Where Should You Run? Planning Running Routes for Marathon Training

Before you get started with marathon training, there’s a simple but important question that you should ask yourself: where should you run?

It almost seems silly. I mean, you can run anywhere, right?

Well, you can. But it helps to put some thought into planning your regular routes.

The choices that you make about where to run can end up having a huge impact on how successful you are long term. Marathon training depends on consistency – and that means you need to have a convenient and reliable place to run.

So with that in mind, here are some tips for planning out your running routes for marathon training.

Photo by Kelly on Pexels

Minimize Travel Time and Eliminate Excuses

First things first. Do you plan on traveling somewhere to run or are you going to start from your front door?

Personally, I’m a huge fan of starting at my house. It’s super convenient and there’s zero travel time.

I typically run in the morning before work, and that means that I have a limited amount of time to get out and back before I need to get on with my day. Starting right at my front door means that I can devote 100% of that time to running.

There are some days when I drive to a nearby track. It’s not far, but it takes about 20 minutes to get there in traffic. If I plan a workout that will involve an hour of actual running, my total time needed goes up to close to two hours if I decide to drive to the track.

That extra time is a deterrent to consistency. I’ll be honest. There have been days that I planned to go to the track, I woke up late, and I ended up changing my run for the day. It was just too much of a time sink.

So before you worry about where to run, start by thinking about how much time you’re willing to spend traveling somewhere. If you have plenty of time, then driving 30 minutes isn’t a problem. But if you only have an hour in the morning, you’re going to want to stay very close to home.

If you do end up traveling, you should also think about how that fits into your weekly schedule. Maybe during the week you can only run from your house, and on the weekends you take a little extra time to travel to a trail. Or maybe there are days you can stop on your way home from work to use the treadmill, and others that you won’t want to go out of your way to travel to the gym.

Prioritize Parks and Nature

This will depend a bit on where you live, but if possible try to plan a route that goes through a park or another natural setting.

There’s research that links exercising in natural settings (‘green exercise’) to improvements in mood, self esteem, and mental health. Besides being good for its own sake, these kinds of positive benefits are likely to support your marathon training and help you stay consistent.

Personally, I love water. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lake, a river, or the ocean. But many of my favorite running routes involve water in some way. One of my regular routes is a 1.75 mile loop around a reservoir at the park down the street from my house. Look for a lake or a river near where you live, and see if there’s a paved road or gravel trail.

Another option to look for is a greenway or a rail trail. It’s become common – at least in the United States – for old, defunct railways to be turned into parks. They’re usually relatively long and flat. They make perfect running routes. I had one near my old house, and it was my go to.

Finally, don’t be afraid to look for actual hiking trails to explore. If your focus is on marathon training, you probably want to avoid overly technical single track trails. But in many cases you can find wider carriage roads that are very runnable. Running through the woods is an entirely different experience, and I try to incorporate it into my training a few times a week.

I’m lucky in that I have both a dense trail network and a paved loop around the reservoir within a half mile of my house. I can leave my front door and get right there. I didn’t think about that when I bought the house – but if I was on the market for a house today I would definitely be thinking about it.

But what if you don’t have parks nearby?

Find Safe, Runnable Streets and Limit Interruptions

If you don’t have a park available and you need to run on the streets, here are some things to consider.

First of all, be safe. Consider how much traffic is on the road and whether or not there is a sidewalk or a wide shoulder. Be especially careful of roads with blind curves. I think it goes without saying – you don’t want to get hit by a car. That’s a good way to end your marathon training (and possibly your life) prematurely.

There’s a road by me that I like. It runs through the local nature preserve and it passes by a small reservoir. But I only run there on Sundays because the county shuts down all vehicle traffic. Otherwise, it’s unsafe. There are no sidewalks and the shoulders are very narrow. I occasionally see people running in there at other times, but it’s a no go for me.

If you’re looking at Google Maps, and you’re not sure if a street is a good choice, try looking at the Strava Global Heatmap. It aggregates data from runners on the platform to show you how popular a particular route is. If a road is frequently used by runners, there’s a good bet it’s pretty safe.

Another thing to be aware of is the frequency and placement of traffic lights along your route. There’s nothing more annoying than being in the groove, and then having to stop for two to three minutes for a major controlled intersection.

When I first started running, I found a three mile loop of roads near my house. It went through a residential neighborhood. There was virtually no traffic, and there were no lights to worry about.

It’s not the end of the world if you have to stop at the occasional traffic light. But these interruptions are frustrating, and you want to structure your route to minimize them.

Consider the Gym and the Treadmill

I much prefer to run outside – but that’s not always a possibility.

There are days that I just don’t feel like dealing with the weather. It could be that it snowed, and the streets aren’t shoveled. Or it’s cold and rainy, and I just can’t muster up the willpower to go outside. And don’t get me started on the summer heat.

It’s days like these that I am so thankful I have a treadmill in my basement. It’s super convenient. There’s no commute, and I can even stop and come upstairs if I need a bathroom break or a drink of water. It helps me stay consistent, and if you have the room you should consider investing in a treadmill.

But you may find that going to the gym and using a treadmill is the right fit for you. Maybe you already go to the gym regularly to workout. Perhaps there’s a gym on your way home from work, and you can stop in and run before you get home.

And it may be a last resort if there are no safe roads or convenient parks near you. Maybe there’s too much traffic or you live in a dense city with a ton of traffic lights. Or maybe you’re an evening runner, and you don’t want to be out after dark.

Regardless of the reason, joining a gym and using their treadmill may be your best option.

Here are some tips to effectively incorporate treadmill running into your training.

How Hilly Is Too Hilly?

As you consider different roads and trails, you should keep hills in mind.

You might regularly drive down a road and not give its hilliness a second thought. But the first time you run it – you’ll know if it’s hilly or not.

To some extent, hills are good. Gentle rolling hills are a great way to add a little variety to your runs and challenge your body in different ways.

But extreme hills are no good. There’s a road near my house that has a very steep incline. Going down, it’s so steep that I can’t easily reign in the pace. Going back up, it’s a tough slog just to jog to the top. I run that route very rarely – and it would not be a good choice for a regular, daily route.

If your marathon training plan involves some speedwork or intervals, you generally want to avoid doing that over hills. It’s hard to moderate the pace and effort, and you won’t get the same feedback about what kind of pace you can effectively run.

Something else to think about is what your marathon will be like. If you’re running a hilly marathon, you should actually try to prioritize more hills – even during harder tempo runs. But if you’re running a flat marathon, then you’ll want to limit the amount of hills that you have to deal with in training.

I live on a mountain, so many of the roads near my house have steep hills one way or another. It’s another reason I like my loop at the reservoir. Although I have to deal with a small hill to get there, once I’m in the park the entire loop is very flat.

To Loop or Not To Loop?

One final consideration is how you want to structure your route.

Do you want to run a loop – potentially many times over – or do you want to run out a few miles and then turn around and come back?

There are advantages to the loop.

It’s easy to add mileage by just adding more loops. If you’re on a long run, you can stash water and/or nutrition somewhere on the loop. A bathroom is a convenient thing to have on your loop, as well.

Loops also allow you to bail out part way. You don’t necessarily want to make it easy to call it quits – but there are times when you might find you need to end a run early. And you don’t want to do that five miles from home.

But loops aren’t perfect. Shorter loops (half a mile to a mile) are good in that you can easily target any amount of mileage. But you’ll start to get bored after running the same loop six, ten, or twenty times.

A long loop is great in that you won’t get bored – but if you’re running a 5 mile loop you can’t just add a second lap to increase your mileage.

The alternative is an out and back route. If you’re running ten miles, you go five miles, turn around, and come back.

You don’t have to do any math to think about how many loops to run, and you’re not tied to any particular distance. You also don’t have to worry about getting bored while running the same loop multiple times. Personally, I find that time seems to pass faster when I’m going out and back, and I prefer this for longer runs.

A potential downside, though, is that it’s harder to find long out and back routes that don’t have interruptions. My usual long run route does have a couple traffic lights, and I put up with them just because the alternative is lapping the reservoir ten times – and I don’t want to do that.

You’re much less likely to have a bathroom available on this kind of route, as well. That may or may not matter to you. But if you need one, it’s nice to have the option. If possible, it’s worth planning to go past a park or other public bathroom.

Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels

How Do You Map Out Your Routes?

Once you get used to your routes, you don’t need to worry much about mapping them out. But when they’re fresh and new, you may want to map them for two reasons.

First, you’ll want to estimate the distance.

Second, you may want more turn by turn directions for a more complicated route.

For distance, my go to mapping tool is How Far Did I Run by On the Go Map.

This tool basically lets you draw a route on a map, and it will track the distance and the elevation changes. As you draw the route, you can click on the route to add additional points. If you drag a point, it’ll adjust the route and snap it to the mapped streets and trails.

This is the best way that I’ve found to estimate the distance of a route and put together a new running route. I use it every time I’m traveling to figure out where I plan to run in the morning.

Note that there is an option to change the default routing from ‘On Foot’ to ‘Manual.’ I don’t typically do this because I want the route to snap to the street, but this is necessary if you’re going to be using a trail that isn’t properly mapped.

Once you’ve mapped your route, you may be able to send the course to your GPS running watch for directions. Most of the higher end Garmin watches have this capability. You can export the GPX file from the mapping tool, load it into Garmin Connect, and then follow the route from your watch.

Read more about how to use courses with your Garmin watch here.

If you’re running a new route, you may find this useful. I’ve done it a few times while traveling to make sure that I didn’t take a wrong turn and get lost.

Have Options, Including a Backup Plan

Finally, you’re training will be more successful if you develop a list of options for potential running routes – including a backup plan.

Over time, you’ll find that different routes lend themselves to different types of runs. Mixing things up also helps keep your training interesting.

I’ve basically got five routes that I cycle through. I also have a treadmill in my basement for when I don’t want to or can’t run outside.

My Shorter Routes

My standard route is a loop around the Orange Reservoir.

It’s a paved 1.75 mile loop around the reservoir inside a park. It’s only a half mile from my house, so I can start my run straight from my house. Other than crossing the street once at the end of my street, I don’t have to worry about traffic lights, and once I get to the park there are no cars.

I use this for easy runs up to 8 miles and for workouts that involve faster intervals (up to 11-12 miles). However, I rarely use this route for my long runs because I don’t want to do 10+ laps of the reservoir.

Another standard route is the carriage road along the east side of South Mountain Reservation. It’s less than a half mile from my house, so I can be on the trails in a few minutes. The trail itself has rolling hills, but there’s nothing too steep.

This isn’t a good choice for workouts, but I love it for easy runs. I can go out and back on this route up to 8 miles. I could loop through the reservation to add more miles, but that would involve a lot more hills. Unfortunately, rain and snow can make it tough to run here so there are periods of time when I avoid this route.

My original standard route – which I don’t use much anymore – is a three mile loop through the residential neighborhood I live in. It avoids all major roads and traffic lights, which is great. I started running on this route during the COVID lockdown, when the county parks were closed.

However, I just don’t find the scenery that enticing. Although I have no problem running through the neighborhood for a longer out and back run, I don’t like looping through multiple times.

My Longer Routes

Then, I have two long out and back routes.

If I head south from the Reservoir, I can follow the paved road through the Reservation and come out in Millburn. I can then follow the main road east for several miles. This route is great for 10 to 15 miles. The only problem is that part of the route is dangerous to run on – so I only run here on Sundays when they shut it down to traffic.

My other out and back run heads north. I can follow one of the main roads through Verona Park and up to a rail trail beyond Verona High School. I can loop through Verona Park and come back home for as little as ten miles or follow the rail trail for as many as twenty. The only problem with this route is that it does involve a few traffic lights, so I’m liable to end up getting stopped at least once or twice.

So Where Do You Plan On Running?

Before you get busy with marathon training, take some time to think through how to plan your running routes.

Based on the advice above, here are some general questions you’ll want to answer:

  • Do you prefer to run outside or on a treadmill?
  • Do you have any parks, rail trails, or trail networks near your house?
  • Will you have to travel, and how far are you willing to drive for a run?
  • Where is a convenient loop that you can use for shorter runers?
  • Where do you plan on running your long runs (eventually up to 20 miles)?
  • Are there any issues (time of day, weather) that will make certain routes more difficult to use? If so, do you have a backup?

Now you don’t necessarily have to go to the trouble of physically writing out each of these routes. It’s enough to have a mental map of them.

But you really should have a shortlist of 4 to 5 routes that you can cycle through to make sure that your training is successful.

If you have a favorite route, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. Otherwise, happy training!

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