Part of my enjoyment of running is the planning that goes into each run. Whether it’s a short 5k run ticking off some streets, a long run from a train station to another town or a trail run across the countryside, working out the route and what I could see along the way really adds to the enjoyment of running.
Wherever possible I like to try different routes on my runs and to aid in the planning I like to use a variety of websites and each website has it’s pros and cons so here’s what I like to use.
If you want to plan a trail run, OS Maps is a perfect tool for it. Ordnance Survey has been producing the most accurate detailed maps of the UK since 1801 and has a fantastic online tool and equally as good iOS/Android app.
For £29.99 a year the website and app gives you access to all 607 OS maps and you can easily plot routes that can be saved and accessed on both the website and apps. The maps can be downloaded to the apps so you don’t need to have a connection to view them.
The routes are calculated with some accuracy and were originally using the Naismith Rule but were updated in 2019 to make them more accurate. It takes into account the steepness of an ascent and descent along with your normal running and walking speed to give you an estimate of how long it will take you to complete. This is extremely helpful when plotting a random route in a potentially hilly place.
For trail runs or my inter-city runs I’ll start by planning the route on the OS Maps website and have a distance in mind so am not too concerned about the time involved but use it as a reference point if I need to catch a train from the finish of a run. The elevation of the run is something I always fail to take notice of so usually comes as a shock when I encounter a few tasty hills.
Once plotted I can then either follow the route on the OS Maps iOS app or transfer directly from the app to Garmin Connect and from there to the Garmin watch to follow. Following a route on the watch is extremely useful when visiting an unknown new area as little alerts will prompt you when to take a turn.
Unrivalled for Trail Running
If you need to plan an accurate trail run OS Maps is simply THE best tool there is. The detail of the maps allows you to plot accurate routes through the countryside and hills and get an a very good idea about time and distance and how hilly the route will be.
Being a subscription service you are always viewing the latest versions of the maps across the UK which is very useful when navigating some of the smaller paths. The website and app are continually being updated and since I started using the service the zoom levels have increased significantly allowing you to be accurate when plotting the route. And with the option to switch to aerial views of the area you can be even more accurate with your route.
OS Maps has an excellent mobile app and being a subscriber of the service means that you can download maps of the area around your route for free and view offline which is perfect when you haven’t got a signal. There’s no limit to how many you can download and they’ll stay active whilst you’re a subscriber.
OS Maps isn’t aimed at those who want a detailed map of town so it’s hardly a true con but if you are looking for detailed paths throughout a town you’d need another solution. For main roads OS Maps is perfectly fine but urban paths are limited to official footpaths and those within parks.
I first came across GPS Visualizer reading about Ricky Gates and his Every Single Street challenge where he spent 40 days and nights in 2018 running 1,200+ miles ticking off every street in San Francisco. The website uses Open Street Map as the source of the maps which I find are more detailed than Google Maps showing more paths and outlines of many buildings.
Ricky Gates used the site to plot routes around dozens of streets and alleyways so I found it very useful for doing the same running around the streets of Newport and Cardiff. It’s still useful for longer runs although the one downside is that you can’t view the elevation.
Whilst it’s useful it does have a few issues. Plotting the route can sometimes be a bit tricky and there’s no undo (although you can edit the route by dragging around the points). I also struggled to import the exported GPX file into OS Maps to try and work out elevation.
There are lots of maps available to choose from (including Strava’s Heat Map) but the default Open Street Map is very detailed showing urban pathways and buildings. This is really useful when plotting urban running routes around streets and parks. You could venture out into the countryside with it but it hasn’t got the same level of detail as OS Maps.
The website isn’t the easiest to use, neither is it the prettiest. It’s clearly designed to be more functional so does allow you to add waypoints with names, change icons and route colours but it’s clunky.
I was never able to do anything with the GPX files that I exported so if you plan on using the file elsewhere you may want to test it out with a simple route first.
OnTheGoMap was introduced to me by a work colleague who had recently started running and wanted to know how far he ran. The site uses Stadia Maps which appears to also use Open Street Maps and is designed for runners/walkers, cyclists and drivers. Depending on which option you choose, when plotting a route the line will snap to the roads most suited to the activity. Select running and you’ll be able to take advantage of paths and avoid dual carriageways and select cycling and it’ll try and select routes suitable for bikes.
Plotting a linear route couldn’t be easier – simply click on the map to place a starting pin and then choose an end point and it’ll plot a route for you complete with distance (either in miles or kilometres) and elevation (with grade). Move your cursor anywhere along the plotted route and it’ll give you the distance at that point plus the elevation and grade.
If you want to plot a circular route you’ll need to be more detailed in the places you want to run past but it’s much easier than GPS Visualizer. If you’d rather run along a different street or path than the one the website plots you can easily drag the line to a different position.
The website instantly became my go to site for plotting a road route as it’s so easy to use.
It’s extremely quick to plot a route especially if you want to get a quick idea of the distance between two points. Simply click on a starting point and an ending point and it will plot a largely safe route to run between giving you a very quick idea of distance and elevation.
Works Well on Mobile
The site is nice and simple and works well on mobile devices. This means that if you need to quickly plot a route on-the-go it works really well whilst still providing all the details you need including elevation.
When plotting a route, it will always snap to the roads and paths which means that you don’t need to worry so much about where you place your marker pins. OS Maps will snap to routes within National Parks but beyond that you have to zoom in and plot the route accurately. The same applies to GPS Visualizer. This links into the speed benefit as you can very quickly plot a route.
Cannot Import GPX Files
Once you’ve plotted a route and exported a GPX route there’s no way to import it again if you need to edit it. On a short route this isn’t an issue but if you’ve plotted a long, complicated route you would either need to plot it again or import it into a website like OS Maps to be able to edit it.
Some of the paths aren’t completely accurate which can mean that the route ‘snaps’ to areas around the path which isn’t a huge issue but on a longer route the little detours could add up. You are able to override this by manually plotting the route with a straight line but you can’t do this retrospectively you have to do it as you plot your route.
Strava introduced its Routes feature in March 2020 (for subscribers only) and on the mobile app allows you to get personal recommendations of routes around where you are and how far you wish to run. This could be useful if you find yourself in an area you’re unfamiliar with although the one and only time I tried it in my local area gave me a route that ran along a dual carriageway. Personally an auto-generated route takes out the fun of plotting routes.
Strava also offers a desktop version of Routes which offers more control is more of a route planner similar to the other websites. I’ve only used it whilst writing this article but didn’t find it as intuitive as the other sites. One feature that is potentially useful is the ability to follow the most popular routes that other runners have run so if you’re in an unknown area you could avoid some of the more nefarious areas.
Pros and Cons
I haven’t spent much time using Strava Maps to plot routes mainly because I found the other websites to work better so it’s difficult to go into the pros and cons but I can see use cases for the mobile version where you find yourself in a new town and want to quickly see what running routes are in the area particularly as it could use the data from the commonly run routes in the area.
There are other services available in addition to the ones I’ve mentioned in this post (e.g. MapMyRun) but if you are looking to easily map a road run without the need to sign up for an account or provide any details, OnTheGoMap is the clear favourite. In addition to road runs, it does recognise trail paths so if you need to run off road in addition to tarmac it can accommodate those routes.
However, if you are looking to run predominantly on trails and need more fine-grained control over your route and also need to understand the terrain and surroundings (e.g. woodlands, marshlands) and are interested in perhaps historic sights along your route, OS Maps is the unrivalled choice.