Running: Does it Really Matter What’s Under Your Feet?

Written by admin on November 3, 2013 – 2:33 pm -

Where’s your favorite place to run? Ask ten people and their results probably vary as much as the different types of shoes they sport while doing so. As a recreational runner myself, I stick to my trail running like I stick to my Asics—invariably. Being an athletic trainer, though, has made me concerned about my joints and longevity of this activity. And so I began wondering, what surface is best? I searched high and low, looking through published research articles and running magazines alike, and here are the most well-founded and useful tidbits I came across:

• Overall, grass is king. It is soft, has a good amount of give, and thus provides the lowest impact forces of all the typical running surfaces. Unfortunately by its nature, grass has a tendency to hide obstacles like rocks or holes and is slippery when wet so consider the quality of the ground before lacing up.

• Next best are trails that are made of ground/natural materials (woodchips, dirt, or that stuff that looks like kitty-litter [think American Tobacco Trail]). Trails can be a great way to mix it up and get closer to nature. In the summer months, they are an especially valuable option because trails that run through wooded areas are often much cooler. However, variables such as roots and snakes are cause to be on the lookout. Also, I would be careful of running on trails the day or two after significant rainfall because it loosens the running surface and can often leave channels in the trails that are dangerous to unprepared runners.

• If you have to, pavement will do but try not to run on banked surfaces and make sure you have a supportive shoe that is in good condition.

• Sand is a unique option that has its benefits if you are fortunate enough to find yourself at the beach. Loose sand easily dissipates the energy of your foot strike and challenges your leg musculature in ways harder surfaces cannot. If you choose to run closer to the water where the sand is more compact, pay attention because that is often where the steepest banking is, which can put uneven pressure on your joints.

• Variety is also beneficial, but ease into new training mediums. The different surfaces stress various muscle groups which can help with overall performance. If afforded different options such as track, trail, and treadmill; take advantage of them.

• If you’re more competitive and/or aiming for a race, it would benefit you to have your training mimic the race. This includes the running surface. If you know ahead of time that you’re going to running on pavement, increase the proportion of your running on similar surfaces as you get closer to race day.

• At the end of the day, as long as it’s even, debris-free, and dry, you’re probably good to go. Your body adjusts to the surface automatically after the first few steps by changing how much you flex your knees while running to absorb the shock. If you are truly a distance runner and really rack up the miles, it’s better to be kind to your joints and go for a softer surface if you have the option to do so.

When it comes down to it, there is considerable research on the forces experienced by the joints when running on various surfaces, which can have an impact (pun kind-of intended) in the long run (nailed it). However, you’d be hard pressed to find a study that directly relates any one kind consistently to injury, and so there is still room for question and a lot we don’t know. Take the above tips with a grain of salt and ultimately rely on your body’s feedback to guide your running choices. If you find yourself in a performance rut or with constant aches in the confines of your running routine, maybe it’s time to branch out and blaze a new trail (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). Happy running!

Alex Vitek is a nationally Certified, state Licensed Athletic Trainer and post-graduate Resident in training at The Galland Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Athletic Training Residency– a 12 month immersional program allowing ATCs to maintain and hone clinical skills while developing those talents necessary to be effective in the clinical setting as an ATC/physician extender. Find out more at

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