To many runners, soft surfaces can help lower the strain on their body. In fact, some studies have proven that our bodies have the ability to adapt to different surfaces both soft and hard. Depending on your body and injury history, you should change between different surfaces to strengthen different muscles and prevent your body from adapting too much to only one surface. When it comes to injury prevention, switching up running surfaces is as important as varying training intensity and mileage. But it is essential to know the pros and cons of each surface type since it will help to have reasonable surface changes. In this article, I would like to introduce to you the pros and cons of some common running surfaces.
The pros and cons of different running surfaces
1. Running on Grass
- Pros: Grass is considered one of the best running surfaces because of its softness and low impact. Running on grass is proven to put 17 percent less pressure on runners’ feet compared to running on asphalt. This is a great option for people who experience impact-related running injuries such as IT band syndrome or hip bursitis.
- Cons: It is difficult to find a grassy area which wide and long enough to run. Grass surfaces are often uneven and can be slippery after the rain that may lead to injuries like twisted ankle. Besides, when running on the grass, you have to be very careful with hidden obstacles such as holes, twigs, rocks and even dogs’ waste.
2. Running on Dirt Road
- Cons: Like grass, dirt road is often uneven, that is not good for runners who have ankle problems. Additionally, this type of surfaces becomes slippery and muddy when wet but when it’s hot and dry, this turns into a hot and dusty oven. Remember to pay close attention when you step on dirt road if you don’t want to get unexpected injuries.
3. Running on asphalt
- Pros: Asphalt is the most popular surface because most roads are made of it. It is very easy you to find, measure distances as well as keep up a steady rhythm. In comparison with soft or uneven surfaces, this road is flatter, more stable and predictable that reduces the risk of tripping and twisting an ankle. Asphalt is also not too soft or too sturdy which is great especially for runners who have Achilles tendon issues.
- Cons: however, a mixture of tar, gravel and crushed rock of asphalt surfaces are quite hard for the joints. Running on this you can face many different obstacles and dangers such as potholes or cars. You should wear bright color clothes, run against traffic and turn your music down if you wear headphones to be aware of your surroundings.
4. Running on sand
- Pros: running on sand puts a minimal force of impact on joints and provides a great way to work out even less-used muscles. You will recognize the noticeable difference when you return to dirt road. Especially, running on sand is proven to burn more calories than on other roads. Additionally, this is also a good way to run and relax thanks to wonderful scenic on the beaches. Lastly, you can run barefoot on sand, which you cannot do with other surfaces.
- Cons: sand is often unstable and uneven which can lead to twisted ankle, sprains, stress on the knees or uneven stresses on the body. Besides, soft sand requires higher degree of flex in your ankle and feet movements, which increase the chance of getting Achilles tendon injury. People with weak ankles shouldn’t run on sand. If you want to switch to sand, you should first try running on wet sand for sturdier surface instead of dry sand.
5. Running on trails
- Pros: Trail is uneven so your legs have to do a more varied range of motions just in a workout to help you strengthen more muscle groups and improve balance. Besides, it is free from cars therefore your running will be safer.
- Cons: this serious instability surface can cause falls and injuries if you don’t focus. It can also be dangerous when you run alone or at night.
6. Running on synthetic track
- Pros: A synthetic track has the spongy surface, which is the balance between soft and sturdy. This surface causes less impact on the joints compared road and makes runners feel a bit more comfortable when they just start.
- Cons: this type of surface can bore you since it doesn’t provide the change in incline or scenery that roads can do. Besides, a slight camber of some tracks may put additional stress on your hips, ankles and knees.
7. Running on Treadmill
- Pros: With treadmill, you don’t have to worry about any obstacles such as dogs, traffic and muggers or any weather conditions like when running outside. You can also control the incline and speed of your run to mimic the effect of running outside as well as challenge your muscles. The surface of treadmill is even and relatively soft for people who need a less stressful running experience or are suffering from injuries.
- Cons: this is quite uneconomical because you have to buy a treadmill or come to a gym. Running on treadmill can make you tedious because there's no beautiful scenery like on the roads. Besides, a treadmill’s moving belt is claimed to lead to unnatural body motion, which could cause injury.
8. Running on snow
- Pros: this surface has low impact and high in resistance like sand. It gives you a sense of adventure as you run through a freshly fallen snowfall. Snow surface usually requires slow pace so it is good for muscles recovering from injury. Generally, snow surface has similar pros to sand and is also great for strength training.
- Cons: when it melts, it becomes slippery, slush and unpredictable, which increases the risk of falls and injuries. Snow hides dangerous objects and make your run unsafe. When running on this surface, runners easily take a misstep off a curb that often leads to ankle twist.
9. Running on Concrete
- Pros: Choosing to run on this surface is safer than the roads because it is free from traffic and very convenient if you live in a city. It is very flat and easily accessible. Its smooth surface will allow runners to develop a rhythm.
- Cons: Concrete is one of the hardest surfaces to run on which may put more stress and impact on your muscles and joints. Most experts suggest you try to limit your time on this surface. However, some said that there is no difference in the amount of stress put on your body when running on concrete compared to running on road. But if you have ankle sprains or knee pain, avoiding this surface is better.
If you want to try, make sure you have the best running shoes with adequate cushioning to help reduce impact and stress on your joint.
10. Running on Cinders
- Pros: This surface is rated as one of the most comfortable surfaces to run on. They put less stress on the legs as well as make your run easier than roads do. When they’re well kept, they are good, even surfaces.
- Cons: However, Cinders don’t offer good surfaces in all weathers. In the rain, they turn into a quagmire and in the heat they become slippery and loose. All these surfaces make your run more difficult and increase the risk of injuries.
In short, I want to remind you again that every surface (not only soft ones) has its own pros and cons and can become the best surface for you if it is suitable for your body. Surfaces above are the most common running ones. Each of them has a different softness and hardness and puts a different amount of impact on the legs as well as has their own ways to help runners improve their training. Importantly, you have to know what your body needs and how it is working. And if you have never varied your running surfaces before, you should switch it up slowly to avoid overexerting yourself.