A Guide to Running Surfaces

3023749962_3d7d7b3dd2_b_Ian Mutoo_sharealike_Golden bridgeA Guide to Running Surfaces

From concrete to water, everything you need to know about where to train.

Allegra Burton, M.P.H., R.D.
Santa Monica, CA


  • The impact force of each foot strike on the body when running is equivalent to two to three times your body weight
  • A runner can take over 5,000 steps on an average 5-mile run.
  • Running on unforgiving and uneven surfaces is a leading cause of running injuries


  • Running on different surfaces will have different effects on your body and it is important to know the pros and cons of each type. It is best to try out different surfaces and listen to what your body needs.
  • In general, the best running surfaces are those that are moderately soft and smooth; the toughest on your body are those that are hard and/or irregular.
  • Ground reaction forces (GRF’s) are the shocks transmitted through the body as your foot strikes the ground.  Some new research suggests that GRF’s generated when running on different types of surfaces may not vary as much as first thought because it might be possible for runners to adjust the stiffness of their legs before their heel strikes the ground based on their perception of the hardness of the surface.
  • However, don’t get caught depending too much on that microsecond adjustment as research also suggests that the changes in muscle activation, and possibly running mechanics, needed to achieve this greater stiffness increase muscle fatigue and muscle loading—two factors that can lead to injury.
  • If you do plan to change your running surface, do so gradually and give your body time to adjust.
  • With the help of some websites (see below) and some creative thinking, you can find places to run on appropriate surfaces whether you are close to home or hundreds of miles away.


Pros: For many of us, grass and dirt surfaces are just as abundant as their harder counterparts and they are certainly much more forgiving to joints, muscles and bones.  They’re especially good for hilly workouts.

Cons: Muddy, soft grass and dirt and hidden roots and holes can lead to falls and ankle injuries.  Running on uneven, inconsistent surfaces can lead to strains, sprains and tendonitis.

Where to find it: You might have to do some research and creative thinking to find the best grass and dirt running spots in your area.  Check out local parks near you as well as high school playing fields and golf courses.  When you are traveling, do an internet search to map grassy parks and areas in your vicinity.  This website is a great place to get started.

Tips: If you run before or after school hours you might just find a terrific, grassy loop on local school playing fields and around golf courses.  You can also do hill repeats on those great sledding hills the local kids use for their winter fun.  Watch for hidden roots, rocks and uneven surfaces when running on trails.


Pros: Trail running can be an exhilarating experience and a great change of pace.  Besides the beautiful scenery, the varied terrain will challenge you to change up your pace and engage the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that help stabilize your joints.

Cons: Trail running can also pose hidden dangers in the form of rocks, holes and hidden roots and expose runners to twists, sprains, and falls.  Also, a lot of trail running can be in secluded areas.  Runners need to be mindful of their safety in terms of both injury prevention and their ability to properly orient themselves in order to find their ways off the trails and back home. Running in daylight hours is also a must.

Where to find it: There is an abundance of great trails across the U.S. in local and national parks.  Chances are there are some great trails near you. If you don’t want to stray that far off the beaten path, check out this great site for a slew of tried and true trails in your area.

Tips: You may want to explore new trails with a running buddy.  An extra person can help navigate tricky terrain and call out hazards, and there is safety in numbers.  Also, look at maps to find major landmarks and orientation points before you set off on a new run.  When on the trail, watch for hidden roots, rocks, uneven surfaces, low branches and local wildlife.  In fact, if you aren’t a local, it’s best to find out what unexpected running buddies you may encounter and how to deal with them before you leave the house.


Pros: Running on sand doesn’t just make for a great movie moment (or an entire television series, as was the case with Baywatch).  Firm flat sand causes less impact on joints, muscles and bones.  It can also provide an increased cardio workout as sand requires greater effort to propel your legs forward.

Cons: Not all sand surfaces are created equal.  Crowned, sloping sand can be hard on joints, especially knees and ankles, and running on loose surfaces can cause meniscus injuries.  Plus, for those who like to practice barefoot running on the beach, sharp shells and sea creatures can cause cuts and scrapes to the feet.

Where to find it: If you find yourself near the coast, check out a “best beaches” list to get information on great sandy spots near you.  However, oceans aren’t the only source of good beach running.  Many lakes across the U.S. feature sandy spots for runners to find their share of this soft yet challenging surface.  Check out this list of the best beaches in the world – you can even plan vacations around them.

Tips:  You won’t need to run as far or as long on sand as you do on firmer surfaces to achieve the same effect because running on sand requires more effort – which also means more strain on muscles and tendons.  Also, for runners whose routes are affected by the moon, low tide is the best time to run as there tends to be more flat, firmly packed sand on which to run.


Pros:  Runners feelings for treadmills range from love to absolute disgust – most have settled their feelings somewhere between tolerant and appreciative.   However, no one can argue with the training convenience of these indoor, data-crunching machines.  Plus, the flat, cushioned surface reduces impact on joints, muscles and bones.  Not to mention that indoor running eliminates the climate factor – rain, wind, cold, snowy, icy, or hot, humid conditions.

Cons:  Overheating, boredom, risk of falling off.  Runners on treadmills also tend to run on a narrower path, possibly in an effort not to fall off.  This can have a negative impact on your stride mechanics and may cause slight knee pain.

Where to find it:  If you are lucky, you might have one right at home.  However, treadmills can be found in almost all health clubs.  If you are traveling, ask if your hotel has a gym on premises and, if not, if they have a relationship with a health club nearby where they send their guests who want to work out.

Tips: Ask your health club how often they replace their treadmills/treadmill belts.  Belts wear out over time. Try changing treadmill speed as well as the incline during your workout – this will create variety, which will help both your mind and the points of greatest impact on your body.  For some different treadmill workouts, check out this Runner’s World article.


Pros: The greatest pro of these two surfaces is that they are not only everywhere, but they are also super easy to log miles on (especially for those of us who love tracking stats but are woefully Garmin-free).  In addition to obvious convenience, these smooth, even surfaces are easier on ankles and Achilles tendons than softer, uneven surfaces.

Cons: Road running on concrete and asphalt creates the greatest impact on runners’ legs and can lead to a variety of overuse injuries as well as lower back strain.  Patellofemoral syndrome and medial tibial stress syndrome (known to most of us as runner’s knee and shin splints) are associated with harder running surfaces such as concrete and asphalt.  If you are choosing between quite literally a rock and a hard place, know that concrete is 10 times harder than asphalt.  However, asphalt gets very hot, as it tends to radiate heat from the sun.

Where to find it: Whether you are home or in another state or country, you can use one of the sites at the end of this article to map a running route – or just step out the front door and let the roads lead you.

Tips: If possible, try not to run exclusively on hard surfaces, and if you must, be sure to allow adequate recovery time between runs and alternate with other types of training.


Pros: Running in water makes for a great workout. Deep water running closely simulates running on land while providing increased resistance and little to no impact.  For these reasons, it is ideal for runners recovering from injury.  Research shows that athletes can maintain conditioning for up to 8 weeks when substituting water running for land running.  Even when you are not injured, deep water running is incredibly beneficial, which is why many elite runners have incorporated it into their training routines.   It is the most biomechanically specific form of cross training for a runner and offers a healthy change of pace and environment.

Cons: Does not provide the same weight-bearing exercise benefits of land running, which are important for bone health and strengthening of tendons and ligaments.  It can take some time to develop proper form and technique.

Where to find it: Even if we have a personal pool, most of us can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on an aquatic treadmill.   However, any pool or body of deep water can be used for deep water running.  Local health club or indoor/outdoor community pools, deep ponds and lakes as well as calm ocean water are all great options.

Tips:  Use a floatation belt or vest to help keep you afloat and upright so you can perform a running motion.  The water line should be at shoulder level and your mouth should be comfortably out of the water without having to tilt your head back.  For the most part, try to simulate your normal running style.  Keep your spine in a neutral position and your body leaning very slightly forward.   Arm motion should be the same as that used in land running.  Keep your hands clenched, ankles flexed.  Make sure to relax as your body adjusts to the different running dynamic —it will feel strange at first.


  • Run most often on moderately soft, even surfaces such as grass and dirt and minimize running on concrete.
  • Running on a variety of surfaces is beneficial as it strengthens different muscles and ultimately reduces the risk of injury.
  • Regardless, be sure to wear running shoes (or other footwear) that provide cushioning and stability and replace your running shoes periodically.


No matter where you are and what you want to do, these websites can help you map a great run:










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