Navigation for Runners: A Guide to Getting Started

One of my pet hates is the number of times I hear runners say “Oh, I can’t do ‘x’ race because my navigation is awful.” We all put so much effort into our training, yet many runners automatically restrict the race options open to them because they can’t read a map.

In this age of satnavs and GPS available to us all at the touch of a button on our phone, fewer and fewer people are able to read a map. It may seem daunting, but is in fact a simple skill that can be quickly learnt and once you are able to do some basic map reading it opens up a whole range of new races and experiences to enrich your running.

This post doesn’t seek to teach you to navigate, but instead to provide some ideas to help you get started with basic navigation.

1. Get the tools

Get yourself an Ordnance Survey (OS) map of your local area (the orange OS Explorer maps will give you the most detail) and a compass. Don’t worry too much about the compass in the early stages, beyond gaining a feel for the general direction of things. Which way is North from your house (this is where the red end of the moving arrow is pointing)? Does your road run North to South or East to West? If you head West then which village will you reach? All this will start to increase your understanding of your orientation in relation to your surroundings.os%20map%20key

2. Decode the map

Spend some time reading the information on the side of the map. This is the key (or legend) and tells you what all those confusing symbols represent. See what you can recognise in your local area, including roads, footpaths, rivers or any other significant local features.

3. Start small

Mark one of your existing road running routes onto your OS map and then follow along on the map for your next run. Try to keep your map ‘orientated to the ground’ so that it is lined up with the direction that you are moving (rather than always keeping North at the top). Once you are confident on the roads, then find a footpath or bridleway that joins two roads or goes in a circle and try adding in a little bit of off road map reading. As your confidence grows, you will find that you are able to venture further afield until you are planning whole new off road routes!

4. Start slowly

Navigation can be a slow and frustrating process to start with, but don’t worry, it will very quickly become easier. In the early stages go out for a walk to practise with the map – then you won’t be worrying about those numbers ticking away on your Garmin… Navigating at a walk or standing still is much simpler – for a start you can see the map more clearly, plus when running it is easy to go wrong quickly, make bigger errors and lose confidence. Take your time and respect the fact that you are learning a new skill. In the early stages you may need to stop every time you consult the map, but before long you will find that this is something that you will be able to do while still running along.

5. Try orienteering

Intent on the map at a local orienteering event

Don’t be daunted… Yes, you will see lots of experienced navigators and the more difficult courses require excellent navigation, but orienteering events also put on entry level courses for total beginners where you are following tracks and looking for obvious landmarks and features. Orienteering is a very welcoming sport which is keen to increase participation, so most events run a helpdesk to get beginners started. That means that all those experienced navigators are available to give you help and a bit of navigation coaching for free. You can find yourself a local event on the British Orienteering website, Level D or C events are a great place to start.

6. Go on a course

It would appear that runners are prepared to spend lots of money on races or kit, but not on learning this really useful skill. There are many dedicated and well respected providers of navigation training for runners (Nav 4, Challenge Running, and Mountain Run are just some of the ones I have heard good reports of), but any navigation course aimed at walkers will teach you everything you need to know. Not only will you learn the basics of navigation, but also get the opportunity to glean plenty of tips from experienced outdoorsy types, as well as no doubt making some new like-minded friends along the way.

Hopefully these tips may give you some ideas to get started with learning to navigate. As with any new skill, once you break it down into small baby steps it is not so daunting. Remember, with navigation if you go wrong you can always retrace your steps. Please get out and give learning to navigate a try – the rewards in terms of new races and experiences (and I haven’t even touched on the safety aspects) are great.


Get out and explore!



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