Using Strava to plan your trail run, and hopefully not get too lost

Posted by Ross Poulton on Thu 15 September 2016 #running

Since starting to run a few years ago, nearly all of my mileage has been on paved roads. My local parkrun course is on concrete, and most big running races are on the road.

A few months ago, on a whim, I ventured out to Plenty Gorge Park and had a great time exploring the bushland. I returned with a group from Diamond Creek Runners and had a fantastic time, and since then have slowly built up my trail kilometers including two races of 18 and 20km. Whew!

One of the more challenging things I've found with trail running is finding my way. Particularly somewhere like Plenty Gorge where there are dozens of intersecting mountain bike trails that are tricky to tell apart, having a preplanned route can be very useful.

Some in my running club have taken to using Suunto watches and the inbuilt navigation. I have no such luxury so rely on my iPhone. Here's how I plan and follow a map on unfamiliar trails!

Warning: Trail running can be dangerous. You're in (relatively) remote areas, on uneven land, in places that other humans seem to infrequently visit because they don't know what they're missing out on. Serious injuries can happen. Don't run by yourself. Don't rely on Google Maps - because it just doesn't include the level of detail trail runners need (ie most of Plenty Gorge is completely unmapped on Google and Apple maps - you need sport-specific info). Let somebody know where you are and when you expect to be home.


If you want the quick version, follow these easy steps. If you want to learn more, read on...

  1. On your computer, use the Strava route builder, plan your run, and save it.
  2. On your iPhone, install the Strava iPhone app
  3. Open the Strava app. Navigate to Profile, then Routes. Tap the "Use Route" button.
  4. Start, you know, actually running. Left foot first, then right. Left, right.
  5. When you get lost, look at your phone. Follow the light blue line - the orange line is where you've been already.
  6. Get home safely and get intimate with your foam roller.

Plan the run

If I just drive to the park and start running, I often find I am back at the carpark sooner than expected because I've accidentally chosen short trails. If I want to make sure I'm out for a specific distance or time, I plan the route in advance so I know I'm going to cover enough ground.

I do this using Strava's routes feature. You don't have to use Strava to record your runs but their planner is really useful.

Once logged into Strava on your computer, navigate to the route builder. Do a search in the top left (ie I have searched for "yellowgum park" in this example) and the map will take you to that area. Just like Google Maps you can scroll around, zoom in and out, etc.

Clicking once on the map will set your starting spot, and a green dot appears (my starting point is next to the last car park on the road in). Continue to click at points along the trails to build your route. Each click adds a white dot, which you can move around if you want to alter things a bit. Don't worry too much if the line doesn't exactly follow the line.

Keep going until you have built a good run - I can see at the bottom of the screen this should be approx 2.2km with 75m of climbing (click the "Elevation Off" button at the bottom right to see a rough elevation profile if that interests you - but I've found it isn't 100% accurate).

If you mis-click or change your mind, you can use the Undo and Clear buttons at the top to start over.

Once done, hit the red Save button at the top right, give the route a name, optionally make it "private" so nobody else can see it, and click Save. You'll be shown a grey "View Route" button after saving - click it and you'll be complete.

Go and run

There are three ways you can use your newly planned route once you hit the trails.

  1. Print
  2. Use the Strava phone app
  3. Use the myTracks phone app

Printing your map

The first is self explanatory and quite possibly the most reliable - however you will need to know how to read a map, know how to find your current location, and be aware that if you stray too far you'll be off the edge of your printed map. This is, however, useful for long trail runs that are relatively defined (perhaps Two Bays Trail or something).

To print your route, just hit the "Print" button on the Strava page - it'll give you approximate waypoints and a copy of the map.

Use the Strava phone app

This is what I normally do.

If you're going to have mobile phone coverage this works really well. First, install the Strava app on your phone. It's available for both Android and iOS.

Once logged in to the Strava app, tap on Profile at the bottom of the screen. From the profile screen is a link to "Routes" - right down the bottom of the list. Tapping on routes will show you any routes you have set up, including the one you created in the steps above.

Clicking "Use Route" will load up the route and map on your phone. Click on the "Record" button and start running, and the screen will be replaced with your time/distance/pace - just click the map pin to return to the map.

On the map will be a blue line. This shows your planned route. The orange line is where you have already been - so you can use this to help find your way back to the blue line.

After returning to a place a few times I find I can make my way around much of it pretty easily, and just rely on the phone when I reach an unfamiliar or confusing intersection. It only takes a moment to figure out which turn to take, then I put the phone away and keep running.

Use the myTracks app

If you are running somewhere without mobile phone coverage, the Strava maps won't be able to show. To work around this I have used an app called myTracks - I'm sure there are others available too.

Using this is a little more complex and not really necessary in most places but here's a high level summary of what I do. I can walk through it with you if needed.

  1. On the Strava Route page, click the "Export" button then click "Download GPX"
  2. Install myTracks on your phone
  3. Open myTracks and use it's "Download map" function to get offline maps
  4. Transfer the .gpx file from Strava onto your iPhone. Open it with myTracks
  5. Put your phone in you rpocket and run go for a run - keep the dot on the blue line just like with Strava.

I wouldn't recommend the fuss that myTracks needs unless you know you'll be running somewhere without mobile phone coverage. Strava does a great job.

Beer time

You just ran along a trail, saw some awesome scenery, probably got your feet dirty, climbed a hill, and got scared by a kangaroo.

Have a hot shower and a cold beer. At the same time, even. You earned it.

Although the above notes are verbose it's only because I'm great at typing and poor at editing! I usually spend 10 minutes planning a run I haven't done before, mostly to adjust it to get the distance or elevation close to what I want to run. Getting it open in Strava is a real piece of cake.

I'm sure there are other ways to do this with different apps too - please let me know if you have any so that I can share them further :)

If all of the above sounds too difficult, just hit me up and I'll come and join you on the trails. Diamond Creek Runners are doing a group run at Yellowgum Park this weekend (September 18th 2016, see the DCR timetable for other runs) if you want to meet great like minded people - guests welcome.

If you're looking for some routes I've already created, these might be useful. I'm sure there's a way to take a copy of these for your own use - that's left as an exercise for the reader.

  1. Hoka One One Series: Race #2 Plenty Gorge (Long Circuit, 19km)
  2. Hoka One One Series: Race #2 Plenty Gorge (Medium Circuit, 12km)
  3. Hoka One One Series: Race #3 Silvan Reservoir (Medium course, 15km)
  4. Sugarloaf Reservoir Circuit (15km: 3km road, remainder trails)

Happy running!