Running is a versatile sport, with countless surfaces to choose from, each presenting its own set of advantages and drawbacks.
If you’re not aware of the physical differences of running on a professional track, compared to, say… ankle-deep snow… just try it! You’ll soon appreciate how the surface we run on can alter the intensity of a workout.
Running on different surfaces creates pressure on different joints, muscles, and tendons. Beyond physiology, experts say that running on different surfaces changes your psychology too. It simply feels different to run on concrete compared to sand.
Below, we have compiled a list of some of the best surfaces to run on (and the worst!) so that you can map out your next run with this new knowledge in your back pocket.
If you are training for a race, keep in mind that it is probably best to do a majority of your race-day training on the same surface you’ll be running on.
Each running surface has its pros and cons. It’s a great idea as a runner to mix up your runs every once and a while to challenge different muscle groups and help you step out of routine.
The Best and Worst Surfaces For Runners
While we can give you a pretty good idea of which surfaces you should be running on, and which to avoid, what we can’t do to is plop them conveniently in to your local surroundings.
The reality is that while you may be able to plan a couple of running routes to target different surfaces, we’re mostly going to run on the surfaces that are predominant around where we choose to workout. A runner training in the Alps is going to have a significant snow-exposure advantage to a runner training in the middle of a densely populated city.
Adjust your training plan expectations accordingly…
Grass running is great for barefoot running and helps you perfect your running form, ensuring it’s more natural and in line with how your body was built to move.
Finding open, well-manicured grassy areas can pose a challenge for many runners that live in urban or suburban areas, but you can always do repeats along the side of a walkway in a park or around a school field. Alternatively, you can search for some local cross-country events, which will provide a significantly different challenge to your road racing schedule!
Why Run On Grass?
Grass is soft and easier on your joint in terms of impact. Running on grassy surfaces makes your muscles work harder – building strength you’ll notice when you hit the asphalt next. Although finding a flat, even stretch of grass in your community may pose a challenge, it is the best running surface for preventing injury, especially as you age.
It’s a great medium for barefoot running, which strengthens your foot muscles and improves your running form.
Drawbacks of Running on Grass
Grassy areas available to the public are often uneven, posing a risk for runners with unstable ankles.
Grass is also quite slippery when wet, so you must be aware of foot placement and stability while running. Because grass is harder on your muscles, you may notice that your legs tire more quickly. This is a normal part of strength-building, so do not be alarmed.
You may need to incorporate breaks during your run to decrease the risk of common overuse injuries.
Running on dirt can be a mixed bag, including everything from muddy puddles that make for slippery steps to hard-baked dirt that is dry and crumbly. It’s a great running surface with healthy resistance when you can find quality trails, but it can make for a muddy mess when weather conditions aren’t on your side.
Why Run on Dirt Paths?
Medium-to-soft dirt is a good material to run on because it is soft on the joints and reduces the impact on downhill jaunts. Dirt trails also typically wind around more remote areas, making great runs with less traffic and better views.
Drawbacks of Running on Dirt
Wet, slippery mud can be difficult to run on and dangerous for injury-prone runners. If you have weak Achilles tendons or calves, running on slippery mud may not be a wise idea for you.
Look out for twisted tree roots along your running path, too!
Running on gravel is good for your legs and joints but can be messy for your running shoes. Many neighborhoods have gravel-paved trails throughout them for runners that want to avoid hard surfaces but don’t quite have the time to find more remote parks outside of the city. These seem to be cropping up more and more frequently.
Just make sure you tie your shoelaces properly to avoid getting gravel in your shoes. They say walking on Lego blocks is painful – try gravel!
Why Run on Gravel?
Gravel is easier on the legs and joints than road running because of the softer landing for your foot strike. Well-maintained gravel paths are typically level and even, so there is no risk of rolled ankles or twisted tree roots protruding from the trail.
Drawbacks of Running on Gravel
Gravel is typically a more approachable medium to run on if you have trail running shoes that don’t have large openings for pebbles to lodge themselves into.
Running on gravel in rainy weather may be too slippery for runners with weak ankles.
Woodland trails offer variety in your running environment and get you into the more serene outdoors for some fresh air and sunshine. Woodland trails are almost ideal when looking at running surfaces that are kinder to your joints and muscle recovery.
Why Run on Woodland Trails?
Intentionally carved trails are usually fairly level and stretch on for miles for those long run days – not to mention the scenic view and quiet time spent in nature! This running medium is perfect for joint-friendly training. And the best part is that it’s a great activity to do with friends and family.
Drawbacks of Running on Woodland Trails
Woodland trails can be quite muddy during the rainy season. This makes for messy running shoes and creates slipping hazards as you log your miles while training. Tree roots can also trip you up and lead to injuries if you aren’t watching carefully. Woodland trail running will slow your pace and could zap your energy faster than road running.
Synthetic tracks are great for speed work, tempo runs, or short-distance runs that you are timing or want to measure with exact precision. It takes quite a lot of effort and dedication to run on a synthetic track for much more time than that, considering that you are literally running in circles.
Most runners find this boring, but a few enjoy its predictability and safety.
Why Run on Synthetic Tracks?
Synthetic track materials are reasonably forgiving running surfaces and are more easily measured in terms of running distance.
Olympic size synthetic tracks are 400 meters per lap, so measuring distance and doing timed workouts is easier. The springy effect of running on a synthetic track is also good for beginners or runners recovering from an injury due to higher levels of shock absorption.
Drawbacks of Running on Synthetic Track
With two long curves per 400 meters, your inside leg’s hip, knee, and ankle joints are put under more pressure than the outside leg. Switching directions frequently can help combat this.
Longer runs can also become quite boring when you run in circles without a varied view. The rebound effect from running on a synthetic track can wear out your calves and Achilles’ tendons. Finding a local cinder or gravel track can help mitigate this problem.
When the weather is not on your side, or you’ve arrived home late from work, treadmill running is the most accessible surface for most runners. Treadmills are equipped with incline, speed, heart rate, and even preset workouts – making tracking and timing your run easy, and you won’t have to worry about controlling your own pace.
The running surface varies from treadmill to treadmill – some are softer than others as they have a spring or cushion deck. All treadmills are similar in that they have a belt that moves over the walking deck. The motor controls the belt, which moves faster or slower based on your settings.
Why Run on a Treadmill?
The smooth, consistent surface is easier on the legs than other alternatives, and setting a pace is as easy as clicking a button.
The precise level of control that treadmills offer makes for excellent speed workouts or daily easy runs you can do with your eyes closed. Treadmill workouts can also help runners that struggle to keep a consistent pace. Running on a treadmill is easy on your tendons and ligaments and are a good low-impact way to get back into running after an injury.
Drawbacks of Running on a Treadmill
For starters, running in place isn’t the most exciting thing, much like running on a track. If you don’t monitor your pace and keep up with the machine, you could have an embarrassing wipeout that may result in an injury. At-home treadmills are quite expensive, and signing up for a gym membership solely for the treadmill may be uneconomical.
It is important to note that running on a treadmill differs from running on any outdoor surface. Your stride length will vary more on a treadmill; the treadmill sets and maintains an “unnatural” pace for you and works different muscles than outdoor running. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it takes some getting used to.
In addition to targeting your larger muscle groups, outdoor running also engages the smaller stabilizing muscles that help you maintain balance on uneven terrain.
Treadmills don’t engage these muscles because you don’t need them on the smooth, consistent surface. If you work out on a treadmill for most of your runs, ensure you include at least one or two runs per week outside for variation.
Asphalt isn’t the softest surface around, but it’s the most abundant material to run on in urban settings.
It’s better for your body’s shock absorption than concrete, but that’s not saying much. Consider the safety of your roads before running in the street, especially if you’re running in darker conditions. It’s best to choose running on asphalt over concrete whenever possible.
Why Run on Asphalt?
Asphalt is one of the fastest surfaces you can run on. It’s easy to measure distance while maintaining a steady rhythm. Its consistent surface allows for less twisted ankles and supports the Achilles tendon.
This even surface also matches tempo workouts well, as you don’t have to mind where you are stepping as much. Road running allows you to run faster. Most half and full marathon races are run on asphalt routes.
Drawbacks of Running on Asphalt
This unforgiving surface puts strain on the body as you’re logging your miles. Your shoe choice is crucial if you intend to do a lot of road running: choose a shoe with sufficient cushion. With asphalt, you also need to be on high alert for traffic, potholes, and loose pieces of gravel.
It’s hard to avoid running on asphalt, and most races are on asphalt surfaces.
If you are training for a race, it is best to do most of your training on the surface you will be running on for race day. For many runners that live in the city, asphalt is the most abundant option. It doesn’t leave much room for creativity, but at least you won’t be tripped up by a tree root.
Running on sand is unlike any other surface.
You’ve got the sea breeze to enjoy, an endless horizon to watch, and built-in music with the waves crashing across the seashore. Running on sand will give your calves the workout of their little lives. If you prefer a firm running surface or running at a brisk pace, consider running across the more compact sand close to the waterline.
Why Run on Sand?
Sand running allows you to run barefoot, a more organic feel for your foot strike and running form. Running across the sand and up and down dunes is excellent resistance training and strengthening for your leg muscles. Sand running will also improve your running technique and stamina.
Drawbacks of Running on Sand
The softness of sand (specifically dry sand and dunes) allows for instability and movement in your foot strike, which could cause Achilles or ankle injuries. If you’re running in sand, be mindful of your foot strike and ensure that you land safely.
Running at the water’s edge also has a slight tilt towards the waterline, putting uneven stress on the side of your body closest to the ocean. If you’re running on the waterline, change directions frequently to even out this bilateral stress on your body. Running barefoot also puts you at risk of stepping on sharp sea shells or pokey coral fragments.
Concrete is one of the worst surfaces you could choose to run on as an athlete, as it inflicts the most shock on your legs and has little-to-no give or softness. Although it offers a smooth, consistent running surface, the high impact on your body can lead to overuse injuries if you are not diligent about rest and recovery.
Why Run on Concrete?
Concrete surfaces like sidewalks help avoid traffic and are almost always perfectly flat and even. Concrete is also easily accessible for most runners in cities or suburban areas.
Drawbacks of Running on Concrete
Concrete mixtures are ten times as hard as asphalt, putting significantly higher stress on your joints. This can cause the nightmare injury that every runner hopes to avoid: shin splints. You also need to be conscious of dodging other pedestrians on sidewalks and be wary of curbs.
Snow, although beautiful in winter, can be a dangerous running surface. Where there is snow, there is also ice. Warm clothes and spikes for your running shoes can help you hit the roads more safely.
Why Run on Snow?
Snow turns any boring park run into a winter wonderland. Running on snow also forces you to run slower, which is good for muscle recovery and mindfulness of proper running form.
Drawbacks of Running on Snow
The presence of snow indicates the presence of ice, which is incredibly slippery and dangerous for runners. Snow can also hide protruding objects from view, increase muscle fatigue, and is bad for running shoes.
See more: our guide to running in winter.
Choosing The Best Surface To Run On
Variety is the spice of life, and nowhere is this more true than looking at running surfaces.
As you can see, there are plenty of options if you want to pep up your running route. Each comes with pros and cons, so keep this in mind.
If you can switch between different surfaces to train different muscles at different paces, this will help build your strength and stamina. This also allows you to prepare yourself more adequately for upcoming races.