Essential Tips for Running in the City (From Beginners to Marathoners)
Most of us have sprinted—huffing and puffing—to catch a bus or subway, or scampered through a crosswalk with seconds left on a walk signal. But when it really comes to running in the city, well…there’s a little more that goes into it.
It may seem that running in an urban environment has disadvantages right off the bat: red lights, crowded jogging paths, gum on your shoe. So we consulted three city runners (including two Zipsters!)—in various stages of their athletic pursuits—to get the scoop on how running in the city isn’t just doable, but can be nothing short of life-changing.
First things first. To become a runner (in the city or otherwise), you need to, y’know…run. But taking those first fast steps isn’t always easy. Here’s how our expert panel made the leap.
“I’ve always been active, but when I moved to the city and looked at options for gym memberships, it seemed like a lot of them were out of my budget—especially as someone coming out of school with a new job and student loans. I saw running as a great and cheaper way to be active, while also getting to know the city and meeting new people.” — Stephanie Quinones-Millet (Associate Art Director at Zipcar)
“I live in the city, so that’s where I run. I’ve always been really active, particularly with team sports like basketball and baseball when I was growing up. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it more difficult to find a game to play. So I started running for my own exercise, and began running more and more miles. A couple years ago, I decided to run my first half marathon. Then, when training, I opted to go full-gusto and go for the full marathon. I’ve been running ever since.” — Dan Cohen (Marketing Manager, University, at Zipcar)
“I’ve been running for 27 years. Running found me at an early age—I experienced my first runner’s high when I was barely a teenager. I grew up in Nashville and moved to NYC when I was 24. I had already completed my first marathon at that point.” [And she’s been running in the city, training others, and sharing tips on her blog, Race Pace Jess, in the years since!] — Jess Underhill (Run Coach and Owner of Race Pace Wellness)
BUDDY UP OR GO SOLO
For some of us, exercise is something to grumble about and maaaaybe get around to every once and a while—even with our healthiest intentions. What gets Dan, Stephanie, and Jess out of bed and on the sidewalk? Sometimes it’s the support of friends…and other times, it’s the power of one. And sometimes, it’s both.
Dan says, “One of my best friends was a runner, so we started out running together. But for marathon training, I just like to be myself in the zone. But for a casual run, it’s fun to be with a friend and shoot the breeze.”
Stephanie noticed that when playing tennis with others, it pushed her to up her game. Similarly, now that she’s joined the Heartbreak Hill Running Club in Boston, it pushes her to run faster. “It was really intimidating at first, so I was hesitant to go for a while. But now that I have, I’m around so many great runners who are training for the Boston Marathon. It’s super motivating to be a part of the club, because they work really hard and push themselves, but they’re also really supportive. So it makes me want to become a better runner, and pushes me to push myself.”
She adds, “At the end of the run, people go out to a bar to socialize. It’s a great environment to be a part of because at times, running can be isolating.”
For Jess, motivation comes from within—but connecting with others (and other places) is also key. “I don’t feel like myself when I’m not running consistently. Knowing I’m a better version of myself when I run motivates me to run even when I don’t want to.” However, she acknowledges that there is one obstacle: boredom. “There are only so many places to run and it can be monotonous. Fortunately, many of the running groups in NYC offer group runs, and these are often unique routes that take runners places they wouldn’t necessarily go by themselves.”
Another source of motivation comes entirely from others, as well. Says Jess, “On social media, there are so many great athletes sharing their training highs and lows and it’s inspiring. And there are the people I coach, who work hard without excuses or exception. When I want to skip a workout or cut my speed work short, I think of one of my runners.”
The verdict? Whether you like to get in the solo zone or buddy up with one friend—or a whole running club—it’s just a matter of figuring out what works best for you. And—as evidenced by our expert panel—there’s nothing wrong with a little of this, a little of that. (Variety is the spice of life, after all.)
Even though running is one of the oldest forms of personal transport—and can be as low-tech as exercise gets—apps are upping the ante when it comes to training well and running optimally. Here are a few that our runners most recommend.
Garmin Connect: “This is my go-to app for tracking my training, but I also use a handwritten training log.” — Jess
Strava: “I use this for the community aspect of connecting with friends and people I coach.” — Jess
MapMyRun: “This is the best one for me. You can see elevation and monitor different route options for runs. It also saves all my runs and my time for each mile, so it’s a good way to see progression and whether I’m on track.” — Stephanie
“I agree. For a city, MapMyRun is perfect for when you want to know approximate distance, so you know where you’re heading to when hitting your mileage.” — Dan
And, while the app is only available for the novice level, Dan recommends the Hal Higdon Marathon Training program, although he doesn’t follow the plan to a T, and instead adapts to what he knows his body can take.
Have any app favorites of your own? Tell us in the comments!
WHAT TO WEAR
Apps are just the start of the accoutrements for running in the city. Here, our experts give us insights into what they bring along for the ride.
Stephanie shares, “Not all running shoes are aesthetically pleasing, but when I first started running, regular sneakers that I got at a store weren’t comfortable enough. So I went to a specialty running store and found the brand that fit me best in terms of support…even if they weren’t the best-looking.
“It’s so important to choose comfort over looks because when you’re running for such a long time, it’s not natural, so your body starts to break down. You need to get the most comfortable gear so you can run longer distances.” However, this doesn’t always mean an automatic high cost. Stephanie adds, “Since then, I’ve bought the same shoe online. It’s an older shoe, but I don’t want to change it, so I keep buying it in different colors. Thankfully, they’re cheaper, since now it’s an older model.”
Dan is all about merging fashion with function. “I wear bright clothes, bright sneakers, and even have a side business that makes athleisure socks called Neon Bandits. Sometimes I’ll wear a hat if it’s rainy.”
He explains, “I love good gear and cool swag. My everyday style is more reserved, so wearing cool kicks with flashy socks is my way to mix it up and stand out.” (Fun fact: Dan will donate all of the profits for the online sales of the white Dawson sock from now now until Marathon Monday [April 18] to the charity he’s running for in the Boston Marathon—the Shamrock Foundation—that benefits inner-city youth.)
For Jess, it’s all about the tech. “I wear a GPS watch so I can time or track my runs. I also wear it because I like being able to adjust my route on the fly, but still be able to hit my mileage.”
FOOD AND DRINKS ON THE GO
No matter how light you want to travel, when you’re running long distances—and are far from home—you will have some essentials you need to have on hand (or nearby) to stay hydrated, energized, connected, and safe.
“When I’m training over 10 miles, I bring a water bottle and my favorite energy gummies. It turns out, the energy goo makes me throw up, and even some gummies can make me sick,” says Dan.
For Stephanie, it’s a balance of comfort and convenience. “I always run with my phone in a fanny pack, as well as my Zipcard and driver’s license if I want to drive home, plus my subway pass. This is especially important when it’s rainy or cold, so you’re not standing still or walking towards the end, because you’ll freeze and get sick. And yes, a fanny pack looks kind of ridiculous…but I’d rather be safe than sorry!”
When it comes to energy, Stephanie travels well-stocked. “I have my energy goos, which help me if I’m doing long runs. One thing I struggle with is eating—when you’re training, you have to eat a lot of food, and I don’t like to overeat. I have to snack more, so I’ll eat Clif bars or peanuts an hour before—something high protein throughout the day to settle my stomach or get me ready. Because generally by mile 6, I’m starving. I tried several different goos and found one that worked for me—before I ran a race! You definitely don’t want to introduce a new goo or chew into your life during a race because if it upsets your stomach, it can ruin everything you’ve worked so hard for.”
Stephanie also carries a water bottle that hooks onto her fanny pack, and keeps track of water fountains in Boston using MapMyRun so she can refill as needed. And for bathroom breaks? Knowing which Dunkin Donuts have bathrooms is a definite asset. And when she runs at night, she sticks to paths with lighting, stays close to other runners (safety in numbers and all), and wears brighter colors and reflectors on her wrists.
For Jess, there are related perks to running in New York City. “Since I run in parks or on bike paths here in NYC, being visible to oncoming traffic isn’t really an issue. In the suburbs, visibility can be an issue since running takes place on the roads. There, it’s important to wear reflective clothing or some sort of lights to make sure oncoming traffic can identify you as a person and not another object.” In addition, “Here in NYC, it’s easy to stay hydrated or grab a Gatorade during long training runs, because there’s almost always a water fountain or bodega nearby. In other places, I usually have to carry water with me.”
When you live in an area where seasons manifest more dramatically, you need to adjust your running habits. But it’s not automatically “when it’s cold you don’t run, when it’s warm you do.” Instead, it comes down to individual preferences.
For Stephanie, “It really depends on the weather. I don’t run in the winter that much, since it’s kind of a pain. But the silver lining is that it’s a great way to get out, instead of just being cooped up. That’s where the motivation of running club comes in. During the spring, especially after daylight saving and it’s bright out, that’s when I start running outside more, often after work. It’s a great way to appreciate the weather change and start breathing fresh air.
In addition to running club, setting goals can help conquer that lack of inspiration. Stephanie says, “Signing up for races months in advance motivates me to keep up with my running schedule. For the past two years, I’ve signed up for a half marathon in October, which makes me run all summer and into the fall.”
On the flipside, Dan prefers “running in the cold more so than the heat—it’s like jumping into cold water. When you’re running in the cold, you’re chilly for the first mile or two, then it’s great. For me, 30 degrees is the perfect running temperature. I don’t want to be too hot or freezing. And when it really is too cold, I’ll go on a treadmill.”
While running clearly has its own best practices, running in the city is its own unique beast—and has its own unique challenges.
One biggie? Traffic! As Jess explains, “One challenge is having to stop at traffic lights frequently. Fortunately, you can avoid the traffic lights by primarily running in parks or on greenways—though I try to avoid Central Park when it’s crowded on the weekends in the summer.” She adds, “Running bridges is great because there aren’t a lot of hills here in New York City, so they can be excellent to run on. There aren’t a lot of tracks either, but during the summer months I’ll run four miles to the East River Track for track workouts once a week or so.”
For Stephanie, it’s all about being aware of traffic—foot traffic included. “You really have to be cautious with vehicles. Some runners like to jaywalk, but I don’t recommend it. Understanding and being strategic about your paths, routes, how traffic flows, and how people behave is all helpful—especially if you’re trying to run faster and beat your time.”
TUNES ON THE MOVE
What else helps you run faster and beat your time? Bumpin’ tunes! Both Stephanie and Dan gave particular props to their on-the-run playlists to keep them pumped up to the max.
With Dan, it’s not quite a precise science. “For marathon training, I’ll listen to random playlists based on how long my run should take. And if I go beyond with my run, well…then I don’t deserve to be listening to music.”
For Stephanie, there’s a bit more involved. “Spotify has a cool option where it’ll sync up the RPMs with how fast you’re going. But I don’t like trance music; I need music with words—really poppy fun music. I listen to a lot of Drake, Sia, Major Lazer, Missy Elliott, Kendrick Lamar—and Beyonce is always a must. If I’m really in the zone, by mile six, I’ll start singing…people probably think I’m crazy!” (Fortunately, she zooms past the haters with ease.)
THE JOYS OF RUNNING
Although running’s portability means it can be practiced, well, pretty much anywhere (Stephanie’s run while traveling in Seattle, Puerto Rico, and Maine; Jess has in Pennsylvania; and Dan would get to know the various cities and towns where he used to travel for work), all three of our running experts praise its value right smack in the cities where they live.
For Jess, it’s broadened her exposure to different pockets of New York City. She states, “I probably would have never gone to Randall’s Island, Roosevelt Island, or over the Manhattan Bridge by foot. There are also a few neighborhoods I wouldn’t have explored had there not been races there.”
Stephanie enthuses, “There are so many running events like fun 5Ks. You can always find a race for charity. I really think running brings people together and makes it easy to get involved in your community.”
And, of course, getting to know Boston (not just its people), is a huge perk. Stephanie says, “It has definitely expanded my horizons. I had a sense of the city before, but I have a much better sense of direction now. When I’m running, I’m not using a GPS, so I have to try to figure out how to get back on my own.
“It’s also brought me to cool streets in Beacon Hill that I never would have seen just walking around; I’ve gotten to know Charlestown more; and I love to discover little hidden gems—like a cute little courtyard in the South End. Sometimes it stinks because you want to stop and enjoy it, but you need to keep running. Then again…you can always go back later.”