Is There One Best Running Surface? How to Choose The Right Training Terrain

What I love most about running is the sense of freedom that comes with. The freedom to exercise wherever, whenever I want. I can run on just about any surface, anywhere in the world, and at any time you choose.

That said, when it comes to training terrains, not all surfaces are created (or made) equal. Change your venue, and you’ll change your workout due to the different impacts that shoot through your joints and muscles.

That’s why in today’s post I’m going to share with you some tips and guidelines on how to pick the right running surface for your training.

Are you excited?

Here we go…

The Trails

The trails offer a combination of continuously changing scenery, with near-ideal training surfaces.  They’re also typically easy softer on the legs.

Woodland paths usually consist of softer surfaces that can be ideal for if you have a bad history of overuse injuries, such as shin splints, runners’ knees, or iliotibial-band syndrome.

What’s more?

The pristine views make for a breath-taking and enjoyable workout, which can make you keen to return.

The Downside

Most trails are riddled with lots of jarring rocks, gnarly roots, and uneven surfaces that may force your foot to land at an angle, forcing you to trip up. That’s why ankle sprains are quite common among trail runners.

The Takeaway?

To make the most out of trails, look for dirt ones, wood chips, or well-drained peat trails.

Stay clear of trails if you have a terrible history of ankle sprains—or already recovering from. The ligaments surrounding the ankles do not recover 100 percent following injury. That boosts your risk of repeat onset, and you don’t want that.

Also, pay attention to any holes, sticks, roots, and rock that could trip you up.

Grass

The grass is a popular, well-loved, low-impact surface that’s one of the best surfaces to run on.

This surface is a fantastic choice when getting started running or getting back into the sport after a long layoff or injury as it puts minimal impact and stress on your ankle, knees, and hips.

When running on grass, the bulk of impact stresses from your foot strike goes in the ground instead of jolting through your legs.

What’s more?

Although grassland paths are soft on the legs, they make your muscles work hard. This increases strength in key running muscles, and you’ll notice the endurance and strength gains when you return to paved surfaces.

Sport running man in cross country trail run. Fit male runner exercise training and jumping outdoors in beautiful mountain nature landscape with Snaefellsjokull, Snaefellsnes, Iceland.

The Downside

What I dislike the most about running on grass is the uneven surface. Grassland paths might be riddled with rocks, twigs, and hidden holes. So, you got to be careful. This can be dangerous for runners with unstable ankles.

Not paying attention to your foot strike and where your foot lands on grass may lead to acute injuries, like a sprained ankle.

Also, you’re more likely to overpronate when running on grass.

Runners with a history of plantar fasciitis should be wary of grass surfaces.

This places additional torque and stress on the plantar fascia, which is the ligament that stretches along the bottom of the foot.

The Takeaway?

If you can find an even, flat stretch of grass, then you’re one of the lucky ones.

If not then pay attention. Keep an eye out for bumps, holes, and tall grasses that can trip you up, as well as other obstacles, such as other runners, pedestrians, bikers, and other distractions.

Synthetic Tracks

Thanks to their spongy surfaces, synthetic tracks strike the sweet spot between sturdiness and softness.

Most synthetic tracks have “give,” which makes them easier on your body than most other surfaces.

The typical track is 400-meter long—that’s roughly ¼ mile. So, it’s easy for you to measure your distance when running on it.  This also makes the track ideal for speed sessions—think all-out 200-meter sprint repeats.

What’s more?

You don’t have to worry about running over rocks, dodging roots, and avoid aggressive drivers.

The Downside

Tracks are boring.

Any workout longer than 30 minutes will become very tedious—fast. This is especially the case if you’re doing any long runs at a steady pace (hint, never do them on the track. Otherwise you’re going to grow to hate them).

What’s more?

If you have a bad history of IT band injury or calf sprains, you got to be careful on the track.

Running around the track can irritate the iliotibial band and shorten your calf muscles, which increase the risks of re-injury.

The Takeaway

Keep your track sessions short and try slowing down round the corners.

You can also consider switching the direction of each lap. Running circles in the same direction put much more stress on the legs than facing the track center.

Moreover, the following exercises can help make your trail running experience more enjoyable.

The Treadmill

The treadmill is your best indoor running option during winter time—unless you have no problem running under rain and through the snow.

Most treadmills allow you to keep accurate performance stats. They help you monitor your pace, incline, heart rate, calories burned, and so much more. Training at the right speed for training goal is just a matter of adjusting the machine—as long as you can keep up the pace.

The treadmill offers a smooth and merciful surface that’s usually easy on the legs.  The belt’s cushioned surface reduces the impact on your feet, knees, hips, and back.

What’s more?

The treadmill is clear of external factors such as obstacles, uneven terrain, dogs, severe weather, dogs, etc.

The machine is also dry and warm, no matter what the weather. It’s also the ideal alternative to outdoor training when in the dark or during the cold, snowy months.

The Downside

Just like sprinting around the track, running in place can be boring as there’s no engaging scenery to distract you. The lack of wind resistance is also annoying.

The Takeaway

To counteract this and make the treadmill more fun, vary the incline to simulate outdoor running. Fartlek and intervals can also help. Perform intervals to get the most out of your indoor runs and to work more muscles.

Concrete

Usually made up of cement (crushed rock), concrete is what typical pavement is constructed from.

In general, most concrete surfaces tend to be easily reachable, especially if you live in an urban area. It’s also probably the safest choice if you don’t want to risk it on the road.

Concrete also gives more option for keeping control over your training pace and form.

What’s more?

Most concrete routes are easier to navigate through and to power across than most other surfaces.

The Downside

Since concrete is one of the hardest running surfaces, running on the sidewalk delivers great shock forces to your muscles and joints, which could, over the long run, cause overuse injury.

To sidestep this, consider getting running shoes with sufficient shock-absorption and support properties to help your body absorb some of the stress load that could contribute to pain and overuse injury.

Moreover, you also must watch out for other pedestrians, and traffic so that headphones can be unsafe.

Asphalt Roads

A mix of gravel, tar, and crushed rock, asphalt roads make up the majority of roads out there.

Asphalt surfaces are the speed-friendly and easiest surfaces you can find—especially if you live in an urban area.

You can also maintain a steady rhythm on it. That’s why asphalt roads offer the ideal condition for steady state or tempo runs because you can keep your focus on your rhythm instead of worrying about the surface.

The Downside

The unforgiving and unyielding surface also results in more orthopedic stress—so pay attention if your joint problems.

To keep trouble at bay, opt for a well-cushioned pair of shoes.

Asphalt roads can be riddled with many different obstacles and dangers, from cambers, potholes, to traffic, which can make your running less than safe. For that reason, make sure to stick to safe, well-lit, and traffic-free stretches.

For more city safety tips, check my post here.

The Sand

Nothing beats running on the beach when it’s warm and nice out.

Moreover, moving through the sand also offers you a great way to exercise rarely-used muscles as well as shed more calories than running on hard surfaces.

Wet sand is softer than most other surfaces. You can run on it without risking overuse injuries.

The Downside

Dry and deep sand can put a lot of stress on your tendons, which can increase your risk of Achilles pain and other issues.

Dry sand can wreak havoc on your ankles and result in sprains and other acute injuries.  You don’t want that.

The Takeaway

When you run on the sand for the very first time, remember to keep it short.

Steer clear of the sand if you’re recovering from an ankle injury or have a lousy history of ankle pain or Achilles tendinitis.

Stick to wet sand first for a sturdier running surface.

To stay safe while running through the sand, do plenty of ankle strength exercises with calf raises, etc.

The Last Word On The Best Running Surface

In the end, the decision is up to you. As we have seen in today’s post, every running surface has its upsides and downsides. There’s no such a thing as the perfect running surface.

Here’s what I’d recommend you do: Vary your running surfaces. I firmly believe that switching up your training is key to making the most out of your runs. This can help you work on strengthening different muscles and keep your body from adapting too much to one particular terrain.

Most of the healthy runners I know usually vary their running surfaces to work on improving balance, endurance, strength as well as avoid injury. Ideally, you should aim to run some on grass, trail, pavement, treadmill, and some on the track.

Conclusion

There you have it. The above guidelines are all you need to help you determine the best running surface for you. Please apply the guidelines as soon as possible.

In the meantime thank you for reading my post.

Feel free to share your tips and comments in the section below.

Keep Running Strong

David D.

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