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How Running Surfaces Impact Your Running Form

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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CKEYES1 10/6/2020
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RYDESKS 7/4/2020
I have noticed some of the asphalt roads have quite a slope near the sides. I try to alternate sides with each outing. Report
PLCHAPPELL 4/27/2020
terrible runner here Report
Great advise! I usually run on a treadmill, but sometimes I run outside. Report
Thanks Report
The last several weeks I've been hiking Conservation areas in the MO bluffs along the Mississippi River. Very challenging! Footing placement of each step is critical. Good article! Report
Great advice! Report
Great tips! Thanks! Report
Great advice! Report
Thank You for a very helpful article. Report
I walk now that I'm old, I need that firm flat surface. I can't risk a fall. Report
I agree with you. I believe that surfaces do matter. Report
Good advice Report
Good advice! Thank you! Report
Great article to read, Thanks! Report
Good to know. What a pounding the body takes when you run, and when you run on hard surfaces. Report
and I most often try to walk! Report
I mostly walk/run---- Report
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. Report
I run on the treadmill and on the road. So good. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
I would prefer grass in the first place, but I like trails also. Good information to read about. Report
good article Report
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. Report
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! Report
I run on concrete. We have a track by our house, but running around in a circle is sooooo boring. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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? Report
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. Report
You are right about asphalt being HOT, especially this time of year!!! Report
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. Report
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. Report
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! Report
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!! Report
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. Report
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. Report
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! Report
I am seriously thinking about the barefoot thing or the vibram's Thanks for the reminder to "change it up" on the surfaces. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
If you are having back, ankle, knee, and/or foot problems, look into these: / Report