Thanks to its famous road running races like the Virgin Money London Marathon and the Vitality London 10,000, the UK's capital is rightly regarded as a great location to lace up your shoes and go for a jog. And, although it may surprise you, it's a great spot for venturing off the beaten track and giving trail running a go, too.
Whether it's heading to the city's parkland, woodland, or even a disused railway line, London has more than enough off-road routes to satisfy those with itchy feet – without having to leave Zone 2.
So if you're looking for somewhere to run your Wings For Life World Run App Run, why not ditch the tarmac and get ready to explore parts of the capital and its outer reaches you never knew existed.
1. Parkland Walk
Best for: Urban trail adventures.
Where: It follows the former railway line connecting Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, via Highgate, stretching 4km in total.
Level of difficulty: 1/5. It's easy to follow and if you start at the Alexandra Palace end, it’s mostly downhill all the way.
What: The Parkland Walk is a disused railway line that has been reinvented as the longest linear nature reserve in London. Starting after you've crossed the bridge upon leaving Finsbury Park's Oxford Road Gate, the path winds its way towards Highgate. A short road section is followed by the path's second branch, which takes you to Alexandra Palace. Drink in the views across London at the top and, if doing on a Sunday, reward yourself with a pitstop at the park's weekly farmers market.
2. Richmond Park
Best for: A countryside escape without leaving the city.
Where: Less than an hour from central London in Richmond.
Level of difficulty: 2/5. There are a few good hills and easy routes that are hard to get lost on.
What: Richmond Park is renowned in the world of road cycling for its 12km loop, but the 2,500 acres of parkland are also great for trail running. The 11.7km perimeter-hugging Tamsin Trail is a good place to start, but the park is criss-crossed with hundreds of other potential routes for you to get lost on. Glimpse a distant view of St Paul’s Cathedral from King Henry’s Mound, or hang out with some of the park's resident roaming deer.
3. Hampstead Heath
Best for: Cross country racing – it’s home to the London Cross Country Championships and regularly hosts the English National Championships.
Where: Within Zone 2, less than four miles from Central London.
Level of difficulty: 3/10. The difficulty depends on how many ascents of Parliament Hill you include.
What: The north London park is home to 800 acres of woodland and meadow, and has endless sections of paved and off-road trails to literally get lost on. The heath also has a rich literary history, and inspired works such as The Chronicles of Narnia. It's also a regular film location. Up the intensity with some hill repeats up Parliament Hill – so-called as it is the spot where Guy Fawkes and his friends planned to meet for a view of Parliament. After soaking in all that history, finish your run with a dip in one of the open-water ponds.
4. Thames path
Best for: River views and a longer challenge completed in stages.
Where: The path follows the Thames 296km from its source in the Cotswold hills, through the heart of London to Thames Barrier.
Level of difficulty: 1/5. It’s mainly flat, with a few natural slopes.
What: One of 15 designated National Trails, the Thames path passes through peaceful water meadows, unspoilt rural villages and historical towns before reaching the capital. Oxford and Windsor are two notable highlights along the route, which combines rural tranquillity and city life. But it's best to pick your side wisely, as some stretches differ in length on the north and south bank.
5. Trent Park
Best for: Wildlife spotting – the woodland is home to a host of animals and birdlife.
Where: At the northern end of the Piccadilly Line, next to Cockfosters Station.
Level of difficulty: 3/5 – especially if you include a run up to the Obelisk.
What: The park covers 413 acres of meadows and ancient woodland, and forms part of London’s Green Belt. It’s also home to Trent Park Running Club who host the Triffic Trail 10k. Stop off at the wildlife sanctuary and animal hospital, run entirely by volunteers and open to the public, but watch out for the Camlet Moat – the shady waters are said to be haunted by the ghost of Earl Mandeville, who is reportedly guarding his hidden treasure.
6. Epping Forest
Best for: Long runs with a good chance of getting lost.
Where: Straddling the border between Essex and Greater London.
Level of difficulty: 4/5. Woodland, grassland, heath, rivers, bogs and thin gravelly soil will test your legs if you pick the right (or maybe wrong) route.
What: At 19km long and 4km wide, the 5,900-acre, ancient woodland slivers its way from Leytonstone right up to the M25, and is big enough for you to never run the same set of trails twice. Head to Loughton Camp – an Iron Age hill fort that sits on a ridge of high ground – or just see where your legs (and the hundreds of trails) take you.
7. Vanguard way
Best for: A long adventure from city to sea.
Where: Starting in Croydon, this trail runs all the way to Newhaven on the south coast.
Level of difficulty: 4/5. There are some big climbs as you cross the Downs, but some good flat stretches, too.
What: Beginning on the outskirts of London, this 106km route passes through the counties of Surrey, Kent and East Sussex. Devised by members of the Vanguards Rambling Club, the trail shares their love of the area, and covers the South Downs National Park, two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (Surrey Hills and High Weald), and finishes with views of the Seven Sisters. Get an ice cream on the beach at Seaford and celebrate a trail well run.
8. North Downs Way
Best for: Day trips away from the city to test your climbing legs.
Where: This 246km trail stretches from Farnham, Surrey, to Dover, Kent.
Level of difficulty: 4/5. The trail is home to some challenging climbs and a route that invites you to go further than you planned.
What: The North Downs Way is a vast trail across South East England that showcases some of the best countryside landscapes around. For the hill lovers out there, the section from Guildford to Reigate will get the lactate acid burning your legs. If you opt to take on the whole thing, you can expect to pass eight castles, three cathedrals and three archbishops’ palaces. Definitely one for the history buffs out there.
9. South Downs Way
Best for: A weekend trip away from London with some sea views.
Where: The trail runs 160km from Winchester to Eastbourne and is almost entirely within the South Downs National Park.
Level of difficulty: 3/5. A big distance with some rolling hills.
What: A countryside route at its finest, the South Downs Way is bookended by two major towns and passes through pretty villages – perfect for a pitstop or night away. Also, as it's a chalk ridge, the trail drains and dries out quickly, making it good for running year-round. And for those feeling adventurous, you can run the whole thing in one go as part of the South Downs Way 100 ultramarathon.
10. The Ridgeway
Best for: History buffs, thanks to the many archaeological monuments you'll find close to the trail, including Stone Age long barrows, Bronze Age round barrows, Iron Age forts and figures of white horses cut into the chalk.
Where: Between London and Oxford, the trail passes through the Chilterns and the North Wessex Downs.
Level of difficulty: 3/5. The section through the Chilterns offers gentle, wooded countryside.
What: Britain’s oldest ‘road’, this 140km route has been used since prehistoric times and is thought to be more than 5,000 years old. The section of the route west of the Thames is a real highlight though – the track opening up as it passes through the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Here you'll find miles of remote rolling chalk downland, and a stream of mythical archaeological monuments.
Feeling inspired? Take part in the Wings for Life World Run on May 9, 2021 and run for those who can't. To register for the 2021 event, click here and follow the prompts. The first 10,000 registered participants will receive an official Wings for Life World Run shirt.