We spend thousands of dollars a year on our running shoes to maximize our comfort and cushioning to protect our feet, knees, hips and low backs.  If we learn how to wisely use the surfaces we run on, we will easily save lots of $$, eliminate most running injuries and continue to enjoy an active lifestyle.

Is that a plan that would make you happy?  I thought so….

As your physics teacher told you years ago, “energy is neither created nor destroyed.”  As it relates to your running, when your foot strikes the ground, the energy is transferred to the ground. Depending upon your running style, speed, body weight, shoes and ground surface, much of that energy is transmitted back into your legs.  The less absorption that takes place by the running surface itself, the higher the stress/force applied to your joint surfaces and soft tissue.

Minimizing Joint Compression

Changing the surfaces that you run on is a simple and very effective way keep your joint surfaces healthier and your entire body healthier.  Typically, the softer the surface the better, especially for the older runners.  In this era of minimalist shoes with very little shoe cushioning becoming so popular, selecting the proper running surface has never been more important if you want to avoid running injuries.

Here is a list of seven (7) different running surfaces and how each surface affects your body.  I’m not interested in which surface is faster or more responsive.  As your sports medicine resource, I’m looking at each surface and how it positively impacts your ability to stay healthy and avoid injuries.  That is the objective of MikeRyanFitness.com and a it’s a role that I thoroughly enjoy.

Picking the Best Running Terrain for You:

Ratings from 1 ( poor) to 10 (best)

1.  Natural Grass

Open grass parks, golf courses and sports fields are ideal for soft and leg-friendly running.   A well nurtured grass field can be your best training partner and a priceless tool to keep you healthy.
Pros: Grass is soft and very easy on the legs in terms of stress and impact.  The subtle unevenness of grass is an excellent way to add additional strengthening for the feet, lower extremity and core.  For the larger runners, grass is even more important.
Cons: Uneven and irregular surfaces may increase the risk of ankle sprains.

Sports Medicine Rating:9.0

2.  Off-Road Trails

Running off-road, for me, is a dream come true.  The soft dirt trails are easy on the legs and the changing of directions is great for improving agility and lower extremity balance.  Including a sense of adventure with wildlife all around you and so much to see, running off-road can help pass the time faster during those long slow runs.
Pros: Usually easy on the legs and the mind as you get away from the crazy world for some “me time”.  Because of the altering terrain, your stride length is shorter and your turnover is faster.
Cons: Ankle sprains, bug bites and getting lost are minor risks for getting away on a “mini vacation” with Mother Nature.  Mud and slippery surfaces will increase the risk factors while they often prove to be helpful elements that slow you down by making you work harder.

Sports Medicine Rating: 8.5

3.  Cinder Track/Trails

These fine-rock and packed sand is an easy to maintain running surface that many of us grew up racing on in high school.  Rain, snow or sunshine has little impact on this type of surface and that’s a good thing when it comes to avoiding injuries.  The footing is often consistent and more energy absorbing than the harder surfaces found on roads and treadmills.
Pros: If they are well-maintained, cinder surfaces allow for a somewhat consistent footing and are much easier on the legs than roads and treadmills. Cinder tracks and trials will help keep you healthy if longer runs are in your plans.
Cons: Cinder surfaces can allow for softer areas if the drainage is poor so slipping is a concern.  The traction on the bottom of the shoe will greatly impact the traction when hills and turns are involved with cinder trails.

Sports Medicine Rating: 7.5

4.  Synthetic Track

Speed and consistency are the two major advantages to today’s modern track.  The ability of this type of track to absorb “the pounding” from your legs is very good but the tendency to wear a lighter and less cushioned shoe often leads to injuries for runners training on this type of surface more than two times per week.
Pros: Level, stable and consistent surface allows for a runner to control his/her biomechanics better than on an uneven surface.
Cons: The curves often made at faster speeds with an increased traction often contributes to arch, ankles, knees and low back pain.  Long distances run on this surface, if run in the same direction, will have a tendency to lead to over-use syndromes.  Larger runners will find this surface less appealing in regards to injury prevention when compared to grass or trails.

Sports Medicine Rating: 7

5.  Sand

All sand running is not created equal.  Depending upon many factors related to the sand, this surface can be ideal or concerning.  Soft and deep sand, lowers the impact while stressing both the cardiovascular system and the muscles of the lower extremity.  The view, the change of pace and the additional upper body involvement make a sand surface almost a must-do for runners at least 1 time per week.
Pros: Soft sand absorbs a higher % of forces, therefore, puts less stress on his/her lower extremity. Elevated heart rates and greater effort to run both add to the positive attributes with running on a sand surface.
Cons: Although it’s great for building leg strength, the softness of the sand means a higher risk of Achilles tendonitis and foot blisters. When running on the water’s edge at the ocean, the tilt of the surface puts uneven stresses on the body.  This bilateral asymmetry may lead to lateral leg, hip and low back overuse injuries.

Sports Medicine Rating: 6.5

6. Treadmill

“But I was only running on a treadmill” is a common explanation I hear from runners confused to why their legs hurt or an injury occurred.  The convenance of running indoors is a big plus for many runners for obvious reasons.  All the fancy feedback (heart rate, calories burned, incline, pace,…etc.) displayed is nice but it often comes with a price if the frequency is too high or the miles are too long.
Pros: The surface moves for you and you simply need to keep your legs moving at the same speed.  The smooth surface makes the risks lower and the weather is never a factor.  The less experienced runners can exercise for longer periods of time on a treadmill compared to running outside.
Cons: The surface firmness can be quite high (that’s not good) and that will vary with the type of treadmill being used.  It’s boring and the fact that the treadmill is moving for you will tend to make a runner strike the ground harder by over-striding.

Sports Medicine Rating: 6.0

7. Asphalt

Asphalt is the most common road surface in the modern world so it’s the most common running surface for most of us.  It is quite hard and not considered to be a friend of runner’s legs.  It’s difficult to avoid but if you want to stay healthy, minimize your mileage on this type of surface as much as possible.
Pros: It’s a fast and predictable surfaces.  A runner’s pace and footing is easy to maintain on asphalt.  Often well maintained and well-marked, an asphalt surface can make you look good and feel fast in both training and in a road race.
Cons: Ankle sprains, stress fractures, road holes, traffic/bike and road trash add to the risks of running on the road.  Traffic free asphalt will eliminate some of those risks but the hard black road is an unforgiving surface that put significant  strain on the body.

Sports Medicine Rating: 5.0

The Homestretch

I had running poster on my apartment wall during my freshman year in college with a picture of a solo man running up a massive hill.  The caption on the bottom of the poster read:  “The race is not always won by the fastest of feet but by those that keep running.”

Keeping you healthy and running, that’s my job.  What you do with your running and your body, that’s your job.