How Running Surfaces Impact Your Running Form

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
7/7/2010 2:00 PM   :  67 comments   :  27,826 Views

See More: running, safety,
One of the most enjoyable aspects of running is you can basically do it anywhere in the world, whether on city streets, back country roads or in the comforts of a gym environment. All you need to do is lace up your running shoes and hit the trails. However, knowing how the different running surfaces impact your running form may help prevent aches and pains you may experience along the way.

Runners are said to experience the impact of three to four times their body weight over 800 times during just a one mile run. The harder the running surface, the greater the impact the body must absorb, which may lead to problems anywhere along the kinetic chain, from the foot to the upper back and everywhere in between.

Unfortunately, the minute one experiences an injury the shoes are the first thing we want to blame. After all they are the only so-called real equipment one needs to participate in the sport. But we should not ignore the fact that shoes are not always to blame when it comes to running injuries, particularly if you have do not vary your running surface.

If you were to ask most running experts what the ideal running surface is, you will likely receive a wide variety of responses. With running, the body is quite adaptable to the stress that we place on it, even when we are running on surfaces that are deemed less than ideal. But by varying our running surfaces we may be able to prevent may of the common overuse injuries experienced by runners of all skill levels.

Below is a list of the some of the most common running surfaces and how they impact your running form.

  • Grass - Grass is considered to be the ideal running surface by many experts because of the soft, cushioning effect it provides. The softer surface means less impact for the body to endure with each foot strike. However, it is important to find a grassy surface that is smooth and level with the grass cut short enough so that the runner can see any irregularities.

    Keep in mind though, grass running causes the muscles of the legs to work much harder when compared to other running surfaces and because of this, it may lead to ankle and feet issues, such as plantar fasciitis. It is advised that only those who are in good shape with flexible feet and strong ankles run on grass.

  • Dirt Trails - Dirt trails, like grass, are considered to be one of the best running surfaces as they provide a similar cushioning effect to the joints. And because of the constant variation of the running surface, you are less likely to suffer an overuse injury. However, be cautious of dirt trails as tree roots, rocks and other debris can lead to the potential falls and other injuries.

  • Synthetic Tracks - Stop by any of your local high schools and you may see a number of walkers and runners utilizing the outdoor running track. Polyurethane tracks have been found to be one of the best surfaces to run on as they provide less shock absorption when compared to other running surfaces.

    A track is a great place to do speed work, such as intervals, but the redundancy of running around an ellipse may make it mentally tough to endure for longer runs.

    Most tracks run in a counter-clockwise rotation, therefore if you decide to use a track as your only running surface you may notice aches and pains on the left side of your body. The reason, it is a natural inclination to lean slightly into the curve in which you are running.

    Some running tracks will reverse the direction on a daily basis to avoid repetitive direction as this can lead to overuse injuries down the road.

  • Asphalt - Because many of us live in communities without access to grass or running trails, asphalt can actually be one of the better road surfaces to run on, especially when compared to concrete. Asphalt, a combination of rock, tar and sand, provides a greater shock absorption for the legs. It is considered to be one of the fastest running surfaces and easy to measure.

    However, note that because roads require proper drainage, there may be an arc or camber on the road which can create injury issues, especially if you elect to run alongside the curb. The reason, one leg is higher than the other, this knocks the body off balance. If that is your situation, it is advised that you alternate the sides of the street in which you run or better yet, run in the center of the road to avoid the slant.

    Also note that asphalt can become quite hot as the sun's heat is absorbed by the black tar and the sun's rays are reflected off the surface which creates a warmer running environment. Be cautious too with your footing as pot holes can be quite common in asphalt roads, particularly after ice and heavy rains.

  • Concrete - Unfortunately I live in a community where most of the running surfaces are comprised of concrete whether the streets themselves, or the local running courses that are made for runners. Concrete is considered to be one of the worst surfaces to run on as it causes the greatest impact to body. As with asphalt, be aware of the camber of the roads if you must do your running on this type of surface.

  • Treadmills - Treadmills are a great alternative when the weather does not permit outdoor running. Please be aware, though, that they are not a substitute for road running as the treadmill does not allow for you to adjust to running on a harder, uneven surface. So if you plan on participating in a road race event, make sure you do some of your training outdoors, not only to allow your body time to adjust to running on a road surface, but to allow for adaptation to the environment.

  • Sand - While many runners like the idea of running on the beach, it can be one of the least stable of all running surfaces. While sand ranks high in providing the least amount of impact to the body, it is one surface most experts note that can cause the greatest injuries to the legs, especially the calves and the Achilles tendon.

    When running on loose sand, as the foot impacts the surface, it can become quite unstable, therefore causing the heel to sink into the sand providing a wider range of motion which can lead to major calf and Achilles tendon issues. These two injuries alone can derail a runner for months, maybe even years. And if you run on tightly packed wet sand, the slope of the surface close to the water's edge may lead to injuries similar to those found when running along the curb.

    According to Bob Glover, author of The Runner's Handbook "beach running should be kept to no more than 10 minutes for new runners and 30 minutes for more advanced runners."

    But for me, you will not find me running on the beach--the mere thought of tearing an Achilles tendon will keep me off the shore and running on a more stable surface--after all, how many of us race on this type of surface?
As with any other activity, variety is essential to keeping overuse injuries to a minimum. But use caution when you are changing running surfaces. Just a slight change in our form and foot plant can lead to issues anywhere along the kinetic chain.

Varying the surfaces on which you run may ward off potential injuries, while allowing you to build the endurance. However, it is important to note that if you plan to participate in a road race, be sure to find out the surface that you will be running on so that you can do some of your training runs on this surface to allow for some adaptation before the race.

Were you aware of how the different running surfaces may impact your running? What type of running surface do you most frequently run on? What surface would you like to try?


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Comments

  • NUTTERS22000
    67
    I usually run on tarmac or concrete but due to an hamstring niggle I have started running on grass to lessen the impact on my body as a whole. Its certainly more tiring on grass though. I really feel I've had a good workout after just 4 miles. - 6/2/2013   10:42:10 AM
  • 66
    I run on the treadmill and on the road. So far...so good. - 8/15/2010   2:48:20 PM
  • 65
    Thanks for the great blog. Fortunately I run on dirt and compacted sand trails. It only took 1 trip over exposed roots to teach me the importance of staying "present" and aware on the run. - 8/4/2010   4:40:21 PM
  • 64
    Sadly, I run on concrete....all the "trails" near my house are cement. I have a school track right up the road, and it is easier on my knees, but I so love running/ walking SOMEWHERE...not in a circle for miles and miles. After reading this article, though, I think I might try running alongside the trail in grass when it's available. - 7/21/2010   12:21:20 PM
  • 63
    Boy I sure wish I had read this article in January or February!!

    Last October (when the weather turned cold) a friend and I decided we would start walking in the gym at our church. We thought we were doing so good- we did this every week day non stop!

    Well February rolls around and with hopes of running a 5k this summer we added running to our walks (8 min walking- 10 min running for an hour or so).

    Then BAM one day my ankle started hurting. The next morning I woke and it was swollen. I babied it for a couple of days, but it still didn't get better so I went to my doctor's assistant. After xrays he said I had a stress fracture and that if I was good to it- it would heal in about 2 weeks. Well three weeks later it still wasn't any better so I went to see my regular doctor. He didn't even look in my chart before he announced I had GOUT!! He gave me some heavy anti inflammiory medicine and said I would be 100% better overnight. Well it was some better, but still not 100% so I went back to him. He said to just keep taking them for the 10 days perscribed and then I'd be healed.

    Well 3 weeks later I still couldn't walk without pain and a limp so I decided to seek a specialist.

    After his nurse took xrays the podiatrist walked in the room and the first thing out of his mouth was, "So how did you fracture your ankle?" I told him I was told I had a stress fracture or maybe gout- he said there was nothing stressed or gouty about my ankle-- it was a full blown fracture!!

    Well after 8 weeks of a cast and boot with no weight bearing and several more weeks of pain, swelling and limping around. My doctor finally gave me the go ahead to start walking again. First thing though-- I had to promise him I would not run in the gym everyday and definitly not in the same direction as we were. He said, "Mix it up and change your route. Do not walk everyday-- get a bike and/or an elipical machine and swim.

    Well I bought a bike and I started taking short walks up and down the paved country road I live on. This past Sunday I finally ran for the first time since February. Although it was only about a 1/4 mile-- it sure felt good.

    5K -- definitly --- next summer. - 7/14/2010   1:05:40 AM
  • 62
    I've also learned the hard way, that the surfaces you stand on at Work & Home greatly impace your body too. Wood, Carpet, Bamboo, or Cork are best for those with Arthritis and Auto Immune need to stay away from Carpet & Upholstered non-natureal furnishings. - 7/12/2010   6:54:25 PM
  • 61
    I like to run on trails, however, i mostly run on concrete. There is a track by our house, but yes, it is so boring. - 7/10/2010   7:24:41 AM
  • JSLEMBKE
    60
    I would prefer grass in the first place, but I like trails also. Good information to read about. - 7/9/2010   3:17:14 PM
  • 59
    good article - 7/9/2010   10:49:05 AM
  • 58
    I run on the roads, mostly. Sometimes I go down to a rails-to-trails and I love that surface (crushed limestone). It's so much easier on my legs and it's cool; lots of shade that I often don't get out on the street. There's a section of the rail trail that is paved, and I can immediately feel the pounding when I hit it. I'd like to give trail running a go. Friends say it strengthens the legs, esp. ankles since the surface is uneven and you a constantly making minute adjustments. - 7/9/2010   9:01:19 AM
  • 57
    Thanks for sharing this inforamtion. I never realized there were so many different types of surface to run on, so it was good to read. I really like the point of encouraging those who use a treadmill that are 'training' for a race to train on the road as well. Good food for thought and will keep this in mind as I work through my own walk/run program! - 7/9/2010   8:54:58 AM
  • 56
    I run on concrete. We have a track by our house, but running around in a circle is sooooo boring. - 7/9/2010   8:07:04 AM
  • SILLYMIMI
    55
    I used to run 18 miles a week then I got hit by an 18 wheeler 4 years ago. I kept trying to go back to running, but my neck would start hurting. I recently tried the thick soled fitness shoes to run in and you got it. No more pain. I am currently back up to running 10 min out of 30 and I am slowly increasing as I don't like pain. There is no faster way to exercise fast, than to run. Exercise goes by faster and you slim down faster. Love it, love it. - 7/9/2010   5:23:42 AM
  • 54
    I started out running on asphalt and concrete in my neighborhood, and then I started getting a lot of knee pain that basically kept me from running for a month. Now I've made it a point to find a high school track and a relatively flat dirt trail loop in my area, and I try to run on asphalt no more than once a week. - 7/9/2010   12:41:23 AM
  • 53
    i have to say i run on the trails for the most part but when i need to put a run in and am short on time i go runnin at the high school runnin track which i hate i love the dirt trail and to see all the animals and the trees its very peaceful. - 7/8/2010   7:24:05 PM
  • 52
    My uncle has been a fanatical runner for YEARS. He often runs in white out blizzards and super hot days which have caused him to pass out. He's nuts. He has made several comments about which surfaces are best especially since he's starting to have issues with his knees and the discs in his back. - 7/8/2010   1:34:41 PM
  • 51
    I almost always ran exclusively on concrete and asphalt. I've just started running on trails and have noticed that while my muscles are sore, I do not feel the pain in my knees like I used to. I also got properly fitted for running shoes and between those two things I'm doing a lot better. - 7/8/2010   1:10:40 PM
  • SHB1964
    50
    It's really cool to finally read an article that has more information than the obvious "start exercising!" I figured there were differences in these kinds of surfaces but didn't know, for example, that grass surfaces might make one susceptible to plantar fasciitis. I have this painful condition in both feet (along with falling arches and tendonitis) but I think I got it from jumping rope on my back porch that has indoor/outdoor carpet. I also do ballroom dancing on a terrazzo/tile floor and I'm sure that's not helping. Didn't realize such perils with beach running though! Interesting. Tell me, does all this advice apply to walking on these surfaces as well? - 7/8/2010   12:42:32 PM
  • 49
    Based on some of the most recent studies most running shoes cause a heel first foot strike and the excessive padding causes the individual to inadvertently land harder in order to activate the proprioceptors, we need to feel the surface underfoot.

    Chaning to a natural and proper forefoot foot strike will cushion most of the impact and prevent injuries and other problems. I suggest before worrying about the surface one is running on that each individual assess their running technique.

    I confess I am a minimilist foorwar runner and advocate Vibram Five Fingers or even aqua socks to simply protect the feet from cuts and abrasions. I have over forty years experience as a road runner and some twenty years coaching runners from track and cross contry athletes to road runners and marathoners. - 7/8/2010   12:38:00 PM
  • 48
    You are right about asphalt being HOT, especially this time of year!!! - 7/8/2010   12:37:10 PM
  • 47
    I do my running on the road now I am on vacation, but when I am home I run on the treadmill,and some time on the beach, I love the treadmill more,very good blog thank you very much. - 7/8/2010   11:58:11 AM
  • HARDCORE69
    46
    Great article! I find the differences in running surface very noticible. This article clears up many thoughts for me. I am most affected running on the highways in our area because of the slope, my lower back is affected in a very short time due to surgery and vertabrae fusion years ago. I really have to vary the pich of the road by running on either side alternating quite often to keep from causing too much grief. My wife thinks I am just nuts or making excuses, I say you take my back. - 7/8/2010   11:45:53 AM
  • 45
    Thanks for this great article! I had been having knee pain in my left knee, but it's been clearing up and I just might have figured out why. I used to run on the track near my house and it was the only place I ran, but now I have taken to the streets and I only get occasional knee pain. I never thought that could be a contributing factor! - 7/8/2010   11:16:06 AM
  • 44
    VERY informative! thank you!! I have been running on the treadmill for few months now, but since i want to start doing 5k I am currently transitioning to a park/concrete run...i want to try the grass run though since it is better than concrete!! - 7/8/2010   11:03:21 AM
  • ARMONIA11
    43
    I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a lot of bike trails which vary in surfaces. I most often run on asphalt, because it is closest, but I switch it up from time to time. I can definantely tell the difference you talk about though. - 7/8/2010   10:00:59 AM
  • 42
    Wow I really wasn`t expecting so many people to be running on dirt trails. Living in a busy inner city area concrete is my only option, in the center of the road would be suicide!! If you`re lucky you may have a smallish park which will be packed gravel/sand trails but really it`d take about 10 mins to run around once. - 7/8/2010   9:28:10 AM
  • RLMCCUE
    41
    Wow, this is a great blog with a wealth of useful information for someone like me, who's planning on taking up running in the near future. Thank you! - 7/8/2010   9:13:54 AM
  • 40
    I am seriously thinking about the barefoot thing or the vibram's Thanks for the reminder to "change it up" on the surfaces. - 7/8/2010   9:10:18 AM
  • 39
    I don't run, but the same issues arise, albeit less intensely, with walkers. I save soft-sand beaches for meditative walks, where I am concentrating on every aspect of my stride and feeling it through the whole of my body. Otherwise, I aim for variety, and keep my eyes open for problems ahead.

    Good information here; thanks, Nancy. - 7/8/2010   8:57:46 AM
  • 38
    I walk. While I would like to do some running, knee issues don't make that very likely. But I do get to walk on the beach quite a bit, and see a lot of runners there. Neither the walkers nor runners use the soft sand, we all work on the packed sand left by high tide. It makes a great surface, though you do have to adjust for the slope of the beach. I can't imagine trying to run in the soft sand, it's hard enough just getting across it to reach the packed sand. - 7/8/2010   8:50:24 AM
  • 37
    I began my own (self-taught) running program near downtown Los Angeles. For obvious reasons, I couldn't use the asphalt, so I was stuck with concrete. That was really tough. I knew what I was in for because I'd read about running surfaces, but together with the asthma and extra lbs, the concrete was just one more factor which slowed me down. It took me about a year to get a decent pace.

    These days I mostly stick to the treadmill. I realize that the treadmill isn't a substitute for outdoor running, but I'm not really concerned with racing, so it's not a problem. What is an issue: my long term health as a runner. I've dealt with a few minor injuries on the treadmill, but nothing as severe as when I was running on concrete. Sometimes I run on the asphalt trail in the local park (I've moved); that's mostly for fun. I'd like to try an athletic track in the future to experience the difference. - 7/8/2010   8:26:40 AM
  • 36
    If you are having back, ankle, knee, and/or foot problems, look into these:
    http://www.vibramfivefingers.com / - 7/8/2010   7:44:45 AM
  • 35
    I notice a HUGE difference in how my hip and knee joints feel after a run on the sidewalk vs. a run on a treadmill. Luckily, I just moved to a new town that has lots of recreational paths, so I will hopefully be able to run on a more cushioning surface on the weekends, instead of the pavement I'm pounding right now! - 7/8/2010   7:30:03 AM
  • 34
    This is great information as I am a new runner outdoors. So far I have only run on our dirt driveway and most of my running will be on dirt trails. I have weak ankles from old injuries, so I need to be especially careful with this. - 7/8/2010   7:12:56 AM
  • 33
    Thank you for the information. It is very useful. I have already spent a winter in a cast due to achilles tendon issues from misuse. I had begun a winter walking program on a treadmill and added hills too soon and had injuries. People really need to read these articles about how injuries can happen. I wish I had before I had an injury. But I do a lot now! Thanks again. - 7/8/2010   5:11:00 AM
  • 32
    Due to walking/running on the wrong surfaces, in 2004 my ankle had to be fused. The doctor said that running was out, & no walking unless the surface was FLAT. DH & I took a marble to assure that the treadmill complied. Now, that is what I use. - 7/8/2010   4:57:29 AM
  • 31
    That is very useful information. Unfortunately, I live in a community where the roads are gravel. I still run, but it does prove challenging as I constantly have to be watching out for larger rocks and uneveness in the road. I wish my trail was a little more scenic, but I take what I can get! - 7/8/2010   1:04:26 AM
  • 30
    Very useful info. I run on a trail in the woods but now I have been running on the treadmill. The beach in our city is really concrete as the lake was banked. It is good to have this knowledge, will definitely apply it.... - 7/8/2010   12:51:37 AM
  • 29
    I've recently started training with a C25K program and when week 4 called for 5 minutes runs I headed for an open field because I knew it would help offset some of the stress. Still it was nice to see a breakdown/comparison of all running surfaces. Thanks! - 7/8/2010   12:34:06 AM
  • 28
    We have a great trail network where I live. When I run on cement or asphalt after running the trails consistently, it's so much harder - on the body and on my psyche! I love how incredibly present I have to be on the trail runs and how changeable the surface is. - 7/7/2010   11:39:16 PM
  • 27
    I just recently started running at the local park. That surface I believe is concrete, but I am not sure. It could be asphalt too. So I have been starting off slow and I will run for a bit and then walk. That way I don't put too much inpact on my feet and the rest of my body until I get used to running. - 7/7/2010   9:49:16 PM
  • VERNICEMAZ
    26
    I don't run, unless it is in a pool which is easy on the joints. However, it was nice to know the info in the article. - 7/7/2010   9:47:24 PM
  • 25
    Great article! It is so true that running can be a seriously different experience depending on what surface you're running on. I'm fortunate here that I have access to dirt trails, paved trails, asphalt, sidewalk, track, treadmill, etc. I find that mixing it up keeps things interesting and allows me to be more prepared for races. And I haven't suffered from an overuse injury yet :) One day I'ld love to try a short jog on the beach but I don't live anywhere near one!! - 7/7/2010   8:48:40 PM
  • 24
    I learned about some of this the hard way after training to walk a marathon. I did almost all my work on a local trail but the race was on mixed surfaces: asphalt and concrete. I didn't think I would make it for the last 4-6 miles I was in so much pain. I trained for the distance, but not for the surfaces.
    I was out of commission for 2 months afterwards due to knee injuries. My doctor said I should have trained half & half on each surface. The coaching I received did not present any "surface" information.

    It really surprised me to read the details about sand and the beach. It is good to have that knowledge. Thanks! - 7/7/2010   8:39:30 PM
  • NGAIBRUCE
    23
    At present I'm 80 percent treadmill and 20 percent concrete. I've done mountain climbs & trails which are fun but the beach always made me nervous. One you missed which is my favorite is the basketball court! In college, we'd do a six hours running drill in which no one stops for 6 hours. After a couple times, I had enough left in the tank to play 30 minutes of handball! I'd have to say that the basketball court is the perfect place as long as you're able to refrain from coming down on another player's foot when rebounding. - 7/7/2010   8:33:19 PM
  • 22
    Great article. I frequently run on the treadmill because I can't deal with the bugs. No, i was not aware of how many types of running surface were out there. - 7/7/2010   8:04:10 PM
  • 21
    Were you aware of how the different running surfaces may impact your running? What type of running surface do you most frequently run on? What surface would you like to try?

    I was not aware of how different running surfaces could impact my running. I run on a concrete sidewalk for I do not like running in the camber and do not feel comfortable running down the middle of the road. I wouldn't mind running at my school but don't like the idea of driving into work to just run the track in the heat. I like my 6am cool runs in the morning. - 7/7/2010   7:17:54 PM
  • SUNSET09
    20
    I enjoy the treadmill for inside and dirt surfaces for outside as they seem to be easier on the knees and legs. The scenery outside is so welcoming and before I know it, my hour is up! Now that treadmill shave built in TVs and/or radios, it makes exercising that much nicer or a distraction! - 7/7/2010   7:01:52 PM
  • 19
    Thank You for the information about running on sand. I usually walk on the beach for at least an hour a day when we go on vacation. Now I won't feel bad that I'm not running. I'll save that for when I'm at home. - 7/7/2010   6:06:51 PM
  • 18
    i am a new runner and run mostly on asphalt - i love it but it can be a bit hard on the knees. i bought good running shoes and they help a lot, but i wear heels to work and that's what gets my knees achy sometimes...

    i think i am going to give the treadmill @ work a whirl just to see what it feels like - at least i can catch up on some HGTV! :-) - 7/7/2010   5:57:00 PM

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