Let’s talk about why it’s important to vary your running surfaces. As runners we often become creatures of habit and run the same routes on the same surfaces week after week.
Depending on the type of mileage and surfaces you run on, doing the same thing over and over again may result in overuse injuries or muscle stagnation.
However, large studies haven’t yet shown a connection between running injuries and whether you routinely run on hard or soft surfaces.
As we run the muscles and tendons act as shock absorbers as your foot lands and then they release energy during the push off phase. The surface that you run on and your running shoes (or lack) also function to absorb and release energy.
The body takes the information from your previous footstrikes (and what your brain knows from experience) and adjusts muscle contractions before the next time your foot hits the ground. Interestingly the body pre-tunes the muscles before your first step onto a new surface.
How Running Surfaces Affect Your Body
Changing up your running surface every so often can challenge muscles in a new way and add novelty to your running routine. Softer surfaces like grass, dirt, trails and gravel reduce the force of impact with your running stride and may allow you to recover more quickly from the workout.
Plus these softer surfaces require you to use stabilizing muscles that may grow lax on the road or sidewalk. Of course you want to train primarily on the type of surface and for the conditions that you’ll be racing on. But doing at least one run per week on a different surface can be very beneficial.
Types of running surfaces:
- Concrete or cement– Sidewalks by and large are made of concrete. They’re usually very convenient and safer than the road in cities. However, this is the toughest surface on your muscles and joints (particularly knees and ankles). Concrete is 10 times harder than asphalt.
- Asphalt (mixture of gravel, tar and crushed rock)- Most roads are made of this and most road races will be run on asphalt. It also has more give than concrete but remains a stable surface. Road running does come with the hazards of a cambered or sloped shoulder (which can throw your body out of alignment), potholes, and the need to be very aware of traffic safety.
- Cobblestones or brick– this is a surface that is typically only seen on old roads and streets and it’s one of the most tricky. It has the hardness of concrete but can often be uneven and require extra attention to your foot placement to avoid tripping.
- Gravel/cinders (what older tracks used to be made of): these are easier on the body when they’re well maintained. But they’re not an all weather surface so the stability of your footing may vary depending on how wet the ground gets. With gravel the size of the rocks on the surface makes a difference in how comfortable they are to run on. Larger rocks increase the amount of stabilization the body has to do and may be tough for people who deal with ankle issues.
- Dirt trails are one of the gentlest surfaces for the body. However trails can vary widely in their condition and incline and may often be uneven, muddy, impassible, and have unaccounted hazards like rocks, downed trees or branches, pinecones, roots, etc making them notorious for ankle sprains. Trail running is an adventure and you should ease into it gradually if you’re new to trails.
- Wood chips or peat– this surface is very gentle on the body but can be mixed in quality. A well maintained trail can be wonderful but these surfaces can often get wet or boggy and may be slippery.
- Sand– this surface fires up stability muscles that may not be used very often and is great for barefoot running. But sand can be uneven and unstable and puts extra pressure on knees, Achilles tendons, calves, ankles and hips. It’s best to start gradually with low miles and slowly work up to longer distances as your body tolerates it.
- Grass– this is one of the softest and most natural surfaces and can be good for runners who deal with impact type issues like bursitis and ITBS. However, grass can easily hide dangerous obstacles such as holes, roots, and rocks and you can easily run into things like ticks and dog poop and aggravate allergy symptoms.
- Synthetic Track– this is a soft and sturdy surface which has a bit of bounce making it easy on muscles and joints. It can be an ideal surface for someone who is slowly building back after an injury and a great place to do speed work. However the continual turns on a track can be hard for people who deal with calf and IT issues. And it can get a bit boring if you’re trying to log multiple miles.
- Treadmill– the belt of a treadmill is cushioned and this helps reduce lower body impact. With an indoor controlled climate it enables you to have a safe surface to run all year round. But treadmill running can be monotonous and it can be challenging to transition to road races since the belt helps propel you forward and the impact is so different.
- Snow– In many parts of the world most running surfaces may be covered with snow a portion of the year. Snow forces you to slow down a bit and have more awareness for your footing and environment. It can be fun to run through fresh snow but some hazards include narrowed roads, traffic patterns being less predictable, slick conditions, icy surfaces and slush. Snow can also hide curbs, potholes and other hazards.
- Boardwalks– MTA listener John is training for his first marathon and emailed to say this, “Some of us live by boardwalks. I am training for my first marathon and
getting into the longer runs I have found going from concrete then onto the boardwalk very annoying. I prefer to stay on the concrete and not change running surfaces.” Boardwalks present a good option for many runners who live by the water. The wood surface is gentler to the body than pavement and usually separated from other types of traffic more common on the road. Some downsides include irregularity of the boards due to warping from the weather which may make boards uneven and require more attention to your foot placement. Boards may also get slick in wet conditions and ice over during freezing weather.
Academy member Kristi Harris said the hardest aspect of the Florence Marathon in Florence, Italy was running on cobblestones.