about what might work best for you. Some runners jot down brief directions on a bit of paper, or on their skin in permanent marker or biro. Others will sketch out a map or print off relevant sections to keep in their pocket.
Lastly, it might seem like overkill, but carrying a compass can be helpful, even in a city. You may think you’re heading in a particular direction, but actually be going the opposite way. A compass will avoid that problem. Competitive orienteers use small, lightweight compasses that strap to your thumb and are perfect for navigating when running.
If you’re open to a bit of adventure, then following your nose and seeing where you end up is a great way to find new routes.
It’s not without risk, as you could end up plodding through a muddy field, following an ugly road, or completely lost with no idea how to get home. There’s also the possibility that your run will be a lot shorter or a lot longer than you had intended.
But that’s all part of the fun and makes the reward – discovering somewhere new and exciting – all the more satisfying when it happens.
If you fancy adding a bit of adventurous exploring into your running, here are a few tips.
Keep your eyes open
When you’re out on a regular route, look out for signs that indicate footpaths you haven’t been down before, or make a mental note should you see another runner disappear down a track that is new to you. Then, next time you’re out that way, you’ll have somewhere new to explore.
Similarly, when out driving or cycling, and able to cover more ground easily, you can keep an eye out for suitable running roads that you might want to remember for future exploration.
Use out and backs
If you want to do a 40 minute run and explore a new route, then run for 20 minutes, following your nose and going wherever you wish, but making a note of any turnings or route choices you make. You could make a mental note, or even jot it down in your phone as you go. After 20 minutes, turn round and retrace your steps back home to complete the 40 minutes.
This presents an advantage over a loop course as you don’t have to try and judge the distance beforehand. You just head out in one direction, then turn round and come back again to complete the run. You can also turn it into a ‘progression’ run where you try to do the second half quicker than the first for an extra training boost.
The other advantage is that, if you’re running down a new path, you get to see it from both directions. This makes you more likely to recognise the path should you stumble across it again from a different point.
Look behind you after a junction
Similar to the above ‘out and back’ tip, is checking over your shoulder when you’ve passed a junction.
If you’ve been running along a path and reach a junction where you choose a particular direction, you will only know what it looks like from the direction you came from.
If, however, you check over your shoulder after passing it, you will know what it looks like from the other direction and be able to recognise it if you’re coming back. This is particularly useful in the countryside, when paths can often look alike and it can be confusing to remember where you took a particular turning.
To be extra certain that you’ll recognise it, take a quick photo so you don’t have to rely on your memory.
Another tip to help when in the woods, or open countryside, is to leave some kind of marker at a junction so you recognise it on the way back. Sticks, stones, or scuff-marks in the dirt can help.
Don’t rely on them though, as anyone (human or animal) could move them and cause you to get lost.
Stitch routes together
Sometimes, you may be doing an ‘out and back’ run, following a path, and have to turn back before you reach the end. You may have a good idea of where the path is likely to come out, but won’t know for certain.
In these instances, it can be helpful to try and approach that path from its other end – where you think it comes out – when you’re next out exploring.
Then, if you follow it and come to part of the path you recognise, you will know for certain that it does join up as you expected and will have discovered a new looped course that you can do in the future with confidence that you’re not going to get lost.
If it doesn’t join up, then you can just turn round and head home, retracing your steps, without worrying about getting lost in the middle of nowhere.
Ask a friend
This is a simple tip: If you’re not sure where to run, ask someone who might know.
This could be a friend or neighbour who runs a lot, someone who has lived in the area longer than you, or possibly someone whose job requires them to know all the hidden routes you might not be aware of.
If you’re running somewhere new (if you’re on holiday, for example), then ask hotel reception staff, or see if anyone in the Lonely Goat Chat Group has any suggestions.
Mix it up
We’ve split the various ways of finding new routes into three categories – high, low and no tech – but the most effective way is often a combination of the three.
For example, there are two areas local to me that I like to run around and know well, but they’re divided by a railway line. I wanted to see if it was possible to link the two areas together to make a longer route.
Looking at an OS Map, I could see there was a bridge over the line and a path that connected the two areas, but I couldn’t see if there was public access or if it was private land.
On Strava’s route builder I could see that other runners had used the path, which suggested it was OK to run down.
A quick check of Google street view showed me where the path joined the road, so I knew where to spot the correct turning.
The next time I ran out that way, I went down the path, and was able to cross the railway bridge, but turned round half-way through my run to retrace my steps, before reaching the other end of the path as I was pushed for time.
I then tried the same method, but from the other direction, and was able to reach the bit of path I had run down previously.
I now knew for certain that it was possible to link together two running areas that I’d previously thought were completely separated by the railway line, and had a new long running loop for the future.
Get out there and get lost – but not too much!
Exploring when you’re running is great fun, and it can be very satisfying to discover new routes and better understand the area you live in.
Getting lost is all part of the fun, but try to do so safely. Let someone know where you’re planning on going and when to expect you back. Carry a phone so you can either check a map to find your way home, or contact someone else if you get stuck.
If you’re in the middle of nowhere, a phone with GPS is helpful as you can share your location with your rescuers – whether it’s the emergency services or your other half in the car.
For truly adventurous outdoor exploration, consider running with someone else, and don’t plan a route that is likely to exceed your current fitness, navigation or skill levels.
If you’re in a city, however, you can always get a bus or taxi home if it all goes wrong. Just make sure to share your mis-adventures with the Lonely Goat community when you get home!