The Rank of the Routes: The Loop, the Out-and-Back, and the Point-to-Point

Running routes fall into three general categories: the out-and-back, the loop, and the point-to-point. (There are combinations, of course, but for the purpose of this blog we will deal only with the purebreds.)

Which reigns supreme? Which is most enjoyable, which is the fastest, which is the most boring?

The scientifically correct way of approaching this question would be to conduct a survey among runners and then analyze the data. But, being as this is my blog, I call the shots, and I get to tell you what I think about the topic and disregard everyone else’s opinions. So here goes.

I begin with the widely regarded favorite: the point-to-point. As I and other runners have noted, its superiority as a route lies in its sense of purpose. You feel that you have a goal, a destination, that you’re not merely running in circles. It helps even more when you have a pleasant goal, like the beach, for example. Of course, don’t make this your goal if you live in Kentucky, for example, unless you’re Dean Karnazes.

When I am informed by non-runners that running is a stupid sport because it means I’m always running away from something, I kindly inform them that I am actually running toward something. And though this can refer to something abstract like health or personal achievement, in the case of point-to-point runs, it can be taken literally. For example, ‘I’m not running away from my house, I’m running toward the beach.’ At this point the non-runner tells me to buy a car, and stalks away.

On to the out-and-back, a personal favorite. Many runners dread the out-and-back, considering it the most boring of the three. And while I agree with them when it comes to long runs, I think the out-and-back is great for fast runs. The biggest complaint runners have with this running route is that they see the same things twice. But if you’re out on a fast run, I believe that if you’re really appreciating the view, you’re not running fast enough. Not that the road should be a blur, we’re not all Usain Bolt, after all, but you should be zoned in and not paying much attention to the road besides making sure not to trip. So seeing landmarks twice shouldn’t really be a big problem; in fact, if you slow down on the way back (maybe during a tempo run), you can take in everything as though you’re seeing it for the first time. Another added benefit for fast runs in an out-and-back is that you can always know exactly where you are. You know when you’re halfway there, and since you’ve seen the first part already, you know exactly how much you have left, allowing you to push it for the last mile and not suddenly realize with dismay that the last mile is actually the last three miles.

And, finally, for the most common of the three running routes: the loop. Again, if I were being scientifically correct I would gather data from sites like mapmyrun or the USATF route site and conduct another survey among runners about which type of route is run the most. But instead I will make the claim that the loop is the most common, based on my own personal experience and knowledge of a few my runner-friends. The loop is a compromise between the out-and-back and the point-to-point. While you do end up in the exact location at which you started, you have the mental allusion of getting somewhere because of all those turns and the absence of repeating landmarks. Point-to-point is often impractical; after all, you have to arrange a way to get back from wherever you just ended up (if you say you’ll just run back, you just transformed your enjoyable point-to-point into a long out-and-back).  And out-and-back for long runs is terribly tedious. So the loop provides a middle ground, a useful and practical device for long runs. I also like the loop for tempo runs; it allows me to easily divide up the run into fast and slow parts based on where I am in the loop (which is a bit harder to keep track of during an out-and-back).

To summarize: For speed, the out-and-back or the loop (for tempo) are the winners. (Though I’ve never tried a fast point-to-point, because my point-to-point runs are always long. Try it and let me know.) For maintaining interest, the point-to-point is by far the best. The worst for a long run is the out-and-back, while the loop is a decent compromise for long runs.

As I have noted at least twice, these results are based on nothing but my own impressions, and should not be taken as fact. So be sure to let me know if you disagree.


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