Running, Triathlon
February 19, 2019

What Are The Best Running Surfaces?

Running over trails

During my years as a pro, I trained on many different surfaces.

I ran on roads, grass and sand. On bark chip, trails and on the track. I even ran on mud roads and on treadmills from time to time.

While I certainly don’t run anywhere near as much as I used to, I still run a mix of surfaces when I do lace up my shoes and run. I believe it helps me.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case for the majority of runners here in Singapore.

Whether it’s a conscious choice or not, no matter where I look, people are running on concrete. They’re running the roads, the park connectors and the pavement like it’s the only option available.

But, what if it’s not the best option for every run?

In this post, I will discuss the pros and cons of the different running surfaces and make a case of varying the surfaces you run on each week.

What Surfaces Can You Run?

If you look at what the pros are doing – runners and triathletes – you’ll notice that they seem to favour running off the road to running on hard surfaces.

They also vary the surfaces that they run on, something that I am a huge advocate for.

While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the common surfaces that you can choose to run in Singapore and elsewhere.

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Roads and Pavements

Pros. The main benefit of running on the roads and pavement is the availability of these surfaces. Singapore is a concrete city so this option provides an endless supply of smooth, well-lit and always available running.

A hard surface also provides some benefit when training for a road marathon. The hard surface conditions your legs to handle the intense impact of running on such a hard surface for such a long time.

Cons. Hard surfaces are very unforgiving and increase the amount of shock transmitted up into your feet, legs and hips. This impact when delivered frequently can lead to shin splints and other injuries over time.

The other downside to running the roads is the constant stream of traffic (cars, bikes, pedestrians, e-scooters), fumes, potholes and traffic lights.

Each of these is a problem on their own that affect your health, safety and running experience.

Grass

Pros. Grass provides a more forgiving alternative to roads and pavements and provides a little respite for your ankles, knees and hips. Because the surface is softer, your muscles have to work a little harder than on the road and this builds strength over time.

On top of that, you tend to recover more quickly from runs on the grass because the impact of each stride is significantly less than on the road.

Cons. Besides being slippery when wet, the slightly uneven surface of grass can be a blessing and a curse. While this even surface will help to increase your ankle, knee, hip stability and balance in general, it can also lead to a rolled and sprained ankle.

Treadmill

Pros. A popular option in Singapore, treadmills provide a nice break from the searing heat and humidity allowing you to run inside under the breath of a nice cool air conditioning unit. A cooler temperature helps to keep your heart rate down and allows you to run a higher pace at your desired heart rate.

The treadmill is also a forgiving surface that provides distraction-free (no traffic lights, potholes, traffic and pedestrians) running where you can easily choose to run a flat course or over hills.

Cons. Treadmill running is inherently boring and even a short run can feel like an eternity. That said, the optimist in me sees that this boredom strengthens the mind.

Running on a treadmill might look like running on the road but it’s actually quite different. Your muscles work in a slightly different way as the spinning belt acts on your legs and your running gait is often affected.

Trails

Pros. Trails are my personal favourite surface to run as they often provide beautiful scenery that helps to enhance the experience of running. The softer surface places less stress on the legs than the roads and helps to build strength in your feet, ankles and legs.

Cons. Not always accessible, the uneven surface can lead to ankle sprains, slips and falls. You also need to be mindful of mountain bikers whizzing around, other trail users and potentially harmful animals.

The Track

Pros. The main benefit of running on the track is the fixed distance. It allows you to easily track your pace and derive data from time trials and other field tests like MAF testing in a relatively controlled environment.

Besides slower runners ignoring track etiquette, there is no traffic, potholes or other things to distract you from your running.

Cons. Spending too much time running around the track in the same direction can lead to muscle imbalances. Be sure to run in both directions if you are spending considerable time on the track. Like the treadmill, the track can also get boring pretty quickly. Unlike the treadmill though you can’t just switch on Netflix.

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Sand

Pros. Another soft surface, running on sand lowers the impact the feet, ankles, legs and hips have to tolerate and helps to build strength. As you run sand moves beneath your feet so it is a very hard surface to run on.

Run over soft sand for a more challenging run or run over the damp hard-packed sand to make things a little easier.

Cons. Running on sand can significantly alter your gait. Beaches are often sloped and the soft and shifting sand will alter your running gait, which may increase your risk of injury.

Mix Up Your Surfaces

If you want to become the best athlete you can, take a note from the pros and vary your training surfaces.

Specificity plays an important role in performance so choose your surfaces and favour them at different times in your preparation depending on the race you are aiming to perform at your best in.

If you’re running a trail race, spend more time on the trails. If you have a road marathon coming up do a higher percentage on the road.

By mixing up the surfaces you’ll enhance your recovery and build strength in your feet, ankles, legs and hips. This will help to keep injury at bay and make you a more resilient and faster runner.

Coached RunningBen PulhamBen Pulham is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart rate training programme that helps you optimise, track and enjoy your training.