Runners put lots of thought into their workouts, considering things like how far they’ll run, how briskly they’ll run, whether they may do a gentle distance run or an interval workout. Yet one thing recreational runners rarely bear in mind is the surface they’ll be running on. From asphalt roads to dirt trails, treadmills to running tracks, what you land on with each stride could make a difference in how running affects your body.
So, what’s the most effective surface for running? We broke down the consequences of probably the most common options.
How different surfaces influence the consequences of running
The surface you run on can either buffer or increase the impact of every stride in your body, depending on its stiffness and levelness, says William Charschan, DC, a licensed sports physician, the owner of Charschan Chiropractic and Sports Injury Associates, and the previous medical director for USA Track and Field in New Jersey.
But there are various other variables that affect impact, too, he adds. “The body style, flexibility, core effectiveness, and even your trainers can affect impact,” he notes. Your running efficiency may make an enormous difference in how you’re feeling and the way much work it requires so that you can run.
“For example, a 9.5-minute mile pace is simpler on the body than an 11-minute pace and more efficient too, because the slower pace has higher levels of ground impact,” he says. “If a runner is unable to run faster and is stuck at 10.5 or 11 minutes, the bottom impact will probably be higher.”
That said, irrespective of your pace, different running surfaces can place different sorts of stress in your musculoskeletal system, and alter your risk of injuries.
Most roads and bike paths are formed from asphalt, making it one of the crucial common surfaces we run on. But Dr. Charschan says that the skin temps and sun exposure can change how asphalt affects our bodies.
“Asphalt is a forgiving surface, especially because it heats up—but too hot, it could be melty and affect your shoe adhesion, because the dark surface will heat from the sun,” he says. “Ideally, running on asphalt is [best] in cooler weather when the surface has more give but not too soft. In the winter, like all ground, it’s stiff and absorbs shock less effectively.”
Dr. Charschan says that concrete and cement—that are what sidewalks are typically manufactured from—are very stiff and unforgiving surfaces: “I don’t recommend running on concrete commonly, nevertheless it just isn’t affected by weather, humidity, or dampness.”
The risk of doing an excessive amount of mileage on concrete is that the hardness of the running surface increases impact stress, which might increase the chance of injuries like stress fractures and shin splints.
If you reside in a city with a lot of concrete sidewalks, attempt to limit the frequency and duration of runs on them; search for trails or grass along the sidewalk, or hop into the road if it’s secure to accomplish that—even asphalt has a bit more give than concrete.
Trail running has increased in popularity as an awesome option to get away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and connect with nature. Running on dirt trails can be gentler on the bones and joints attributable to the increased give of the natural earth in comparison with the relative stiffness of asphalt and concrete. However, the muscular demand of running on trails is bigger than road running because a trail won’t be as smooth and even.
“Due to the uneven terrain, a powerful lower body is required to avoid sprains from stepping on rocks and such, [but] trail shoes supply improved traction,” says Dr. Charschan. “The dirt itself is affected by the weather. Dry weather is, in fact, going to make it stiffer and fewer more likely to mitigate shock, and wet weather will soften it. Also, these surfaces are harder in colder weather, which can lead to more impact issues.”
While traumatic injuries like sprains are more common in trail running than on flat roads, some research has shown that chronic injuries are less prevalent (likely attributable to the necessity for more varied body movements to run over roots and rocks, and up and down steep hills).
Dr. Charschan says that the qualities of rocky trails are just like those of dirt trails; nonetheless, rocks may be slippery and may often result in twisted ankles, especially if those rocks are loose.
Rocks are also poor shock absorbers so the impact stress on the muscles, joints, and connective tissues will probably be higher when running on rocky trails versus dirt trails. Be sure to decide on trail shoes with distinguished lugs for traction, and ample cushion to assist absorb impact.
Most treadmills have fairly cushioned running decks, particularly premium home treadmills and most industrial treadmills. This helps to soak up impact shock and reduce joint stress relative to running on the road.
Running on a treadmill can be very consistent—you will not trip on a branch. But that repetitive foot strike can result in overuse injuries. One option to mitigate that risk is to differ the incline and the speed so that you just change up your running form and the muscles worked.
If you’re planning to transfer your treadmill training to road running for an upcoming race, research suggests that you need to set the incline on the treadmill to about one percent so as to best mimic the metabolic and physiological demands of running outside. This is because there’s limited air resistance when running indoors, and the treadmill belt is pulling you along moderately than you needing to generate the entire propulsive force together with your own muscles.
Most modern running tracks are constituted of a vulcanized rubber that is superb for absorbing shock while still promoting enough energy return to be responsive for fast running.
“Most running tracks are manufactured from a cloth designed to mitigate shock,” says Dr. Charschan. However, when you’re running on the track commonly, you’ll want to reverse the direction on alternate days, he suggests. Running the identical direction the entire time, especially for long runs and workouts, could cause stress in your hips and ankles, particularly if the track is banked or the curves are tight.
Astroturf is found on the infields of many running tracks where football, soccer, or other sports could also be played. Although distance runners don’t are inclined to run much on astroturf, sprinters or runners doing interval training and speed training may do workouts on this forgiving surface.
“This is a cushioned surface many sports are played on. The benefit of it’s that it could be utilized in any weather and these fields don’t need resting,” says Dr. Charschan. But he adds that turf is not quite as soft as grass and sprains like turf toe can occur.
Running on grass is usually really helpful as a gentler alternative to road running. “Grass has more give to it, but concentrate on divots and other pits within the surface that could cause an injury, corresponding to a sprained ankle,” says Dr. Charschan. “It also may be much softer when moist.” (Read: muddy.) He adds that while many sports use manicured grass lawns, your typical grass field is just too uneven to be ideal for running.
If you’ve ever run on the beach, you’re likely well aware that running on dry sand could be very difficult since the sand moves under your feet as you push off. This reduces running efficiency, since energy is lost to the moving sand. Which makes it a difficult cardio workout, and a possibility to strengthen different muscles.
“[Running on sand] pushes the runner right into a midfoot stride and can make the calves sore. Build as much as this or consider a minimalist shoe that has a low heel (1-4mm within the back) to coach in first before doing this,” suggests Dr. Charschan. Another strategy is to start out by running closer to the shore line where the sand is damp from the ocean, which is able to offer more stability to push against.
If there’s a boardwalk along the beach, Dr. Charschan says this may be an awesome alternative running surface that also lets you enjoy running next to the ocean but in a way that’s gentler on the body.
“This surface will reply to your impact and bounce back, which makes you’re feeling lighter in your feet,” notes Dr. Charschan.
You may find boardwalks in some community parks or beginner walking trails.
The best surface? Multiple surfaces
As with most training concepts integral to the game of running, various your running surfaces is the most effective option to offer your muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissues different stresses while mitigating the risks of running an excessive amount of on one sort of ground. Variety not only helps prevent overuse injuries, but it should naturally force you to try different running routes, which may also help prevent boredom—and plateaus in your progress.