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This is an unprecedented autumn in the history of running. Over the course of seven weeks this fall, five of the six World Marathon Majors are being held. All eyes will focus on Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, and New York. In honor of this marathon-palooza, Great Runs is partnering with PodiumRunner on a series of running guides for each of these cities: A bit about their running culture, details on the best places to run, and marathon course highlights. Each guide will be published the week of that city’s marathon.
London is one of our favorite cities for running in Europe. It checks off every box of what makes for a great running city: fantastic sights that can be easily explored on foot; eight iconic Royal Parks; classic river paths that enable loops of various lengths; and some one-of-a-kind running opportunities. Plus, the introduction of congestion pricing and the expansion of bicycle infrastructure have reduced traffic and pollution while adding all sorts of new paths to make the running scene even better!
A few cautions and notes about running in London. Remember to look left when crossing the street — looking right is far more ingrained than expected. Always bring an extra layer — London’s weather is famously cool and damp, especially in winter (though ice and snow are rare). And make use of the extensive transport system, which enables great one-way runs or the option to explore some wonderful running in some of London’s posh suburbs.
Here are some of our favorite places to run in London.
One of the great urban runs anywhere, this route incorporates London’s famous inner city Royal parks: Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park, and St. James Park. It is a way-marked ‘figure eight” loop, in honor of the late Princess Diana.
Running along the Thames River embankment is one of the running/tourist treats of London. A great way to see some of the sights while enjoying crossing the numerous historic bridges, including the iconic Tower Bridge. You can devise loop options of various lengths, or do a longer one-way run and take the Tube back.
Fancy a glitzy run? Over the past 20 years, much of the expansion of London as a business center has occurred in the city’s east end, with stunning skyscrapers and luxe apartment buildings in Canary Wharf and the Docklands. You’ll also find some lovely waterfront running in the area.
Unique London Running Experiences
If you run in the area around Greenwich Park, the location of the Meridian Line (and starting point of the London Marathon), you’ll find a spot where you can run across a ‘line’ separating the Eastern & Western hemispheres.
Another must is to experience one of the U.K.’s famed ‘heaths’, such as Hampstead Heath (and one chance to get in some hill running). Or, hop on the Tube to Bushy Park and run its famed Chestnut Avenue.
If the Olympics inspire you, there’s a scenic run around the sites of the 2012 Summer Games, which can be combined with gorgeous Victoria Park and some beautiful river running.
For a grand and historical running experience, hop on a short train ride to Windsor and run the famed Long Walk to Windsor Castle. One bit of trivia: The modern marathon distance of 26.2 miles occurred sort of by accident when the marathon at the 1908 London Olympics was adjusted to satisfy the logistics of Queen Alexandra’s view at the finish line. The distance was extended from what had been roughly 25 miles in previous Olympics to the 26.2 miles that separated Windsor Castle from the viewing box via a complicated route into the stadium to enhance the royal view.
London Suburbs and Day Trips
We’ve put together a separate guide to London’s suburbs, with a focus on attractive routes that are easily reachable by public transport. There are more large parks, heaths, moors, long-distance paths, and designated “Areas of Natural Beauty” such as the High Weald and Surrey hills, with no end of running options for road and trail runners alike.
Several locations about an hour’s train ride from London combine a great day trip with a destination run: “Royal Running” at Windsor; the seashore in Brighton, the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, and historic Bath.
The Marathon Course
London’s marathon course hits more of the city’s historic sights and running highlights than perhaps any other Major. Except for a 120-foot elevation loss over the first five miles, the course is quite flat.
The race starts in Greenwich Park, the site of the Meridian Line that was established in 1884. Runners lose about 100 feet in the first five miles, reaching the Cutty Sark clipper ship at Mile 6, and the Shard, the tallest building in the UK, at mile 12. The halfway point of the course is just after crossing the Tower Bridge.
Miles 14–20 incorporate a loop around the more modern Canary Wharf and Docklands area. The final six miles are a historian’s dream, as the race heads west along the Victoria Embankment on the north side of the Thames to Westminster, passing the Tower of London, London Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and at Mile 25, the Eye. The memorable final mile passes by Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then enters St.James Park, concluding at Buckingham Palace. That might even beat ‘right on Hereford, left on Boylston.’