Find the best running route for you: How your environment can affect your run
October 11, 2022|By Emilia Benton
Mixing up your routine and covering different types of running routes and terrain can be beneficial for your training, whether you're just working on maintaining fitness and remaining injury-free or you're chasing that next PR. You'll likely find that varying up the ground you cover will not only improve your outlook, but will also help you maximize the quality of your training to ultimately get the best out of yourself.
One of the best parts about running outdoors is that you can usually mix things up and give yourself some variety to keep your training interesting. At the same time, though, it can be easy to fall into a routine and constantly cover the same running route because it's what you're comfortable and familiar with.
While those are certainly good qualities that can help bring you peace of mind and allow you to just go, they can also feed into feelings of burnout. Varying up the types of runs you do, whether it's on roads, trails, designated paths, tracks, or something else, can impact everything from your pace, overall training, mood, and more.
I've been back living in my hometown of Houston for 11 years now, and I've been fortunate that, despite a few different moves, I've lived in different parts of the city that are very runnable, both in terms of safety and logistics. I also have a lot of variety in terms of terrain right at my fingertips (or feet, in this instance), but even so, I, too, have sometimes fallen into a pattern of routine when it comes to choosing a running route.
This sometimes leads to boredom and a lack of motivation, especially without an immediate goal on the horizon, as was the case during much of the COVID-19 pandemic. By being proactive in planning to mix things up, though, I've found that I dread getting outside a little bit less than I otherwise often do in times like right now, when there's really no escaping the region's oppressive heat and humidity.
Crushed gravel trails
Until recently, I lived right across the street from Hermann Park, which has a handful of crushed gravel trails that cover different loops around and inside of the park, making it easy to cover anywhere from 3 to 7 miles while still maintaining some variety.
Running on trails like these is great for recovery runs the day after a hard workout, when you want to make sure you focus on keeping the pace truly easy and run on a surface that's gentler on your joints. I like to save these routes specifically for that purpose, as I found one year that I did the bulk of my marathon training on these trails, my feet just weren't used to the pounding of concrete on race day, and started hurting pretty early into the race. Another bonus of these crushed gravel trails is that a majority of them are shaded by large trees, so if I've chosen to sleep in on a recovery day, running in the blazing sun won't be as brutal.
Paved bike paths
When my husband and I moved into our current house, I was ecstatic about the fact that we'd be only about a half-mile away from the Brays Bayou bike path that we already did much of our running on, as it also connects to Hermann Park (which we're now 2 miles away from). Bike paths are great for doing long workouts like tempo runs, as you can often go nonstop for several miles without being interrupted by traffic lights or other busy intersections.
Bike paths also often have some sections with pretty steep, long inclines that can be great for hill training, especially if you live in a famously flat city like Houston and you've got a more challenging race on your calendar, as I currently do with November's New York City Marathon. Finally, bike paths often have water fountains spread throughout, just like parks, which is key for when you'll need to rehydrate and refill your bottles on longer efforts.
Just be sure to use basic safety etiquette when running on a bike path, such as by running no more than two abreast and moving to single file if it's a narrow path and a cyclist is approaching from in front or behind. Avoid wearing headphones if you can, so you'll hear when a cyclist announces themselves as they approach from behind, and move to the right when you hear them warn you.
If you live in an area that tends to not get too busy in terms of car traffic and isn't full of major intersections, your neighbourhood streets can be a great option for quiet, easy runs. I was a bit reluctant to check out this option for the first couple of months after moving into our new home — I'd gotten used to defaulting to the bike path, because it's so easy to just run on autopilot without having to stop and ultimately getting the run done quicker than I would with stops.
But even with 6 a.m. starts, the hot sun has been testing me lately, so last week I finally decided to try neighbourhood loops, and it really wasn't so bad, even for 8 miles. The shade brought some refuge, and the greetings and positive words of encouragement from my new neighbours were an added bonus, too.
At first glance, it might not sound like the most glamorous choice, but if you've got a specific goal in mind, such as qualifying for the Boston Marathon or another speedy time goal like breaking three hours, speed workouts are key. If your training plan calls for workouts with many faster, shorter intervals, you should do them on a rubberized track, if you have access to one.
Not only are you going to be able to more easily hit the prescribed paces on a rubberized track, but it's also key for avoiding injury — you definitely don't want to be doing something like mile repeats or 10 x 800 metres on roads or concrete. And while doing them on soft, smooth trails might be easier on your joints, it's going to be harder to actually hit your paces there, too. I definitely tend to prefer runs where I can just walk out my front door and go, but driving to the track is a non-negotiable when it comes to preserving workout quality and preventing injuries.
If you have access to technical trails in the woods or mountains, take advantage of them. Whether you've got an ultramarathon on your calendar, or you're just looking for ways to diversify your recovery runs, running on trails is another way to force yourself to slow down and take in some scenery.
If you do have a trail race on your schedule, you're likely not too concerned about beating a time. However, training and practicing navigating technical terrain can help you prepare to avoid falls on race day. Since you'll be running slower per-mile paces on the trails, note that you'll need to plan for more time to cover a specific distance. And while your pace will most definitely slow down at the moment when you're running trails, you'll likely find that it won't impact your speed when you return to roads.
Additionally, don't underestimate the fact that being out there for longer periods of time will still impact your energy levels, despite the slower paces, so don't forget to bring fuel and hydration with you as well.
Going to the beach isn't just for summer lounging, you know. If you find yourself spending an extended amount of time in a coastal area, beach running can be successfully implemented into your training as well. Depending on how packed or loose the sand is, running at the beach should also typically be left for easier runs.
A short, carefree run at the beach can often be just what you need to boost your mood and flush out your legs. And being so close to the water can make for another excellent recovery tool once you're done, if you feel up to plunging into the water. Just don't forget to also hydrate and wear sunscreen if it's particularly hot and sunny.
Running up and across a bridge during a road race can be one of the coolest and most scenic experiences, especially if it's a famous landmark that normally isn't open to pedestrian traffic. I'll never forget the training cycle for the 2010 New York City Marathon, which was my first go at 26.2 miles. I lived in Astoria, Queens, at the time, and I never gave much thought to the fact that I was running across and back down the Queensboro Bridge, which you cover from miles 15 to 16 of the race, just about every day.
As a result, I really didn't notice the climb on race day, which was a great day for me. But when I returned to run the race a second time after training in Houston, man, did I feel like I was crawling up that famously tough climb. Whether or not it's actual bridges you'll be crossing in your race, if bridge climbs are the best you've got when it comes to hill training in your area, take advantage of them where you can.
In sum, in most instances, especially if you live in an urban or suburban area, chances are your running route options are more versatile than you think. Take the time to explore the vicinity of your neighbourhood and other parts of the region, and consider what you're looking to get out of each run as you plan what ground to cover on a given day.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
I'm a Houston, Texas, native who's run 11 marathons and 30-something half marathons, with 3:30 and 1:39 personal bests. I'm also a freelance health and fitness journalist, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and a lover of country music, baking, and world travel.