Running is one of the easiest sports that you can get into. You can run anywhere and anytime you’d like (as long as there are no signs forbidding you to do so) – road, dirt, grass, treadmill, track, gravel, sand, or any other terrain you can imagine! So how do you decide what surface is best for you?
Before we get into the different surfaces and I try to convince you to be a trail runner (personal preference), let’s get down to the physics behind running. Running is a high impact sport with multiple factors at work. There is a horizontal force and a vertical force that occurs when your foot hits the ground. And then there’s gravity! During a run, the vertical force must be greater than the force of gravity in order to stay upright and with proper propulsion. The horizontal force is what causes forward motion. This horizontal force also dictates speed; the average runner applies 500 – 600 lbs of peak force during a run. Isn’t that WILD? 500 – 600 lbs! You’re putting that much force through your feet at each. (And for reference, Usain Bolt has about 1000 lbs of force coursing through his feet at each impact.)
So how can we reduce that impact and make running a “softer” sport? One simple option is to change the surface you’re running on. Let me break down the 4 most common terrains for you: concrete/asphalt, dirt, grass, and the dreaded treadmill.
This week I’ve decided to try something new out by doing a partial vlog to go with my blog. I’m not sure how I feel about this so feel free to drop me a note. I’m feeling pretty vulnerable about it overall since it’s the first time I’m trying it out and I know it’s not the best but here goes!:
Okay, I know concrete and asphalt are different materials and have different properties but for simplicity I am going to consider them to be relatively equal surfaces that put out the same force. Running on concrete, such as sidewalk or in the park, is easily the most convenient running surface. This is also one of the hardest surfaces that you can run on, which could cause you to be putting excessive force onto your joints. I personally end up spending a lot of time running on this surface out of convenience but always get off it as soon as I possibly can (I will literally hop onto any dirt path I see, even if it’s only for half a block). But if this is the only option you have then what do I suggest to make this a little less damaging and less stressful on your body? Proper footwear! I wrote a while back on how to pick the right running shoe for you and the type of surface you run on should 100% be taken into consideration when picking your running shoe. You can help counter the impact force by having a shoe that has a high shock absorption capability. But I digress, you can go read about shoes at your leisure, you’re here to read about surfaces.
My one true running love. I may cycle through shoe companies and shoes but I will always forever love dirt like any true cross country raised runner. Dirt offers the hardness that concrete/asphalt has but at a lesser impact because it has more give since it is not a true solid surface. Running on dirt is prime for those that suffer from shin splints, ITBS, or other impact related injuries. HOWEVER, you must be extremely careful to watch where you’re running as running on dirt frequently leads to ankle injuries. I run looking at a slight downward angle so that I can assess the ground ahead of me and pay extra attention to the ground when I am trail running. Having a shoe with a bit more support around the ankles can help with this.
Grass is very springy and is the lowest impact surface you can easily find (unless you live near a beach and have access to sand but that has a whole slew of other issues since it is not solid at all). Grass gives you that extra spring while still providing a flat surface to run on. This is easily the best surface for you if you have joint problems (ie. knee or ankle issues). As I mentioned with trail running, you must watch where you are running and it’s a bit harder to full take in the surface since there can be rocks or holes hidden under the grass.
And last and also least… the Treadmill:
Treadmills are no one favorite piece of equipment at the gym, I think we can all agree on that. But what you may not realize is that it is a relatively low impact surface in comparison to concrete/asphalt and dirt! You also don’t have to worry about tripping over anything or landing incorrectly while running on a treadmill (unless you’re like me and literally fall over while standing still…).
So what’s the best surface for you? Honestly, it really depends on what you’re looking for and what kind of injuries you may already have or are prone to. If you’re training for a race you need to make sure that you are training specific. I don’t mean that you need to run 100% of all training runs on the same surface but you should definitely be running half of your runs on the same surface you’re planning on racing on. But if you’ve been hesitant to start running because you’re afraid of the impact of running on cement, try out one of the other surfaces! Join me in this love-hate relationship that we distance runners have found ourselves in.