“You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to”. Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote in the Lord of the Rings is spot on for runners. We know that the beauty of running is its simplicity; yes, we can just step out our door and go. But as Bilbo suggests, if you don’t have an idea of where you are going, or a route to take, you may end up in a bit of trouble. I am not saying that all runs need to be planned to the minute (Bilbo’s adventure certainly wasn’t!), but knowing a bit about the landscape, the weather, your running surface, and access to amenities along the way can make for a much more enjoyable run. In this post I will be discussing different aspects to choosing a running route (or several!).
There are two styles of running courses. First is the out-and-back route which takes a runner a certain distance from their door and at some mileage, they turn around and come the same way home. Second is a loop route where a runner never runs the same stretch of road twice; most races are loop routes. There are benefits and disadvantages to both. Many runners believe that out-and-back routes are easier mentally for the fact that once you turn around you are headed directly home. Out-and-back routes can also be quite boring since you are passing the same landscape twice. Loop routes can be more exciting as you cover a larger amount of area. There may be more nature to see, nicer views, or a more challenging landscape, depending on your running goals.
I would be rich if I got paid for the number of times I’ve tried a new running route and had a super huge hill appear in front of me. When selecting a route, keep in mind the terrain and elevation changes. If you are looking for a challenging run, try and seek out all the big hills you can, but if you want a recovery run route, look for those flat stretches of road. Google Earth can help you check out a route’s elevation changes if you haven’t driven or biked it. Also, keep in mind the number of turns on your route. I have found that having more turns keeps you more engaged and active. You can use the whole “I can make it to this turn” mantra to keep you going. But remember where you are going, and unless you bring a map with you on your iPhone, you could get lost with adding a lot of turns.
The type of surface you run on can make a huge difference in the enjoyment of your run and the preservation of your joints. There are four typical running surfaces: trail(mulch, pine needles, dirt, etc), grass, black-top, and concrete. Each has a different “give” or how much cushioning it will provide when ran on. Grass has the most give and can make for a very soft run, however running a long distance on grass can be both technically difficult (try finding 9 miles of grass to run on) and due to a large friction coefficient, can be quite challenging on your legs. Trail also has a good amount of give. Trail running is often through scenic areas and thus can be extremely enjoyable. The dangers of trail running are rocks, sticks, roots, downed branches and other natural hazards that can easily sprain an ankle. If your routes primarily take you on trail, look for good trail running shoes with reinforced toes and ankle support. Of man-made running surfaces, always choose black-top over concrete. I have heard running on concrete is “poison for the legs”. Concrete has almost no give and thus provides no cushioning for your knees and feet. Black-top has more give than concrete and is the best option for city running. Many bike paths are made of black-top and when possible, run on the side of the road. A typical 6mi+ run for me integrates a lot of trail and black-top running and a little of the inevitable sidewalk concrete.
The aesthetics of running a particular route is often the reason why it is run. Having something to look at takes your mind of the miles and rejuvenates your mind. I have found that the type of scenery preferred differs widely for different runners. For example, I grow quite bored running through quiet country-side by myself, but I know others who enjoy the peace and quiet and natural settings for their runs. I personally prefer running in the city with cars whistling by, folks on their bikes, and the fratboys up to antics in their house yards. It gives me some stories to tell when I get back.
5. Time of Day/Weather
The time that you run a particular route can have a big difference. Are there sketchy parts of town that you wouldn’t want to run through after 8 pm? If you run in the afternoon or morning, can you find a route that is shaded to save you from the summer heat? Is there bad traffic along certain parts of your route that you would want to avoid? These are important considerations to look at when choosing a route. Weather can have a large effect on where you run as well. If it is particularly windy, you may want to run a route that is protected by trees or large buildings. In the winter, are there certain stretches of road that get icy? Often, the time you run a route and in what kind of weather is a safety concern.
6. Access to Amenities
This is of particular concern for runners going long distances. On a 15 mile run, there is a pretty good chance you are going to need water and to use the bathroom. On most of my routes, even those that are only a few miles, I make sure I know where I can access water. It can be a park drinking fountain, a building on campus, or a convenience store. The same applies to bathrooms. Parks and public buildings are often the best choice. This is also important if you are a stasher (runners who stash water or gels ahead of time along their route). You want to make sure you put the things you need somewhere where they won’t be stolen or tampered with.
Running is also exploration, as you develop new routes and go new places, you will find areas you would be happy to return to and others you will avoid in the future. Changing up your routes can remove the boredom from your daily run, and who knows, maybe you’ll run across something exciting. Bilbo returned from his adventure with many stories to tell. As a runner, when you step out onto the road, make it a goal to do the same.
Ashley is a geologist at Schlumberger, specializing in geologic modeling software. She completed her Masters degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid runner, cyclist, and rock climber. She will pretty much race anything and everything. You can find her hanging out on White Oak in Houston, TX or climbing and running in Austin.