The great urbanist Jane Jacobs once said you need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul. I think that extends to running too.
Yes, there’s a tranquil power in trail running, disconnecting from the hustle and bustle of built up areas.
But there’s a lot to love about urban jogging too…
A feast for the eyes. The energy of city life. The concentration of landmarks. People watching (and dodging!). Beautifully manicured parks and riverside walks. The freedom to roam pedestrianized city centers. To name but a few.
In this article, I’ll share my love affair with urban jogging, both in my hometown and as a running explorer. I’ll also offer a few tips for anyone considering running in city centers, especially when it comes to navigating somewhere new or finding escape routes from crowded streets.
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A love letter to running in the city – unbeatable photo opportunities and street ethnography
I’m a true urbanite. Living near, and working in, the city center most of my adult life. I’m now a resident of York in the UK, and although I’ve easy access to some great off-road trails, it’s much more practical to run around the city on a daily basis. Doubly so running in the winter cold, relying on well-lit streets to do so.
There’s a lot of fun to be had urban jogging. Treating the streets as a theme park, I like to wake up early and run first thing in the morning, having the entire city to myself. York is a compact city of 200,000 or so residents, but has over 8,000,000 tourists every year. The pavements are narrow and space is tight unless you’re an early bird or night owl. I’m the same on holiday, finding morning and peaceful nighttime jogs the perfect time to snap away at the must-see landmarks without another soul in the frame. Lighting so good you don’t need a filter.
For example, below is two pictures I took of the giant Maman spider outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. One about 7am, another at midday.
Similar story on Shambles, one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe, and year-round attraction thanks to its resemblance to Diagon Alley of Harry Potter fame. With wall to wall tourists during the day, it’s normally physically impossible to run down the street. Yet, here I am, with the photogenic street to myself at 6:30am.
Densely populated cities can deprive runners of their usual goals – speed and space. Running out of peak hours gifts them back.
Urban running is also urban exploring. There’s no better way to get around and discover a new city. I mean really get under its skin, just like a local. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stumbled upon new neighbourhoods full of artisan shops and great-looking restaurants to return to later in the day. The kind of places you’ll rarely find in guide books.
You’ll also cover more ground than walking, allowing you to take more in.
Running in York city center is a mini history lesson. Enjoy the pleasure of proximity to some of the best Roman, Georgian and Medieval architecture in the world. Weave in and out of the Snickleway shortcuts. Run along 3.7m of the intact city walls. Step foot in the shadows of one the world’s most magnificent cathedrals, a vision of heaven on earth crafted in stained glass and stone. Conquer the steps of Clifford’s Tower for a totally unique vantage point. All within less than one mile of each other.
But, a city is more than its buildings. It’s people that give them their drama. City centers are the perfect place for ‘street ethnography’ – a fancy word for people watching, my favorite sport! It’s not unusual to encounter a melting pot of revelers wandering the streets after the last nightclub shuts its doors, workers flocking into the city, anglers trying to catch their breakfast, and other early morning runners hitting the streets. All sharing the same space for a brief while. It certainly makes for interesting viewing.
Last but not least, I’m very lucky that York is such a safe city. Something I try not to take for granted, although that’s not always the case everywhere, and even less so for female runners. I’ve tried to list out the steps I take to maximize the fun and minimize the risk of running in the city below. I hope they help you, as they have me.
My top tips for running in the city – some dos & don’t
Plot your route – If you’re running somewhere new for the first time, it pays to have a vague idea of where you’re going. Running apps like Strava, MapMyRun, or even a glance of Google Maps can assist. You’ll get an idea of how the city knits together, landmarks to look out for (e.g. statues, waterways, parks) as well as sketchy neighborhoods to avoid.
Grid-based city like New York, Toronto, Barcelona, San Francisco and Rome are all far easier to navigate. However, the joy of good city run is in the unexpected, which means taking the odd detour or scenic route to uncover hidden treasures that a city has to offer.
Choose the right time – Different day parts offer entirely different experiences. For example, go for a lunch run in the city and you can expect busier streets, more road traffic and air pollution, and hotter temperatures. On the flip side, it’s likely to be safer and have more facilities (e.g. public toilets, coffee stops) open. I used to be a really self-conscious runner and would have hated the prospect of running through a crowded city center obstacle-course, but it’s something that I’ve found disappears with time.
If you’re running on the weekend and in commercial districts, you’ll have comparatively fewer things to worry about.
Consider taking a running tour – Running tours are a unique way to explore a new city while getting exercise at the same time.
From short city runs to multi-day trail runs, they offer a different perspective on a destination’s landmarks, hidden gems and local culture, all while keeping up a good pace. A more authentic travel experience on fast forward.
Stay alert for obstacles – With so much visual stimulation, it’s easy to get caught up in an Awe Run, however it pays to continuously scan the landscape for possible dangers. Think sudden movements from car doors, leisurely penetrations, cyclists, geese, and the like. I also lower the volume on my earphones or running without music altogether in city centers to stay fully mindful of my surroundings and avoid possible collisions. Running on high alert hones your instincts and reflexes.
Slow down, enjoy the run – You highly unlikely to achieve a PB running in the city. That’s ok. Slowing down will allow you to soak up the full culture and beauty of a place. Treat the many stoppages – road crossings, unpredictable pedestrians, a-boards – as a great opportunity to see and experience more on your runs. Unlock the health benefits of slow jogging every day too.
Give right of way to others – The pedestrianization of historic city centers is increasingly common. The movement to dethrone the car as the king of the city gives far more freedom to pedestrians, walkers and cyclists to roam and mix. Shared-use spaces can cause some friction between impatient cyclists or runners and penetrations whose attention might be elsewhere. It’s safe to assume (and almost an unwritten rule) that others won’t move and it’s your responsibility to swerve around them.
Run in pairs or more – We’re agreed speed isn’t everything. So, now you’ve slowed down, share the urban jogging tour with a running partner or as part of a road runners club. It makes discovering new eateries, parks, photo opportunities and street art far more satisfying if you have somebody else to enjoy it with.
Don’t forget your bank card – You’ll be spoiled for choice for snacks, whether it’s a pit stop or a well-deserved reward after your run. Having your bank card handy also means you can catch the bus back, making one-way runs possible. Check out my guide for where to put your keys when running too.
Most importantly, have fun! Exploring a city on foot as a runner can reignite your sense of adventure, offering a new perspective on your home town or a fast-track to an insider’s view of somewhere you’re visiting. I’m lucky to have run some incredible cities, including Tokyo, Reykjavik, Florence, Bangkok, New York and Copenhagen. If it weren’t for running them on the first or second day, I would have only scratched the surface of the ‘real’ cities on my stays.
Urban jogging has a bad rep as the ugly twin to trail running, but it doesn’t have to be that way. So, get out and enjoy the built-up backdrops that have popped up since when running was invented.