Angela on a late afternoon trail run near Pan Toll Station on the slopes of Mt Tam in Marin County, California. The Marin Headlands and a foggy Pacific Ocean are in the distance.

How to Plan Your Running Route

Photo: Andrea K Laue/Tandemstock

Whether road or trail, here’s how to map out a run.

Are you stuck running the same routes all the time? Not only can that lead to burnout, but it’s not great for your body—your muscles, tendons, and ligaments benefit from variation. Indecision in where to run can also lead to a worse scenario: not running at all.

To up your route-planning game, follow these tips.

Safety First

Whether you’re planning a running route on roads or trails, safety should be your number one priority.


Avoid roads with little or no shoulder, or in remote and unfamiliar areas that you don’t know are safe to travel on foot, especially if you’re running alone. Check apps like Strava or MapMyRun, where other runners log routes and make notes. You can also drive or bike a route you have in mind to make sure there’s a decent shoulder, and to measure distance and scout for other details, like water fountain and bathroom availability.


With trails, by nature, you’re more likely to be  isolated, so use geography (how far from civilization will you be?) and apps (how popular is the route?) to determine your comfort level. With trails, apps like Strava, Trail Run Project, Gaia, and AllTrails will give you suggestions. If you plan on using the map from one of these apps while running, be sure to download it as you may not have cell coverage where you’re headed. (Also, keep in mind the life of your phone battery. If you’re planning a long run connecting multiple trails, consider carrying a paper map.)

Sign posted at a trail junction, Calero County Park, south San Francisco bay area, California Photo: Sundry Photography

Planning a Route

New Routes

If you’re creating a custom route, use apps like Google Maps to plot out a route (works best on roads) by drawing a line to where you think you’d like to run to learn the route and distance.The app Komoot lets you enter a starting and ending point (or note “round-trip”) and waypoints, then suggests various routes with information on what types of surfaces you’ll be on.

Established Routes

Any number of apps will show you options for runs of certain distances. Here are a few we like. (Features are fee-based on some apps.)

  • Strava’s route-finding feature offers route options from your chosen starting point.
  • MapMyRun has a similar route-finding feature, and a “Route Genius” function that builds you a custom route based on data (about you) in their system. 
  • AllTrails offers “Top Trails Nearby,” and curated routes, like “Best Views Nearby.”
  • Garmin Connect has a community-generated ”Courses” feature that suggests routes based on your location. 
  • Web search: Forgo the apps and simply search for “Trail Running Routes in _(your area here)_” or “Road Running Routes in _(your area here)_.” This is a great way to find routes posted by running clubs or specialty run shops near you.

Training Goals

Live somewhere flat and need to find routes that, at least, mimic hills? Coastal Floridians seek out bridges that rise in the center. Other flatlanders around the country find stadiums and sometimes tall buildings, like parking garages, to run stairs. Live by, or traveling to a beach but need a trail-like workout? Consider running on the sand, aiming for low tide for the most hard-packed, level surface, or do a short, deep-sand workout. Get creative based on your environment and needs.


Sometimes your schedule determines the route. If you have 40 minutes, the simplest route is an out and back: Run 20 minutes out and turn around (assuming the terrain will be about the same coming and going). If you know your pace, of course, you can also calculate a 40-minute loop. On trails, the terrain, elevation, and conditions will all affect time. Steep climbs, rocky tread, and snow will all slow you down.  


Choose a destination that inspires you. If you’re nature-motivated, run somewhere pretty, or to something pretty, like a lake, a lookout, or a park. Motivated by watching your mile splits? Choose flat, fast, and smooth terrain. Want to see a lot of other people out running? Find the popular running routes in your area.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.