Whether at home or traveling, running is a great way to explore. It's also a good way to help you find your bearings.
As well as avoiding all the lines for buses and train tickets, your run may take you away from the main thoroughfares and tourist trails, helping you see something unexpected. And if you’re jet-lagged and get out early enough, you get the added joy of having the city almost to yourself. Of course, the big fear is that you will get lost, or accidentally find yourself in the "wrong" neighborhood, but with a little planning and a mobile phone you can find great running routes everywhere you travel.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel and some running events will not be taking place. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
1. Use technology
A phone can be a runner’s key to the city. Apps such as MapMyRun allow you to search for recommended routes all over the world. These runs, however, are uploaded by individuals, who may not mind running down the main roads, so you may prefer a more curated service such as the website greatruns.com, which provides detailed descriptions of running routes in over 400 cities, or the RunGo app, which includes many runs that start from hotels. The latter also speaks the directions as you run, reducing the need to keep stopping to look at your phone.
A popular option is to use the heatmap on the Strava app, which highlights the most popular routes used by thousands of regular runners in an area. If a route looks tempting on the map, but nobody on Strava runs there, it’s probably best to avoid it. The Suunto app has a similar heatmap option, while the mapping tool within the Garmin Connect app also picks out the routes most used by local runners.
If you do use your phone to navigate in a new area, make sure you stop when you need to check the way, as running while looking at your phone is a recipe for an accident. A phone hand holder is not a bad idea, so you can glance at it quickly without the risk of dropping it. And if it’s raining, you should put your phone in a case, a small freezer bag or a clear airport security bag to protect it.
2. Reach out to the local running community
Most towns and cities around the world will have a running community or two willing to take newcomers and tourists under their wing. Most running clubs and groups have web pages or Facebook pages, so if you’re feeling sociable, reach out and see when they’re running. Being local runners, they’ll know the best routes, and most groups will have different paced runs to suit most people. Another great option for a Saturday morning session is to find a local parkrun.
Again, technology can be your key to the world’s running communities, from meetup.com – a website connecting likeminded people of all kinds, not just runners – to the MyCrew app, which connects people to local running and fitness groups.
If you can’t find a group to run with, you could try emailing (or visiting) the local independent running store. These tend to be staffed by keen runners who will love helping you out with routes and may even hold their own group runs. There’s also a Nike+ Run Club or Adidas Runners group you can run with in many major cities.
If you enjoy a drink or two after your run, the Hash House Harriers are a running group with a strong commitment to the post-run social, and have branches all over the world, from Khartoum to Canberra. Rather than simply run, they follow secret trails that can take you to some of the most unexplored parts of a city. To find your nearest group look on gthhh.com.
3. Go it alone
Of course, going off alone gives you the freedom to run when you want and at your own pace. If traveling, it’s worth asking your hotel or Airbnb host for any areas to avoid. One trick is to look for the nearest water – a river, canal or seafront – and run along it one way and back again. As well as often being pleasant places to run – though not always – this has the added bonus of making it hard to get lost. Less adventurous, but always a good traffic-free option is to run laps around the nearest park
If you’re planning a more ambitious route, checking it out on Google Streetview before you leave is a good idea, especially to get a sense of what the key landmarks along the way look like so that you don’t miss them.
If you’re worried about safety, heading out early – say at 6am – is a good option. If you decide to run at night, wear reflective clothing and bring a head torch, especially if you’re outside the main urban areas. Always bring some cash and a credit card so you can get a taxi or public transport back to the start if you do get lost. Another option is to use the "return to home" feature many GPS watches have, setting it before you start so that it will take you back to your lodgings.
But don’t worry too much, as getting lost – as long as it is a safe place – can be half the fun, and can lead you to discover all sorts of unexpected places you would never have seen otherwise.
4. Take a tour
For those who find all this planning a little too much effort, many cities now offer organized running tours. You just turn up and run with a knowledgeable local runner – for a fee. Often they’ll take you out for dinner or a drink afterwards. It’s a brilliant way to get to know a city. To find a tour simply Google running tours in the place you’re staying, or look them up on runningtours.net.
Adharanand Finn is an award-winning running author who has written titles such as Running with the Kenyans, The Way of the Runner and The Rise of the Ultra Runners. This article was first published in July 2019 and was last updated in December 2020.