The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Underfoot: Comparing Running Surfaces

Posted by on Thursday, May 31st, 2012


We’ve looked a lot at how your feet can get hurt if you have poor biomechanics, if your shoes are wrong, or if you overtrain. How about what you’re running on, though? Yes, that stuff beneath our feet. We mean you.

People have a variety of reasons for choosing the type of surface they run on. Sometimes they don’t have a choice–all they have is an indoor treadmill, or concrete sidewalks. For those lucky folk who do have a number of running surfaces to choose from, which are the best?

1. Grass – Almost every source gives their highest recommendation to good old-fashioned grass.

  • Positives: It’s the softest surface, thus the easiest on your joints and bones. The slight unevenness of the surface keeps all your muscles active as they adjust to the different levels, giving you a better all around workout.
  • Negatives: You don’t always know what’s underneath that pretty grass. It’s easy to trip or turn an ankle on an unexpected dip in the surface. And yes, you can step in dog poop that someone in the park didn’t pick up.

2.  Dirt/Woodland Trails – This can mean a man-made dirt track, or a trail through the woods that might be dirt, or peat, or wood chips.

  • Positives: Like grass, trails provide a soft surface that protects you from injury, but varies enough to keep your muscles busy. The area is probably pretty, and if leaves are on the trees, reasonably shady and cool.
  • Negatives: There are a lot of things to trip over, like tree roots and fallen branches. If you land on a pebble hard enough you can really bruise your foot (especially in minimalist shoes); landing on the wrong rock can cause a bad ankle twist. If the trail isn’t marked for runners, you may have a hard time keeping track of your distance and time.

3. Synthetic Track – Your typical indoor track or outdoor track made for racing.

  • Positives: They’re designed for people to run on, so offer a good combination of softness and evenness. Indoor ones save you when the weather is bad.
  • Negatives: They’re usually a pretty short distance, like 400 meters, so if you like running longer distances, you will be bored beyond belief, no matter how great a mix of music you have with you.

4. Treadmill – The treadmill you can find at your gym or buy for your home.

  • Positives: Most treadmills now provide a reasonable level of cushioning. They force you to run at a specific speed so you don’t get lazy. They’re your savior on rainy, snowy days. If you have a tight schedule, having a home treadmill that you can just jump on whenever you have time (late at night, super early in the morning) may be your best option.
  • Negatives: Again, if you like to run long distances, running on a treadmill can be excruciatingly boring. Speaking as someone who has done plenty of 10-12 mile runs on a treadmill, I can say that no matter how great a show you put on the TV in front of you or how interesting your podcast, there’s something about being stuck in that one place and doing that one motion over and over that is mentally exhausting, even more than physically. You can also get overuse injuries from running a lot on treadmills. If a treadmill is your best option and you’re not deep into marathon training, then you might be better off doing a shorter but more intense workout, like speed intervals or inclines.

5. Asphalt – Your standard street.

  • Positives: It’s easy to find. Most parks will have an asphalt running path, or of course, there are always streets to run on. It’s not as soft as grass or dirt, but it has a little give. It’s fairly even, and you can see what the surface is like ahead of you (cracks, rocks, puddles). In most cases, it is easy to measure your distances.
  • Negatives: It still puts a pretty heavy pounding on your feet, muscles, and bones.

6. Sand – A run on the beach!

  • Positives: Beach running sand can give you a seriously hard workout as you sink in and out of the sand. This will really build up your calves. It’s soft enough to give your bones and joints a rocking chair ride. It’s cooler than running through an urban jungle. You can feel like you’re running in an island paradise (real or man-made) in a commercial for some kind of sandy, sweaty perfume. When you’re finished, you can jump into the ocean to cool off.
  • Negatives: It can be too soft–there’s nothing to support you, so you can wobble and easily twist an ankle or strain your Achilles or calf. There’s a higher risk of something going wrong on sand and when it does, it can be bad. Wet sand is a little more stable, but overall the downside can be just as tremendous as the upside.

7. Concrete – Yes, sidewalks.

  • Positives: They are easy to find.
  • Negatives: This is a hard, unrelenting surface that just pounds your bones and joints. I know–when I first started running, I ran on sidewalks all the time and was injured all the time. Finally someone told me to switch to asphalt, the next best option and I immediately got healthier. Sidewalks also can have a really dangerous array of cracks uneven surfaces, jutting ledges, all kinds of little dangers. This is what you run on when you have no other choice.

Does all that help? Think you might want to make a switch?

No matter what surface you run on, injuries can happen. If you have any foot or ankle injuries from running or any other sport, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet.





If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.