Whether you’re sticking to sidewalks or braving the sand, here’s what you need to know to avoid injury on the most common running surfaces.
Hit The Roads
Of all the places to run in the United States, sidewalks are the most common. Depending on where you live, these suburban jackpots stretch for miles in any given direction—attracting all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts. Coincidentally, it’s some of these same people that complain about “bad knees” or “achy joints.”
What gives? Running is supposed to be a physically and emotionally beneficial outlet. Are runners being divinely punished for listening to the health gurus and logging those miles? No. There are many variables that can lead to aches and pains; that’s true for any athlete. But, I can tell you one thing for sure: Running on the sidewalk every day isn’t helping.
Whether you’re injury prone or merely cautious, knowing the differences between running surfaces is important for a runner. From injury-inducing to running on clouds, here’s what you need to know about where your feet are going:
Concrete and Asphalt
Those concrete sidewalks are some of the hardest surfaces you can run on—followed closely by asphalt. The sheer force at which your feet strike concrete or asphalt can cause shin splints and stress fractures. On the flipside: The consistency of these surfaces makes it easier to stabilize and decreases the risk of falling.
While it’s not as firm as concrete, the treadmill is still considered a very hard surface. Logging a lot of treadmill miles has the potential to mess up your IT band and worse, alter your running gait and cause injury. Yet, the benefits of treadmill running are clear: It’s a great time saver and a great resource in inclement weather. Attempting to run your mileage too fast or doing so in bad weather can both cause illness and injury.
Running on sand is one of those things that is much less glamorous than it looks. It takes a lot more effort to run on sand because the surface is not stable. A runner is constantly stabilizing and balancing. On the upside, running on a beach is a very efficient cardiovascular workout, the surface is soft on joints, and you can take a dip in the water after the run. Despite the beauty though, running on the sand can be brutal on ankles, shins, and knees.
Dirt, gravel and grass are perhaps the most natural running surfaces. But that hardly means it’s without risk. Trail running requires constant, heightened attention. One misstep can result in a broken bone or a life-threatening fall. Every trail offers unique challenges, but most will provide their fair share of tree roots, divots and ledges. The risk doesn’t come without reward though. Trail running has significantly less impact on your bones and joints than running on concrete or asphalt. The natural terrain is also a great asset to overall strength and agility.
There’s no perfect running surface, so deciding where to run really just comes down to personal preference. Are you recovering from ankle surgery? Stick to the flat, firm surfaces. Do you live in a state that’s snowy and slippery? Opt for the treadmill during times of harsh weather. Ultimately, the best choice is to vary the surfaces you’re running on as much as your body allows. The more you mix it up, the better your legs learn to adapt and the stronger they will become. That means less aching and more running. Who doesn’t want that?