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What Is the Best Type of Surface For Running?

Trail or Sidewalk? The Pros and Cons of Running on Different Surfaces

Body-wise, running can be a high-impact sport, which can mean achy joints, irritated tendons, and other running-related injuries. Many runners use various methods to try to lessen the impact of constantly striking the ground.

For many runners, that means choosing a soft surface. But while you may think that running on soft surfaces may help lower the strain on your body, this may not always be the case. An article from The New York Times says that runners who preferred softer surfaces don't necessarily have fewer injuries than those who ran on asphalt or concrete (and may have more, since softer surfaces can lead to accident-related injuries). In fact, some studies have shown that our bodies actually adapt to different surfaces no matter how hard they are, so the type of surface that we run on may not matter as much.

While the best running surface may be a personal preference, there are still benefits and drawbacks to each type. Whether you love to run on the street or on trails, check out the pros and cons of running on these surfaces after the break.

Grass
Pros: Grass is soft and low impact, so it may be a better choice for people who have impact-related running injuries. It's usually rated as one of the best surfaces for running.
Cons: A run in the park can be a little stressful! Besides hidden holes, rocks, and twigs, you also have to watch out for other obstacles, like pedestrians, dogs, and other distractions.
Don't forget: Not paying attention when running on grass commonly leads to injuries like a twisted ankle, so make sure you keep aware of both the ground directly in front of you as well as the ground ahead.

Dirt
Pros: Behind grass, dirt roads are also often rated as one of the best surfaces to run on. Dirt has just enough hardness and leeway to make for a prime running surface, especially if you suffer from shin splints, IT band syndrome, or other impact-related injuries.
Cons: The unevenness of dirt trails can be bad for your ankles, so avoid dirt roads if you've had an ankle injury.
Don't forget: Like grass, dirt trails can be uneven, so pay close attention to where you're stepping.

Sand
Pros: When it's warm out, nothing beats a run on the beach. Besides being one of the most relaxing and scenic ways to exercise, running on sand offers a great way to work out little-used muscles as well as burn more calories than running on less-strenuous surfaces. Plus, since sand is soft, you can run on the surface without risking impact injuries.
Cons: Unstable soft surfaces like sand can wreak havoc on weak ankles and can lead to sprains and other accident-related injuries.
Don't forget: Don't start running on sand if you've never done it before. Try starting on the wet sand first for a sturdier running surface.

Treadmill
Pros: Even and relatively soft treadmills are a great way to run if you suffer from injuries or need a less-stressful running experience. Also, since the treadmill helps pull you a little as you run, you may find that it's easier to run longer distances.
Cons: Running on a treadmill can get tedious, and there's no beautiful scenery to distract you.
Don't forget: Always run on an incline or do intervals to get the most out of your indoor running workout and to work more muscles. Also, don't rely solely on the treadmill if you are training for a race — you'll need to be familiar with the irregularities of road running beforehand!

Track
Pros: The spongy surface of a synthetic track strikes the right balance between soft and sturdy.
Cons: Can you say tedious? Long runs can be boring in the oval. Also, people with calf sprains and IT band problems should watch out: circling around the track can shorten calf muscles and stress your IT band.
Don't forget: If you do have these problems, keep track runs short, and try easing up as you round the corners.

Asphalt
Pros: Since most races are run on the street, if you are training for a race you should get off the treadmill, so you will be more in tune with any obstacles in the streets. Also, running on the street can be better for those who experience Achilles tendonitis, since the sturdy surface keeps your Achilles tendon in a less-tensed position.
Cons: The road is made up of many different obstacles and dangers, from potholes to cars, which can make your running more unsafe.
Don't forget: When running on the road, always wear bright clothes and make sure you turn your music down low if you wear headphones so you can be aware of what's going on around you.

Concrete
Pros: Running on the sidewalk can be the most convenient if you live in a city, and it also may be the safest option if you don't want to risk it on the road.
Cons: Concrete sidewalks are one of the hardest surfaces you can run on, which may translate to more stress on your joints and muscles. Most running experts recommend you try to limit your time on the sidewalk, but other studies have shown that there is no difference in the amount of stress on your body when you run on the sidewalk versus running on the road. But if you have injuries like ankle sprains or knee pain, it's probably best if you stay off the road.
Don't forget: If you want to run on concrete, make sure you have the best footwear for the job. Wear shoes with adequate cushioning if you find that running on concrete leads to joint pain.

Which surface is best for regular runners? The answer: all of them. Depending on your body and your history of injuries, you should vary which surface you run on so you can work and strengthen different muscles and keep your body from adapting too much to one surface. This will help you stay injury-free. If you haven't varied your running surfaces in a while, start slowly when you switch it up so you don't overexert yourself.


Source: Thinkstock
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