What Is the Best Surface to Run On?

It's important to vary your running surfaces.

Trail runner
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Some runners love trails, while others enjoy grass or sand or a synthetic track. Many may only really have access to asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks, or treadmills. But the best surface to run on depends on your body, your goals, and even your shoes.

As a rule, healthy runners should always vary their running surfaces to improve strength and balance, and to help avoid injury. Switch up your routes and do some trail running, some running on asphalt, some track runs, and even some running on sidewalks if you have to.

If you're training for a race, do the majority (but not 100 percent) of your runs on the same type of surface you’ll be racing on. If you frequently run on the same route, reverse direction every other run. That will adjust for any slant in the road, so you'll be stressing both sides of your body equally.

Learn more about each type of surface so you can adjust accordingly. Remember that if you're trying a new surface for the first time, you need to ease into it gradually.

Asphalt

Although running on a sidewalk may sometimes be a safer choice (to avoid traffic), asphalt is a bit softer and therefore easier on your body than concrete. So, if you're running on a hard surface, opt for asphalt roads when you can, as long as they are safe.

Advantages of asphalt include consistency and uniformity, which makes it good for speed workouts. When you don't have to think about where you're placing each step, you can pick up your pace. This flat, solid surface also puts less strain on the Achilles tendon. Plus, asphalt roads are usually mapped, making it easy to track your mileage with an app, an online map, or your car's odometer.

Of course, asphalt's hard surface has its drawbacks—particularly the way it jolts the joints. You'll also need to take care to avoid traffic, potholes, and cambers (the slight downward incline at the very edge of the road).

Concrete

While it is harder than asphalt, concrete is a readily available running surface and one that is most practical for many people to use.

On the plus side, concrete sidewalks are safe from traffic and tend to be smooth and flat. And some research indicates that if you're not going too fast, the effect of the terrain, in terms of impact on the muscles and joints, is negligible.

Still, be aware of concrete cons: It is high-impact, especially if you are running fast. And you face obstacles such as curbs, pedestrians, and traffic when crossing streets.

If you often run on asphalt or concrete, make sure your shoes provide good cushioning, for shock absorption. Replace them often.

Grass

Softer surfaces such as grass are definitely easier on your body than concrete or asphalt, but that doesn't mean there are no risks for common overuse injuries.

The good news about grass: It's low-impact, but still requires enough muscle strength to provide good training. You can do it barefoot or in minimalist shoes to improve foot strength. Grass is great for beginning runners because it means less pressure on the bottom of the foot, at least according to a few studies of plantar load.

However, runners can get injured on softer terrain, too, because it does not provide the same stability as a harder surface. Your feet will pronate, or roll inward, further, which could increase the strain on your muscles and joints, leading to injury (or re-injury in runners with a history of plantar fasciitis). Or you could twist an ankle on the uneven ground. Plus, grass is slippery when wet.

Trails

Like grass, dirt or wood-chip trails offer a cushioned surface for runners, and often pretty scenery to enjoy. They are a nice opportunity to switch things up.

Benefits of trail running include this lower-impact, joint-friendly surface, which means a lower risk of overuse injuries. It can also boost flexibility because of the need to make frequent adjustments in form and stride.

Of course, that could also be a negative. A trail's tricky, uneven terrain (and sometimes slippery mud) puts runners at risk of twisted ankles and other traumatic injuries due to falls. It's also more difficult to run fast.

If you are trying to train at a specific pace, avoid trails due to their unpredictability.

Sand

Running on sand is a whole different experience than many other surfaces. In fact, it's two of them, because of the contrast between wet and dry sand.

The benefits of beach running are evident: You get beautiful shoreline sights, sounds, and breezes. Sand (especially when it's wet) is very low-impact, but still offers an excellent workout because you have to resist against the surface as it gives. You will feel it in your calves the most, particularly if the sand is dry and deep.

Be careful, though, about running too far or too long on the beach, because the uneven, shifting surface is tiring. And if your beach path is slanted toward the water, you'll be running off-balance. Finally, the soft surface—while easy on the joints—is tough on the Achilles tendon.

Snow

If you live somewhere snowy and still want to get outside and run, it can be done. Warm clothing and grippers for your running shoes will help keep you safer.

Similar to sand, running on a snow-covered surface forces you into a slow and steady pace that still offers quite a workout. This could be good if you're coming off a break and need to be conservative. And running outside in winter keeps you off the treadmill.

Of course, you will still have to use caution. Snow and ice can be very slippery and unpredictable. The darkness of winter days also means more risk.

Track

If you're just recovering from a running injury and you're worried about a recurrence, your best bet is to run on a rubberized track, which will offer a level surface as well as good shock absorption.

Also on the plus side: Most high schools have tracks that are open to the public, so they're a safe, convenient option. Most tracks are 400 meters (about 1/4 mile), so it's easy for you to monitor your distance when you're running. That makes tracks a great option for speed training.

However, running laps can be tedious. If you always go in the same direction (typically counterclockwise), you'll tax the muscles on one side of your body more than the other. So it's important to switch directions. Even though the track offers a gentler surface than asphalt or concrete, going around the curves can still be tough on the joints. Plus, the rebounding effect of the synthetic surface can stress the IT band and calf muscles.

While variation is important, some research shows that runners intuitively adjust the force of their foot strike based on running surface.

Treadmill

Most treadmills are padded, making them another good option if you're just back to running after an injury or you're injury-prone and want to reduce impact. Treadmills are also the best option if the weather conditions are too extreme for a safe run.

More treadmill pros: You set the pace and incline wherever you need it, and the machine forces you to keep up. (You can better simulate outdoor running by setting your treadmill at 1% incline.) There are no obstacles or uneven surfaces. And you can run any time of the day or night without the risks you'd face outside.

Of course, treadmill boredom is real, and it may be harder to get a good workout when the belt is pushing you along. You also don't get the benefit of fresh air and breezes.

Again, you don't want to do all your running on a treadmill, as you might then have difficulty adjusting when you return to outside running. The bottom line is that varying your running surfaces will help prevent injuries and keep you from getting bored.

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