I’ve run in cities all over the world, but none (so far) have come close to offering the teeming variety and abundance of London’s parks, woodlands and waterways. Here are five reasons why I feel so strongly:
1. The Empire Gives Back | Contrary to what you would assume, centuries of royalty and aristocracy are far more conducive to creating good running environments than nice, friendly egalitarian societies.
The reason for this is that, typically, the rich are the ones able to keep huge tracts of land and forest untouched by agriculture or industry in order to use the land simply for their own enjoyment. Whether they’re old hunting grounds (like Bushy and Richmond Parks) or private gardens for leisurely summer strolls (like the grounds of Chiswick Park), London is a patchwork of these incredibly old estate grounds.
In the last two centuries these private green spaces have been opened up to the public and, on the most part, borough councils and trusts have done an incredible job of maintaining and improving them.
2. People Actually Use the Parks | Victoria Park was created by Queen Victoria to help improve the life expectancy of East Londoners living in horrible conditions. And even today, it seems engrained in the psyche of Londoners to use the parks whether for eating, walking, relaxing or running.
For a runner, there is always something eerie about running in a city park with no one in it. You want this in the mountains and national parks, but not in the local woodland reserve. You like to see others out running and cycling. It makes the park feel safe and loved, and it reinforces your own sanity, that you’re not crazy going running everyday (even if that’s what the rest of the office calls you!).
3. Wooed by Water | The other great remnant left for London runners from the age of empire are waterways. Canals with their endless and flat towpaths, docklands with their expansive views, and the Thames with its many bridges, tunnels and riverside paths—they all provide the runner with a inviting running terrain and a welcome escape from traffic.
And what is it about running next to a body of water that is so attractive anyway? Is the air more oxygen-rich? Or is it just the views? Or is it that mentally a body of water takes away the runner’s out-clause? What I mean is that when running between two bridges on the Thames you can’t just opt out and turn back early (that would involve doubling back). The only options are 1) keep running to the bridge or 2) swim across the Thames (the gravy-like nature of the river is obviously a good motivator to choose 1).
4. The Traffic | Above catching the Tube or bus or driving, the quickest way to get around the majority of London is to cycle. But cycling in any busy city inevitably places you at the bottom of the traffic food chain (a lorry is always waiting to cut you off). So this is where the running commute comes into its own.
And Londoners are catching on to this second-fastest and certainly much safer option of travel by their hundreds. In any rush hour you’ll see a solid stream of back-pack-laden joggers heading to or from work.
From my place (when I lived there) to Trafalgar Square was 3.2mi (5k) exactly. At rush hour I could expect to average 8min/mi, so a 25-minute total commute. TFL says that same journey at rush hour would take 42mins minimum using public transport and walking. Their cycling predicted time was 23mins (traffic light dependent of course). If I’m looking for ways to maximise my running training time and reduce the mind numbing commute, London is perfectly set up for running to work.
5. The Parks Themselves | Hampstead Heath has views and hills, Epping Forest has endless woodland trails, Bushy Park has wild deer, Hyde Park is ideal for pretending you’re Alastair Brownlee winning the Olympic Triathlon, Greenwich Park has history and sits on the longitudinal edge of the world, Richmond Park is just simply perfect, and I’m only getting started.
Soft under foot, easy on the eye, relatively fresh for the lungs, and as hard on the cardiovascular as you want to make them—London’s parks are second-to-none.