How to find great running trails in London

You don't always have to escape to the countryside to find memorable running trails, as we discovered in the parks of central London.

Running in central London

by lfto |
Updated on

Trail run? Covent Garden? For anyone with even a vague understanding of London’s geography, an off-road outing doesn’t seem too likely.

The last time anyone checked, Trafalgar Square, perhaps two minutes away, is very much paved over, as is Admiralty Arch or indeed anywhere within about 10 miles of this central urban location. "Trust me,” says Des as we swing through a set of traffic lights past camera-wielding tourists. “The trails are here.”

Before we get to them, however, let’s take a timeout. Des is a lifelong runner who has a hugely impressive CV that includes two UTMB finishes, a sub-16-minute 5km on the road, super-fast track times and an endless string of fellow runners he has helped to achieve their dreams – an OCC finish for one runner who’d only just taken up the sport, an Everest summit for another.

Urban trails can sometimes be the most memorable, including this one starting in Covent Garden.

Des, also a climber, has an uncanny knowledge of all things aerobic, not to mention an understanding of whom and what our sport is all about. “Think of the unbelievable strength in Kilian Jornet’s quads. That’s part of the reason he runs everybody down in the latter stages of a race,” Des laughs, pointing to some stairs leading up to a statue on the Mall he might sprint up 50 times when he’s getting ready for his own personal mountain adventures.

"You have to make do with what you have in your own area,” he explains, as he recounts his two – that’s right, two – UTMB finishes. This is a guy who runs in central London, but races with success on some very demanding terrain. He also knows a thing or two about clothing and shoes given his role at Ellis Brigham, a shop devoted to making your trail running experience the best it can be, even when the shop in question – Covent Garden in this instance – surely couldn’t be further from the mountains.

At this point, Des introduces us to the rest of the team: climbers, fellow runners, and outdoor experts. They know what they’re talking about and are just as happy to talk about where the best ridges are in the Swiss Alps – Des appears to have run them all – as guide you through getting the right shoes for your individual needs.

Hurdling practice in the Royal Parks? Yep, you can do that, too!

But back to the run. Des is right. Central London does have some amazing trails. Of course, you must negotiate a bit of traffic but within a few minutes, you’re into Green Park and grass. Lots of it. “I love this surface,” says Des chatting about great grass track races of the past. Peter Snell once ran 800 metres in 1:44 on a grass track; oh, and this statue is dedicated to a general who understood perfectly how to win wars.

Des is a mine of information, but come to think about it, that’s what you need on a central London outing. There are so many monuments, historic buildings, and embassies to see and chat about that the miles fly by.

“My favourite thing to do,” says Des, “is to take a group out from the shop and not say how far we’re going. Before you know it, we can get eight or 10 miles done and sometimes that’s the longest run some of the group has ever done. They’re always amazed. It shows you what is possible.”

It’s a regular thing for Des as he leads a Sunday group from the Covent Garden store. Trail runners, track athletes, ultra-distance legends (“the barber in here is a great ultra-runner,” says Des as we cruise by his shop), not to mention climbers and mountaineers looking for aerobic conditioning, are all regular customers at this busy, action-packed shop. It’s so much more than a retail experience.

Lacing at Ellis Brigham's Covent Garden store, ready to hit the hidden treasures of central London

Indeed, that’s almost secondary. Runners turn up for whatever session the shop team has in mind – it might be a long run, a session of stair repetitions by Buckingham Palace, or simply a leisurely slow jog through the interlocking Royal Parks that the area is so well-known for.

It's part of what Ellis Brigham is about. It’s a shop that will happily create a package that works for you. Go for a run, or perhaps book a visit to a store for a personal one-on-one guide to what equipment best suits you for your next adventure. Or, if a store visit is tough to fit in, Ellis Brigham also offers video consultations because the team recognises sport – and running particular – is about catering to individual needs. It's that understanding that every runner is different that really helps Des in particular stand out from the crowd.

His family has sprinting at its roots with English Schools titles and Olympic trials appearances being part of the Rhule family tree, but it’s his love of climbing and the mountains that turned him towards the trails we all love so much.

“I was going to the Alps, and I was running cross country, so it seemed like a nice blend,” he says. It was, and it has been. But it’s also been something much more. He’s not only helped runners explore new routes and achieve new goals but he has also introduced mountaineers and climbers to the possibilities trail running presents. Molly Hughes has run with him before going on to climb Everest twice, while close to home he’s helped endless runners discover for themselves the intricate world of London’s trails.

The miles fly by while running through the parks of central London.

“Here’s a new path right here,” he laughs, amazed that there’s a hidden trail just a few metres away from the main gate to Hyde Park. “But that’s what trail running is all about,” he continues. “Finding new routes, adapting old ones, and just generally exploring the area. It’s why I love it so much. Of course, he’s not just restricted to London’s paths.

Des also loves nothing more than to run in his local county of Kent, testing us as he does on the way to make sure our knowledge is up to scratch. “Mackerel beach themselves on the beaches of Folkestone; true or false?”, he queries just to confirm whether today’s running partners are Kentish or not. (True, by the way. The sandy beach by the harbour catches them once a year.)

As we leave Hyde Park, the possibilities are endless. We could head to Battersea – “my favourite,” says Des. “Probably because I won the Three Bridges a few times. I always knew if I was leading when I reached the Buddha, I’d have it in the bag.” But today we simply turn, head back to bustling Covent Garden and its promise of sourdough sandwiches and posh coffees. “And that,” says Des, “is why Covent Garden is so perfect. We have everything you could possibly want as a trail runner… and that bit more.”

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