What is the Best Surface to Run on?

How to pick the right surfaces to run on when training.

What is the Best Surface to Run on?

Whether you are just starting out on your first run or looking to start back up again after an injury, choosing the best surface for you is an important decision. The type of surface you run on determines how much ground reaction force is sent back up into your body with each step. The harder the surface, the harder the impacts and the more force that is driven back up through our feet, ankles, shins, knees, etc.

Hard Surfaces - The Positives

The good thing about harder surfaces is speed. We can travel much faster as the time spent on the ground will be less than if we run on a softer surface like dirt or sand. The amortization phase (read: time spent transitioning from landing to takeoff) is much shorter when we run on surfaces like asphalt or pavement.

Without getting into the physics of it all, essentially, we are able to create more force and quicken our reaction time on harder surfaces as they provide a stable platform for us to run on.

Hard Surfaces - The Negatives

The downside of this is that each step sends a tremendous amount of force back up through our bodies causing more damage over time compared to softer surfaces. If your recovery is not enough to heal from all of the damage caused, you will eventually run into (pun intended) an overuse injury. The damage caused by each step will accumulate over time until something eventually gives way and breaks. The harder the surface, the faster this damage accumulates.

Soft Surfaces - The Positives

Generally speaking, softer surfaces will allow you to accumulate a greater amount of volume with less damage over time. That said, depending how soft the surface is, you begin changing other variables in your training. For instance, running on a rubber track is a fantastic alternative to road running. It is still stable (read: reactive), flat, and relatively soft, thus enabling you to run longer without as high a risk of injury. However, if you were to run on soft sand or on a trail - you lose the stability and consistency of a flat firm surface. These changes in surface change how your feet and ankles interact with the ground, which means a change in your mechanics.

These changes to our running mechanics can be both good and bad, depending on how you approach running on these surfaces.

Soft Surfaces - The Negatives

As described above, there is a slight tradeoff in terms of training style (i.e., what adaptation we are seeking) when we run on softer surfaces. There is also a decrease in speed. Softer surfaces help build foot, ankle, and knee stability. However, if approached incorrectly, they can introduce a higher degree of relative risk for injury due to this lack of stability. Sprains, tendonitis, and other injuries often occur due to an inappropriate volume and intensity when starting out.

Types of Surface To Take Into Consideration

So, which type of surface should we run on and when?

GRASS

For the purpose of this article, grass is considered natural unlevelled grass such as parks and fields. Potholes, divots, mounds, hills, ditches, etc, are all potential hazards and make sprinting relatively dangerous. If you are forced to sprint on unlevelled grass, make sure you thoroughly check your travel path for potential issues.

Good for:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running
  • Bounding
  • Jumping/Hopping
  • Cutting/Change of Direction

Bad for:

  • Sprinting

When to use:

  • Bulk of low-medium intensity training/activity.

TURF

For the purpose of this article, turf should be considered either astroturf or well-maintained and levelled grass. Typically found at sports facilities, turf is an ideal training surface.

Good for:

  • All

Bad for:

  • N/A

When to use:

  • Bulk of medium-high intensity training/activity.

SAND

Soft sand such as at a beach or in a desert offers a variety of benefits for improving foot and ankle health. The nature of the soft surface requires more effort, but also provides an ideal surface when recovering from an overuse injury such as shin splints due to the softened impacts. When approached with care, the uneven nature of the sand also helps build ankle stability as you are forced to manage the uneven terrain. If running barefoot, be sure to check for sharp objects prior to setting forth.

Good for:

  • All

Bad for:

  • N/A

When to use:

  • Recovering from impact-driven overuse injury such as shin splints.
  • Looking to improve foot and ankle health and stability.
  • Training for similar environment.

DIRT/GRAVEL

Many schools and publicly accessible trails and rural roads still use dirt or gravel. These offer a softer yet still responsive surface to run on. However, some may have looser gravel/sand that makes traction a factor for consideration.

Good for:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running

Bad for:

  • Sprinting
  • Bounding
  • Jumping/Hopping
  • Cutting/Change of Direction

When to use:

  • Bulk of low-medium intensity training.

TRAIL

Trails provide the most variety of surfaces, often times all on the same trail. You can go from firmly packed and relatively flat dirt to rocks and roots, soft dirt and everything in between and outside of that.

Good for:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running* (if advanced)

Bad for:

  • Sprinting
  • Bounding
  • Jumping/Hopping
  • Cutting/Change of Direction

When to use:

  • Bulk of low-medium intensity training/activity.
  • Looking to improve foot, ankle, and knee health and stability.
  • Looking to incorporate elevation changes in single sessions (i.e., add hills).
  • Training for similar environment.

RUBBER TRACK

Rubber tracks are one of the most difficult surfaces to find outside of competitive training facilities. That said, more and more cities are introducing rubber paths for runners, which is lovely to see.

Good for:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running
  • Sprinting
  • Bounding

Bad for:

  • Cutting/Change of Direction
  • Jumping/Hopping

*Many track facilities will not allow you to cut or change direction or stop suddenly given the nature of the surface (they want to prevent you from damaging the track) as well as interfering with other people using the track (i.e., stay in your lane).

When to use:

  • Bulk of medium-high intensity training/activity.
  • Ideal for sprinting.
  • Training for similar environment.

PAVEMENT/ASPHALT/CONCRETE

The hardest surfaces, and yet most popular for half and full distance marathons. Not generally ideal to train on unless your explicit purpose is to use these surfaces as a tool within your training to incrementally improve your bone/tissue tolerance or you are forced to run on them for a competition or job. Do not sprint on these surfaces.

Good for:

  • N/A

Bad for:

  • All

When to use:

  • Training for similar environment.
  • Very limited and incremental exposure for improved bone/tissue tolerance.

Unless you have to use these surfaces, they are best avoided. The risk to reward ratio is not worth it.

POOL RUNNING

Running in a pool is a popular tool for rehabilitation of overuse injuries as your buoyancy helps mitigate harsh impacts.

Good for:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running
  • Bounding
  • Jumping/Hopping

Bad for:

  • Sprinting
  • Cutting/Change of Direction

When to use:

  • Gradual exposure to impacts as part of a rehabilitation program.

TREADMILL

One of the most popular pieces of gym equipment, if not the most, treadmills offer a wide variety of training options. That said, treadmill running is not entirely equitable to non-treadmill running and is best used as a specific tool - not your regular running surface if at all possible.

Good for:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running

Bad for:

  • Sprinting
  • Bounding
  • Cutting/Change of Direction
  • Jumping/Hopping

When to use:

  • Incline/elevation training.
  • Learning pacing or specific pacing is required.
  • Unable to access other surfaces.

Training Surface Selection

Okay, so which surface should I use? Many of those surfaces seem useful and applicable. How can I incorporate them into my training?

A few extra comments about treadmills...

It may seem as though the commentary so far has been fairly negative regarding treadmills. This is not the case. Treadmills are a very useful machine both for advanced and beginner runners. They also offer a fantastic substitute when no other safe method of running is available.

That said, here are a few factors to take into consideration with treadmill use:

  • Treadmills force a slight unnatural movement pattern as they push your foot/leg backwards in a straight line and also reduce sway/drift in your stride, which does not occur when you run under your own power.
  • Treadmills force a uniform pace, whereas you would have a natural ebbe and flow to your speeds throughout a normal run.
  • Treadmills have an assistive force due to the conveyor belt assisting your movement.
  • No wind resistance.
  • No turning.
  • Difficult and often very dangerous to attempt sprinting.
  • No dynamic or downward change in elevation (i.e., you can only increase the incline, and it is not that flexible).

Key Takeaways

  1. Complete the majority of your training on more forgiving surfaces.
  2. When preparing for a "road race", transition to harder surfaces over time.
  3. Include softer, less stable surfaces for less intense training to improve ankle stability.
  4. Sprint on track or turf only.
  5. Treadmills are a versatile tool for sustained incline training and pacing tool for beginners.
  6. Treadmills should only be used as a supplemental training aid or when other running is not possible.