What Are The Best Running Surfaces for Your Goals?

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How much thought do you put into where you run and the surface you are running on? You probably just head out from your home or place of work and run wherever is most convenient.

There’s nothing wrong with that – any running is good running – but there are a few pros and cons you should consider before you decide to break away from your normal route and run somewhere new and unusual.

Choose the running surface best suited to your running goals and remember, specificity trumps all. If you are training to run a road race then you should do most of your training on the roads. Conversely, if you are into cross-country running, the grass and trials are your best bet. Whatever you are training for, make sure 80-90% of your training matches your goal. For the remaining 10-20% just have fun and do something different.

Here is a short list of different running venues (and surfaces) so you can make an educated decision on where you should run.

Roads & Sidewalks

What Are The Best Running Surfaces?

Why: Smooth, well-lit and always available, road running is probably the most accessible form of running. Starting right outside your door, roads and pavements make up the majority of most people’s running.

Why not: Pavements are unforgiving and increase the amount of shock transmitted up into your feet and legs – this could lead to injuries such as shin-splints. Pot holes, pedestrians and traffic lights mean you have to stop and start and evade a glut of obstacles.

Furthermore, busy roads have high levels of air pollutants.1 Research shows that air pollution has adverse effects on your running performance and your general health.2,3

You also have to watch out for other road users so make sure you play it safe by steering clear of cars, bikes and trucks as there is no guarantee they’ll steer clear of you!

Tip: At night, wear bright and reflective clothing and always err on the side of caution when interacting with traffic. If you can try to find a more forgiving running surface.

Grass

What Are The Best Running Surfaces?

Why: More forgiving than roads and pavement, running on grass can provide a lower-impact alternative if you find your ankles, knees and hips have had enough pounding lately.

Running on grass does not necessarily mean heading out into the wilds of the countryside as many urban parks and sports fields have large expanses of grass, which you can run on. Furthermore, research suggests that greenspaces can exert a positive impact on our health and wellbeing.4

Because grass is soft, it works your muscles harder than running on the pavement, so it’ll feel easier when you return to running in the urban jungle.

Why not: The slightly uneven surface normally associated with grass is a double-edged sword. While, it can help increase ankle, knee and hip stability and balance in general, it could also result in a twisted or sprained ankle.

Grass is slippery when wet, making a slip on this running surface more likely.

Tip: When you run on grass, watch out for dogs – both ends – you know what I’m sayin’!

Woodland Trails

What Are The Best Running Surfaces?

Why: Wooded trails are running nirvana. Firm enough to offer support; soft enough to offer some cushioning, trail running is a great way to get away from urban running without having to worry too much about getting lost in the wilderness.

And as if you needed a scientist to to tell you this – studies show that wooded spaces can help to reduce stress, improve mood, and lower blood pressure.5,6,7

Trails are usually punctuated with rest areas, water fountains and even first aid stations and most are conveniently located near a car park so you can just drive up and start running. The slight give of this running surface means that they are easy on the joints.

Why not: Like running on grass, you need to keep an eye out for trip-hazards and also crazed mountain bikers…and possibly the occasional bear! After the rains, trails can get super muddy, which means trying to run while avoiding enormous puddles and trying not to slip.

Read more: How to choose the right shoe for your workout

Running Tracks

What Are The Best Running Surfaces?

Why: Running tracks are usually 400 meters or quarter of a mile around and as flat as flat can be. This means you can get a really good idea of exactly how fast or far you are running.

Fast tracks tend to be quite hard but slower tracks have a bit of give in them, which is great for recreational distance running. Running tracks are always traffic free so you can run at night quite safely.

Why not: With very little else to stare at other than your fellow runners, track running can get pretty boring very quickly, especially for longer runs. You’re basically going round in circles. At least you can watch TV on the treadmill! And speaking of circles, the two tight turns for each lap put more stress on your ankles, knees and hips.

Tip: Use this running surface to test your speed over a precisely measured 5,000 or 10,000 meters or use it for the occasional interval training session. But doing more than the sporadic run on a track will probably leave you feeling very bored indeed.

Sandy Beach

What Are The Best Running Surfaces?

Why: Running on sand is hard, and as running surfaces go, this is about as difficult as it gets. The sand shifts as you run, saps energy like nothing else, and works your muscles real hard. Add in some sand dunes and you have one of the toughest places you can run.

You can change up the intensity of your workout by moving from dry, deep sand (very challenging) towards wetter, more compact sand closer to the water (easier).

Tough running makes tough runners. So if you just want a hard workout, beach running delivers in spades, plus the scenery is unbeatable.

Why not: The soft, shifting and shock-absorbing sand will alter your running gait, which along with the uneven surface may increase the risk of injury. Running closer to the water’s edge means a titled running surface, stressing the body. 

Tip: Look for firm, flat sand and limit your beach running to occasional short runs.

Treadmill

What Are The Best Running Surfaces?

Why: Distraction free running. Get on and switch off. No need to think about dodging obstacles; keeping an eye out for traffic; having to stop and start; running alone or in the dark; getting cold, hot, or wet. You can plug in your headphones and crank up the music, watch TV or just zone out entirely. Plus the treadmill calculates distance, pace and calories burned. Super easy.

Why not: All the things that make the treadmill awesome also make it boring. Furthermore, while running on a treadmill might look like running on the road but in actuality it’s quite different. The main difference is that when you run outdoors you use your muscles to pull you over the ground while a treadmill passes under you and you have to try and keep up (or fall off!).

Running on a treadmill will certainly crank up your heart rate and provides a convenient way to work out when the weather is bad, but miles on the treadmill do not convert to miles on the road. Your muscles do not work in the same way and your gait will certainly be different.

Tip: Use a treadmill occasionally as a foul-weather alternative, when the days are short, if you live in a city with little opportunity for running on grass or trails, for the occasional interval training session or if you’re training to run at a steady pace. But don’t expect to do the majority of your training on a treadmill and automatically run well outdoors.

Read more: How to transition from the treadmill to outdoor running

7 sources

  1. Yazid AW, Sidik NA, Salim SM, Saqr KM. A review on the flow structure and pollutant dispersion in urban street canyons for urban planning strategies. Simulation. 2014;90(8):892-916.
  2. Carlisle AJ, Sharp NC. Exercise and outdoor ambient air pollution. Br J Sports Med. 2001;35(4):214-222. 
  3. Brook RD, Rajagopalan S, Pope CA III, et al. Particulate matter air pollution and cardiovascular disease: an update to the scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2010;121(21):2331–2378.
  4. Barton J, Rogerson M. The importance of greenspace for mental health. B J Psych Int. 2017;14(4):79-81.
  5. Antonelli M, Barbieri G, Donelli D. Effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on levels of cortisol as a stress biomarker: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Biometeorol. 2019;63(8):1117-1134. 
  6. Park BJ, Furuya K, Kasetani T, Takayama N, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Relationship between psychological responses and physical environments in forest settings. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2011;102(1), pp.24-32.
  7. Ideno Y, Hayashi K, Abe Y, et al. Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):409. 

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