Review: Online maps can jog better running routes

Websites help runners keep track of the miles they run.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Serious joggers often brave the elements in order to get some exercise.

The search company responsible for countless hours of sitting by a computer screen can help you burn calories, too.

To plan jogging routes and track mileage, running enthusiasts are turning to independently produced sites that tap online mapping services from Google Inc. and its rivals. As someone who has logged every mile on a spreadsheet since December 2000 (10,146.7 and counting) these free tools help fuel my obsession with how far I’ve run.

After trying several of the Web services during a recent West Coast trip, I found there’s no substitute for simplicity.

I’ve long been a fan of Gmap Pedometer, created as a hobby by a first-time marathoner in Hoboken, N.J. Although I have since come across flashier tools packed with more features, I returned to Gmap out of frustration each time.

Despite its sparse look, Gmap is highly functional and easy to use.

You simply trace your route on a Google map as if you were leaving bread crumbs, clicking your mouse to place markers along your intended path. Gmap connects the markers in order, and automatically calculates the distance.

A new “automatic routes” feature helps improve accuracy by reflecting the added distance along curvy paths, even when you drop your bread crumbs in a straight line.

With Gmap’s help, I met two objectives for my final run during a visit to Vancouver. I needed to cap it at four miles, and I wanted to visit three venues for the 2010 Winter Games – the closest I’d ever get to the Olympics.

The night before, I used my hotel’s Wi-Fi connection to plot a route that circled the arenas for the opening and closing ceremonies and ice hockey before taking me to False Creek, where the housing for athletes is being built.

I hit the “undo last point” button several times to avoid generating a route that would have been too far or given me too little of the Olympics. Once I found a nice balance, I hit “save” to generate a unique Web address I can keep and share with others.

Earlier, in Los Angeles, the auto-route feature proved useful in navigating the curvy paths along Southern California’s beaches. Gmap also knew I shouldn’t run through people’s homes, so it had me turn at the nearest intersection.

As Gmap automatically filled out the route, its calculations were pretty close: a quarter-mile short of the 15.02 miles (24.17 kilometers) reported by a GPS unit I carried on the run.

I had to turn off that auto-routing feature for my Olympics run, though. Although Gmap was smart enough to let me run the wrong way on one-way streets, it didn’t know all the recreational paths I saw on tourist maps. (A setting for cyclists does respect traffic laws.)

My main complaint is Gmap’s inability to track runs by users. I must remember the Web address to access a saved run, and I cannot create an account to store all my runs at one place. I also cannot search for recommendations from other runners.

That is where MapMyRun and Sanoodi come in.

I began with MapMyRun but couldn’t find any routes near where I was staying in Los Angeles. Sanoodi was better, offering me four.

But they were all too short, so I tried creating my own.

On Sanoodi, which uses Google maps by default, I had to create a free account first, even if I had no intentions of saving it. I found the controls confusing, and attempts to drag the map around inadvertently created “bread crumb” markers I had to then erase.

MapMyRun, powered by MapQuest from Time Warner Inc.’s AOL, was only slightly better. Though it automatically detected my presence in Los Angeles, the site kept freezing when I entered a specific address.

Upon returning home to New York, I gave both sites another try, along with one recommended by a few people in my running club, a Google-based offering called America’s Running Routes from the sport’s governing body, USA Track & Field.

I like Running Routes’ simple approach but find it missing some of Gmap’s features. It does let you view routes saved by others, but searches for runs in Walla Walla, Wash., and Jim Thorpe, Pa. – two small towns that came to mind – produced far fewer returns than MapMyRun.

I found MapMyRun more tolerable in New York, but I couldn’t print routes without paying $2 or signing up for a $48-a-year membership, which also gives you access to online training schedules. Annoying boxes kept popping up for filling in notes, with the “X” for closing them hidden behind other fancy boxes I didn’t want. And the auto-route option often took me blocks out of the way.

I do like that I could keep a training log and search for upcoming races on MapMyRun, and I’m sure the ability to compare progress with friends could come in handy. I could see using it to research routes in new cities or neighborhoods.

Sanoodi had many bugs its developers promise to fix by early 2009. Rather than prompting me to sign in so I could plan a run, the site simply returned other people’s runs when I hit “create a route.” And moving the map around sometimes disables the ability to add markers. Sanoodi also lacks, for now, an auto-route feature.

Both MapMyRun and Sanoodi are better than Gmap at letting you edit previously saved runs. Both let you import runs recorded using GPS devices such as Garmin Ltd.’s Forerunner, and Sanoodi has developed free applications for several mobile devices, upcoming versions of which will continually send data to the website as you run.

But until they get easier to use, simplicity wins any day. The point of running is to be outdoors, not sitting in front of a computer trying to endure flashy graphics.

Now, if only Gmap could disable my snooze button and get me out of bed for chilly morning runs.

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