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The Pros And Cons Of Running On Different Surfaces

By Jeremy Chin
Posted on 01 Jul, 2015

The Pros And Cons Of Running On Different SurfacesThe biomechanics of running changes according to the terrain you are running on. Your body adjusts to the environment, and you work different muscles and joints when you switch from a hard surface to a soft one, or from flat terrain to something with a slope or camber. To avoid repetitive stress injury from running, it is important that you incorporate a mix of terrain into your routine. It’s not only beneficial to your body, but good for your mind.


Pros: Most of the world’s roads are made from it. It’s everywhere, and is the most common surface that runners race on. When compared to other surfaces, roads are relatively flatter, more stable, and more predictable, lowering the chance of you tripping and twisting an ankle.

Cons: A mixture of gravel, tar and crushed rock, asphalt surfaces are quite hard on the joints. You also have the hazard of pot-holes and traffic to contend with.


Pros: According to a study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, running on grass puts up to 17 percent less pressure on your feet than running on asphalt. This makes it ideal for recovering runners who want a smoother transition back to the roads.

Cons: It can be difficult to find a grassy area that is ideal for running. Often they are either closed to the public (golf courses, football fields, stadiums), or packed with picnickers (public parks). Grassy areas also tend to be uneven and can be slippery when wet.


Pros: Running in sandy areas like a beach or sand dune works your lower body with little impact on the joints. This builds strength and makes a noticeable difference when you return to the road. According to The Journal of Experimental Biology, you burn 50 percent more calories on sand than running on road. Finally, you can go barefoot on a beach. That’s hard to beat.

Cons: Due to the wider degree of flex in your feet and ankle movements, there is a higher risk of Achilles injuries. And when running on a beach, the tilt of the surface by the water’s edge can be stressful on the knees.


Dirt Roads
Pros: The slight yield you get running on a dirt road reduces impact on your joints and lowers the risk of overuse injuries.

Cons: When wet, earthy surfaces become slippery and muddy. Sometimes the opposite occurs. In really hot and dry areas, the road gets overbaked and turns into a hot, dusty oven.


Pros: Composed of composition of fine rock, carbon, ash and slag, cinders are much easier on the legs than roads are. A well-maintained cinder track can provide a good and even surface.
Cons: In the heat, cinder tracks become loose and unstable. In the rain, it can puddle up.



Forest Trails
Pros: It is free from cars, you have shade from the sun, the scenery is great, and the air is fresh. Also, because of the uneven terrain, your legs go through a more varied range of motions in a single workout. This allows you to work more muscle groups and improve your balance.

Cons: Unless you’re lucky enough to find a wood chip trail or one with well-drained peat, woodland trails can be muddy and slippery. Tree roots can also be a hazard.


Synthetic Track
Pros: Synthetic surfaces are reasonably forgiving and cause less impact on the joints than running on road. Measuring 400 metres in distance, they are great for timing your runs and training.

Cons: Some tracks have a slight camber to it which can put additional stress on your ankles, hips and knees. If you are alone on an empty track, you can alternate your running direction to even out the strain on your joints, but in most cases, you'll have to run in the pre-determined direction set for the day.


Pros: It is low impact and high in resistance, making it great for strength training.

Cons: Snow obscures dangerous objects or dips in the landscape from view. One can easily take a misstep off a curb and twist an ankle.


Pros: You are free from the elements and don’t have to worry about traffic, dogs and muggers. You also have full control of the speed and incline of your run, which makes it a great training tool.

Cons: Running on a treadmill isn’t very exciting and many runners get bored of it. A treadmill’s moving belt is also said to result in unnatural body motion, which could be injury causing. Lastly, unless you have the space for one, you probably have to belong to a gym to gain access to one, and this can be quite uneconomical.


Pros: Sidewalk pavements tend to be shaded, free from traffic, easily accessible and flat.

Cons: Made primarily of cement, it delivers the most impact of any surface to a runner’s legs.


Final Wrap Up
Even if you’re a road racer, pushing off on softer surfaces engages and strengthens more muscles, which can translate into faster times on the road. But that doesn’t mean you should be a complete off-roader. Training on harder surfaces like asphalt and concrete have their advantages. They allow you to work on your race rhythm and gets your legs accustomed to running on hard surfaces.

So, as with most things in life, take a break from your regular routine, switch it up a bit, and enjoy the new.

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