It’s common running advice to vary your workouts to encompass a variety of different running surfaces. Especially if you’re primarily a road runner, changing up your routine can have beneficial effects to your body, your time and your form. Each type of surface has its own positive aspects as well as drawbacks. Here we examine four common surfaces and the effects each can have on your body and running style.
Pavement and concrete are by far the most popular running surfaces. They’re the most easily accessible, as in most cases you can step out of your house and be ready to go. Running on roads also makes good sense for marathoners because it’s likely the surface on which you’ll be running on race day, so it’s good to make sure you’re familiar with the ins and outs. Pavement running is also great because for the most part, you can count on each step being almost identical – no surprises to adapt to mid-stride.
But there are unpleasant effects that road running can have as well. The hard, unforgiving surface can make you more vulnerable to shin splints and stress fractures from the constant impact. You also have to pay close attention to avoid traffic and stay safe while training, so be extra alert.
Running on trails offers the benefit of a softer surface for your feet and legs, reducing the amount of impact of each stride. Trail running also helps improve running style because you’re forced to take shorter strides as you watch for changes in the terrain. This prevents you from overextending your legs and helps train you to keep your knees in line. Changes in scenery never hurt either – it can help get you out of your head and focused more in the moment.
However, you are more likely to encounter obstacles that can trip you up, like stones, roots or uneven terrain, so you do need to be very alert when running on trails. A stumble or fall can set your training back significantly.
Training on a track can be an excellent way to work on your speed. Tracks offer a cushioned surface, minimal distractions and extremely easy distance judging. With your designated lane you don’t have to worry about other runners, cars or folks out for a leisurely walk. You can focus solely on your speed, breathing and running style, while enjoying the benefits of a softer surface tailored specifically to help you reduce injuries.
Track running can get boring to some runners, as the scenery does not change and you don’t have the feeling of having traveled some distance as you complete your miles. It also isn’t necessarily suitable for marathon-pace training sessions, as it’s much more effective for practicing gaining speed.
Many runners dream of a relaxing run on the sand, and this can be an extremely effective way to build stamina, endurance and strength. When you run on loose sand that’s farther away from the surf, you get an intense workout and build muscle in your lower extremities much more than when you run on pavement. You’ll likely want to work up to these strenuous sessions by starting on the harder packed wet sand, which is more similar to trail running.
While it can be tempting to run barefoot on the beach, the prevalence of shells and other debris makes this undesirable, and actually without the support provided by your normal running shoes and insoles, there’s a good chance for injuries like sprained ankles and aggravated plantar fasciitis. It’s best to keep your shoes on and start slow, working your way up to longer beach runs.
Whatever running surface you normally prefer, it can be helpful to make a change every now and then to get a well-rounded running experience and get the benefits of different types of surfaces. Consider trying something new as you plan your next training session!