Running is a sport that can be done on many kinds of terrain – track, road, trail, and more! Every runner has their preferred surface, but changing things up adds variety to your run experience. As an added bonus, running on certain surfaces can improve your run form and mechanics.
Each surface has characteristics to consider when it comes to what kind of sessions you can do on them and if you need any specialised equipment. We’ll help you to determine the best and worst surfaces to run on based on the risk and reward from running on them.
Snow softens the impact on your knees and can make for strength training because of the resistance from running (or slogging?) through inches-deep snow drifts. However, the danger of this surface occurs when the snow melts. The roads become slippery from the slush, increasing the chance of accidents. Deeper snow also hides rocks, holes, and other obstacles that may cause injury, making this one of the riskiest surfaces to run on. Make sure your shoes are quipped to handle snowy and wet conditions.
Similar to snow, sand is also great for strength training since it absorbs force, making you work harder. Since you have to pick up your knees and push off harder, you exert more effort overall. However, despite its soft surface that could cushion your joints from impact, the instability when sand shifts can also put you at risk of injury. If running on sand, you’re better off running on compacted sand rather than loosely packed sand dunes.
Running on concrete or pavement is very accessible if you’re a city runner. Its smooth surface (usually flat or with just a very slight slope to allow for drainage) allows runners to get into a rhythm very easily, requiring less situational awareness and surefooting than some of the other surfaces we’re discussing. However, concrete is one of the hardest surfaces to run on and transfers much of the impact from landing back up into your joints.
Packed dirt – the kind that Kenyan marathoners do their daily runs on – is great for your knees! Running on country dirt roads or forest trails is great for long runs, fartleks, and even intervals if you know the distance of the road you’re running. While the softer surface may ask you to push off harder, the strength you gain not just in your legs but also in your core coupled with the softer impact on your joints makes trail a great running surface. However, running on trails does require greater presence of mind and engagement in being in the moment so you can stay safe and away from pitfalls.
This is a great surface since synthetic track (also called tartan) is spongy yet sturdy. It is pretty easy on the joints, which is great for long as well as intense workouts. Tracks also have a fixed distance – usually 400 meters – which helps you track your pace even without a GPS sports watch. Of course, running around in circles can be boring, and running in just one direction around the track can lead to muscle imbalance. You're also usually advised to run with shoes that have thinner soles, since an excess of cushioning can lead to instability when running on a track.
Another great surface for beginners, treadmill belts are softer than pavement. A lot of variables can be controlled such as incline and speed; this controlled environment gives you consistency. You also don’t have to worry about the weather or time of day hampering your training session. The biggest downside to treadmill running is the boredom of running in place.
If you have a choice, take the safer option (i.e. treadmill rather than running in snow in winter); if you have no choice, wear appropriate footwear to minimise slips and falls. Pavement one day and trail or tartan the next will allow your body to recover from impact and let you run more. Varying the surfaces you run on will allow you to make the most out of your runs and better prepare your body to be run fit for anything.