Run And Repeat

Chick's CornerTrail running is surely a sport of discovery: the excitement of new surroundings and views, maps to pour over for new routes, hopping in the car or on a plane to compete in races often many hours from where we live. It seems that our sport draws those who have a sense of adventure and a passion for travel. Yet, when I think about it, I probably do 90% of my running on less than 100 kilometers worth of trails. I have my go-to routes, the trails that without thinking about it, I probably run week in, week out for months if not years on end. Yes, I have moved towns quite a bit in the last 10 years or so, which has added variety to my running, but for each town I have lived in, my running routes have somehow been rather routine. But does routine mean dull?

I know that I am not alone in this habit of routinely sticking to what I know. One just has to dip into Anton Krupicka’s blog to see that he appears to have a fondness for Green Mountain and Longs Peak. Or how about Jorge Maravilla, Brett Rivers, and the San Francisco Running Company crew who never seem to go a week without summiting Mount Tamalpais? I have never even visited these trails and yet I know their names well from regular social-media postings. So what draws those involved in a sport, which seems to embody the essence of discovery and exploration, to repeat the same routes week in, week out, year in, year out?

For myself, some of it is undoubtedly about convenience. I’m done with a day of work; I’m in a rush to get out the door and get my run in, so I go where I know. I go where I know I won’t get lost, where I know how long each section of trail will take me, and I go where I don’t need to do any research–just put on the shoes and run. It’s efficient, it’s somewhat lazy, but it gets the job done, when the job is more about training rather than exploration. We all know that feeling where we have two hours and five minutes and want to get a two-hour run in. That doesn’t leave much time for creative route planning. It might make running seem boring, but if I’m training for a race, sometimes I just need to get a workout done in an efficient manner, and knowing a regular route makes that possible. It’s the same for Stephanie Howe, who told me that she particularly runs the same routes a lot in winter when trail access can be somewhat limited, so convenience and weather definitely play a role.

Amy Sproston said in an email exchange that routine is somewhat about following the crowd–each week she’ll meet her run group and they have some set routes so off they go. I’ve definitely been in that situation with run clubs, too; if there are 10 or so of you who run together, why spend 15 minutes discussing and maybe disagreeing over where to run? If you have a few pre-determined routes, then everyone knows what to expect when they show up (and if you don’t want that you can decide in advance to skip meeting the group). It was interesting that Amy said that she didn’t enjoy always running the same few routes but she seems to sacrifice her natural desire to explore in order to run with a bunch of friends.

One of my reasons to run the same route is to compare times. I have one road route where I have a turnaround point and know my average ‘finishing’ time. So even if I am just 30 seconds faster or slower, I know how my workout is going. Thus, in having a regular route, I can easily gauge my fitness and how my overall training is progressing, or not! On the other hand, it’s inevitable that if I explore new trails, I am more likely to pause to check directions and not know how long different portions of the run will take, so I can’t use new or lesser-known routes to gauge my fitness levels.

Of course, I love those runs where new views pop up around each corner, where the run is just as much about sightseeing as it is about completing a workout. However, exploring new trails requires concentration and focus, looking out for turnoffs and signage, and this isn’t always what the goal of my workout is. If it’s been a busy week at work, I enjoy setting off on a regular route and just zoning out, not having to think or pay attention, but just putting one foot in front of another for a moving meditation. My feet know where to go because they’ve been there many times before. It’s on runs like this where I can get lost in my daydreams or drift off listening to music.

One of the things that I love for sure about running the same routes frequently is being able to see the season changes. One of my favorite powerhikes in North Vancouver is the BCMC Trail, three kilometers long with 850 meters of elevation gain ending atop Grouse Mountain. During the summer months, the BCMC is a dusty, dry trail with trees to shade the masses of hikers from the sun. Right now, it’s likely to be as much of a river as it is a trail, with rain water cascading down the roots and rocks, and dripping from the trees. But by December, the BCMC will be a snowy, winter wilderness with only the more determined hikers left slogging their way to the top. The joy of seeing changes throughout the seasons, of feeling I know each and every part of the trail in detail, gives me a satisfying sense that I know my neighborhood trails just as well as I know the stores on my neighborhood streets. And because of the changes between seasons, I guess the trail does not get boring with repetition because the trail itself is changing all the time.

I was surprised when Brett Rivers mentioned in an email that he and a group of friends had actually set a target to summit Mount Tamalpais 50 or more times this year. I’d never considered setting a target over a run route as, for me, I would then be concerned about becoming bored and running a particular route just to achieve some arbitrary target. But, it’s nearly year’s end and Brett has already surpassed his 50-summits target and it doesn’t appear that he’s gotten bored yet! It did strike me that maybe the repetition of routes that are summits rather than just a regular run route might be more common. After all, we are often limited by the number of accessible peaks yet they provide an efficient workout and usually have the satisfying reward of a view at the top. I definitely have a greater tolerance for going up and down BCMC repeated times (sometimes in one day) than running a flatter trail again and again.

So whether it’s about getting an efficient workout in, being a lazy route planner, or enjoying the changing seasons, running similar trails over and over hasn’t gotten old for me yet.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you both exploratory and habitual with regard to our trail running?
  • Do you find yourself repeating the same routes or trails? Why?

There are 5 comments

  1. FernandoNBaeza

    The monotony of running on road, in my opinion, is much more boring than running the same trails over and over. The trails here in San Antonio are short, rocky and far and few in between. So I find myself running off route sometimes making my own way thru new terrain, or I find myself running loop after loop. :) If i feel especially fanciful, ill pack up and head for a State Park nearby and try out all the trails offered, trail hunting is always fun! For me, the joy in running the trails is just being away from the cities noise, and keeping the days stress out of my head. :D
    Happy trail hunting,
    Fernando N Baeza
    San Antonio, TX

  2. jaxcharlie845

    We run in Cary State Forest nearly all summer long (from the time the bugs emerge until the time they start going dormant), because it's nearly the only place with trails (forest service roads) here in North Florida without swarms of mosquito's, yellow flies, and chiggers, and it also has relatively dry roads. Then once the bugs die down we get out to the other local trails as much as possible!

  3. Johnny__

    There are only a very select few trails to run within a 10 minute drive from my home. For me, that's the biggest barrier to running new and unexplored trails.

  4. @Baristing

    The vast majority of my mileage is logged on a six mile stretch of sidewalk, which does not have a single turn on it. I run out, then back, as many times as I need to that day. It's the movement that appeals to me, more than the scenery. I like trails. But I like running more. And I'd rather get right to it, rather than driving somewhere.

  5. andymeisler

    Reminds me a bit of a Tap Room piece last year where AJW talked about the "daily constitutional" and the value and beauty of the same, go-to route, knowing each and every twist, turn, rock and root, while appreciating the change of light, weather, flora, and conditions that come with the seasons (especially here in New England). 90% of my runs also take place on a 25-30 mile stretch of trails with several trailheads all within 4 miles of the house. I do the best I can to mix the "exploratory and habitual" by varying starting points, direction of loops, and novel ways of weaving together pieces of the same parcel. Saturday was a great example: I ran point-to-point, met a friend, and ran a lollipop loop from there. (And then enjoyed the ride back to my car!). They were all miles I've run hundreds of times, but never in that exact way, and it felt both familiar and yet excitingly new.

  6. lboon12

    I definitely have my go-to routes in my neighborhood that I do on weekdays or on weekends when I just need to get a quick run in. I live in DC, so there's not a TON of trail options within the city. I try to do at least one or two trails a month that are completely new to me. It keeps it fresh and I get to discover more incredible places to run! A ot of them become my next "regular" running route because I love them so much!

  7. barwic01

    There is a trail close to home that has 2 portions. One is a 2.5 mile "white" or easy trail and the other is the 4.5 mile "red" or moderate trail. They cover different trails and connect in a middle so you can switch directions on each leg and if your run is longer than 7 miles, switch directions from the previous version of your run.

    What I found this weekend after starting my repeat of the "red" trail was that the sun changed angles making it feel like a completely different trail. The shadows were longer, it was a little cooler, but the same land marks popped up making me realize I was still on my regular trail. There is a sense of security in knowing your surroundings which is why I continue to run the same trails.

  8. Gump1968

    I do the same 15.5 mile run in my local state park week after week. It is close to home and allows me to get back quickly for family time. It has flat paved sections, single-track trail, and a few hills thrown in. Do I get bored? Never!

  9. Jimmy Mac

    I'm lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, where there's literally thousands of miles of trails within a 45-minute drive (maybe in the high hundreds? I don't know; like hyperbole!) I have some favorite stretches of trail up in Redwoods Regional Park that will never go out of style (that French Trail will always be an amazing run), and those trails are only 10 minutes from my house [via car].

    I can also run up Mt. Tam, Mt. Diablo, Mission Peak, etc. all by a 30 minute drive. I'd say that kind of variation will keep one from getting bored, and also reminds me again of how darn lucky I am to live in such a great trail-running area.

  10. NGTrailRunner

    Great post, Ellie! It is really an interesting truism that for a group that prides itself on an adventurous spirit, we tend towards the familiar…personally, I'd love to be able to go on truly epic runs on new trails as often as possible, but in reality, my running habits are formed as a direct result of practical limitations relating to job, family commitments, etc. I certainly do most of my trail miles in the same 3 or 4 state/metro parks I'm lucky enough to live close to…but it's always extra sweet when I get to sneak away for a longer adventure in some of the larger state and Federal parks and forests which are 1-2 hours from home!

  11. LukeDistel

    Good North Shore shout out, Ellie! As the snows have hit the higher mountains I finally relented and started the winter program back on the North Shore on Saturday. Upper portions of Skyline and the BP indeed are coming into their winter "stream" conditions :)

  12. TonyMollica

    I'm directionally challenged, so having a route that I don't get lost on is important to me. Also this time of year when the leaves cover the trail completely it's helpful to know where the trail goes.

  13. BreatheThinAir

    Great article, Ellie!

    I've lived in either Madison, WI or Virginia my whole life before this summer. In each of those places I had a handful of favorite runs (Arboretum Loop in Madison, anyone??) close to home and a few more I would drive to on the weekends. I always said "man, if only I lived somewhere with tons of trail access – I'd be running new stuff every day!" It wasn't that I didn't enjoy running those same loops, I just felt sort of guilty for being so repetitive.

    So in June I moved to Steamboat where I'm surrounded by more trails than I know what to do with and, you guessed it, I've already got my new handful of favorite routes I run 90% of the time. Now I don't feel too guilty about it, Ellie!

  14. @rjschuck

    I have found that for me early weekday runs (when time permits) are done easiest on trails within 10min from my house. On weekends when time permits. I will always explore new areas within 1-2 hours from San Diego. :)

  15. ripvanracer

    I like to explore new places to run as evidenced by 23 trail races I ran in 2012. I also love that I am running the same trails and roads I ran in high school. I not only see the changes of the seasons, I have seen the changes over 35 years. The tree roots guarding the trail as you enter used to barely peek out of the ground but now create a web of steps you must negotiate as you start up the first hill. The man-made wooden steps are long gone from a couple trails and others are slowly rotting away making for a treacherous descent. I've only got 4 miles of trails at the state park that was virtually my backyard growing up, but I can never go more than a few days without heading that way for a run.

  16. AtomLawrence

    I basically run road and track during the week, then head out for a long and climby 20+ mile trail run on Saturday or Sunday. Running trail means going long all day to me, while the roads and track are for shorter 3-10 mile speed workouts. I have two overlapping loops, one 23 miles the other 26, and I can basically alternate the direction, and modify the routes in lots of minor ways to keep from getting bored. I love the Santa Monicas dearly, and don't think I could ever get bored of running in them (although I wouldn't mind living someplace with more accessible real alpine terrain). One of the many great things about running on trails is that simply by reversing direction, a loop becomes completely different, since ascending and descending are so distinct (for example, ascending technical switchbacks and open fireroad take about the same amount of time, but descending the former is way slower, and more fun, than descending the latter).

  17. MelindaRuns

    For me it really depends on what my goal is. I am much more exploratory in my off season. And much more structured when I have a race coming up. I also find that I tend to be more exploratory when I run with people, than when I run alone. I suppose that way, if we get lost – at least we got lost together!

  18. @RinardMike

    Great post! I think there is a lot of beauty in getting to 'know' a trail or route that you run. Even though it may be the same, every day is different as your frame of mind (not to mention fitness) change, and your experience of that run will change as well. Seasons and weather bring a lot of variety as well – I love how a trail changes from the summer months, through the fall, and into a snowy winter.

    There is also something to be said for having a developing and meaningful relationship to place – the world outside of our apartments, cars, jobs, and downtown shops. It is rare these days, but as runners we get to experience that world every day across the miles of mountains or roads, and that tried-and-true running route is a beautiful way to connect to the land.

  19. Matumbo_Rising

    While running is super fun and enjoyable, it is a stress on our bodies. So anything we can do to limit that stress benefits us, especially in training for a race, or simply, when the goal of your running is to relieve the stress from everyday life. I look up to a lot of runners who seem to do the same routes, but like the above comments stated, running trails is a new experience every time you lace up. Variations in weather effect terrain and how our bodies react to the run. One day might be pleasant and sunny, while the next might be soggy and snowy. It is always good to have a few locations to keep yourself from getting bored. I recently moved to Durango, CO, and even though I am literally surrounded by national forests, and my goal is to become as familiar as possible with my surroundings, I find myself running loops of a local trail that is conveniently close to my house, a local portion of the colorado trail for a little more vert, and then hitting up a relatively close 13er for more of a workout. I have shuffled these three locations around on a weekly basis for about 2 months. But going further into the philosophies of greats such as TK, his goal is to become familiar with his surroundings, but that includes hitting the same path or mountain in every way possible, which amounts to running the same area many times. Thanks for the article.

  20. @jhnnyk

    Yea for me it's all about time. If I have all day, I'm definitely off to hit something new, but most weekdays I just grab the local trails because that's what I have time for. Always thankful just to be outside though!

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