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Which Running Surfaces Are Best?

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA and Alexandra Williams, MA

The best running surfaces to protect boomer joints, including knees, ankles, hips and spine.

Run on Asphalt. No sidewalksRunners and joggers seem so devoted to running that they head out anytime, anywhere, and on any surface. When we are out walking, we enjoy seeing runners with enviable good joints zipping along. And we worry about their injury potential given some of the surfaces they run on.

If you are a runner or powerwalker who wants to stay as injury free as possible, (especially into midlife) consider what’s under your shoes. The surface you run on can either help protect or hurt your joints. Your foot is hitting that surface thousands of times, and the repeated impact can go straight to those joints.

Follow the Trail of Three “S’s”

Kymberly: When doing a workout with impact, you generally want a surface that offers three qualities: Springback, Shock absorption, and Stability. Isn’t that convenient that they all start with S? On the extreme end of springback is a trampoline. The ultimate shock absorber is sand. The stablest surface is a hard, even one, such as concrete. The ideal running surface combines all three factors without being too soft or too hard. Sounds like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Alexandra: The research is all over the place on the “best” surface, mainly because of the variables, such as your foot placement, shoe type, foot-to-hip angle, previous injuries and so on, but a running tip from the University of California at San Francisco probably sums it up best – “It’s a good idea to train on the environment you’re going to run on and usually that’s asphalt, which makes up most city streets.”

Kymberly: Your underfoot surface is the first line of defense against the shock waves that travel up your body from toe to head with every footfall. Whatever the surface does not absorb, is next taken in by your shoe, then your foot, then your ankle, then lower leg muscles, then knee joint, and so on, traveling up your spine and body.

Consider Foot Strike and Joint Impact

Alexandra: As my dislike for running is well-documented, I can reveal that to me asphalt means, “My Ass is at Fault for you getting distracted.” Boom Shacka Lacka. I used to run when I played soccer, but the gopher holes in the grass trashed my knee. So I definitely do NOT like running on grass, even though research indicates it to be a forgiving surface. Some really recent research found that runners unconsciously adapt their footfall patterns to the type of surface they’re running on, which is quite interesting. For me, I don’t care as much about where my foot strikes the ground, but how much my reconstructed knee feels the impact. Which means I prefer indoor tracks to almost anything outdoors, especially concrete. If I had a track locally like the Regupol that Usain Bolt ran on for his Berlin Golds, I might even try running a bit. Say, maybe they could make soccer fields out of it so I could play my beloved sport again. It’s recycled and so is my knee!

Dear Santa, please bring all these men good knees (and some sense)

Dear Santa, please bring all these men good knees (and some sense)

Kymberly: Dear Sis: Shouldn’t that be “BoomER Shacka Lacka?” Sha boomer bam! For the rest of you, picture concrete. Stable, yes. But no springback; no cushioning. Run-thunk-run-thunk-run-ouch! And where oh where is there a lot of concrete out there? Sidewalks! And what’s right next to a lot of sidewalks? Porous, springy, impact absorbing asphalt or pavement. And grass. (Lawn ranks up there with both runners and researchers as a good, protective surface.) Yet, I repeatedly see runners pounding it out on the sidewalk. Unless traffic or some other safety issue prevents it, why not run on more joint-friendly asphalt?

barefoot running on wet sand

If I run on wet sand will I get calves like these…with the guy attached?

Other run- and walk-friendly surfaces include most modern indoor and outdoor tracks. Heck, dirt and trails or hard, flat sand are better than concrete when it comes to dealing with impact. Gopher holes are another matter altogether though!

Dirt trail for runners, joggers, walkersSo when you next lace up your running, trail, powerwalking, go get ‘em workout shoes,  pick surfaces that offer three “S’s”: Springback, Shock Absorption and Stability. Did I say “three”? I meant four. Add in “Sweat.” And take out Sidewalks.

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Photo credits: Barefoot runner –  sundero; Santa runners – historygradguy (jobhunting)


About Fun and Fit

Get practical exercise advice, your fitness questions answered, and cutting edge health edu-tainment that is accessible and doable from long time fitness experts, Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA and Alexandra Williams, MA. We have taught on land, sea, and airwaves for 3 decades on 4 continents. From writing to speaking, emceeing to hosting a radio show, reviewing products to teaching classes, we believe that little steps turn into big paths. Move a little more than the day before. FitFluential Ambassadors and award-winners both online and off.

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21 Responses to Which Running Surfaces Are Best?

  1. Kim May 27, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    I used to run on sidewalks – you are right – they are so bad!!! Besides the hard surface, the constant stepping off curbs or up and down as driveways dip are rough!!
    I like the joint friendly running ideas here – thanks!!
    Kim recently posted..Memorial Day – so much more than just the start of summer!!!My Profile

    • KymberlyFunFit May 27, 2013 at 11:47 am #

      Down-up-down-up! Wow! I had not even thought of the off and on aspect of running along the curb. You runners have a lot to deal with!
      KymberlyFunFit recently posted..Is Stress Making You Fat?My Profile

  2. Elle May 27, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    I think that the surfaces that are better for your joints are not as good for stability and can be dangerous.

    Wet grass is a no-no for sure cause it’s slippery. And grass can hide holes and bumps and debris.

    Gravel trails can be slippery and if they are very dry can cause air/dust problems as well. If they are wet, they can also be slippery. Slippery because the rocks can move underfoot.

    Dirt trails are usually uneven and can cause ankle turns and calf muscle problems. They are also bad when wet.

    The sand on the beach can be good when it is damp and hard, but often there is quite a slope to the water. That is not good cause it throws the body out of alignment. When it is dry it is too soft.

    Bark trails are good, I think. But we don’t have too many of them here.

    So when I go out for a run, I try to run on the asphalt roads, the asphalt trails, the bark trails, and avoid the concrete sidewalks where I can.

    And Kim’s comment, above, about stepping up and down off curbs and the driveway dips/slopes is TRUE… they can be dangerous and tough on the feet and calves.
    Elle recently posted..Best Body Boot Camp.. this Round is doneMy Profile

  3. Debbie May 27, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    I seem to remember an old Runner’s World article saying that concrete was 7 times harder than asphalt. Which is why I try to avoid it as much as possible. I love running on nice soft trails, but as you mentioned I do need some training on asphalt since that’s where I race. When I coach my cross country runners, who generally race on grass and trails, I tell them to choose the softest, safest surface. Yes, the grass is soft, but if it’s full of gopher holes it is not safe, so you might have to run on the road instead.
    Debbie recently posted..What’s Beautiful: Getting Faster. Costume Party Run Training, Week 3My Profile

    • KymberlyFunFit May 30, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

      While we don”t run, we do have years answering questions about “best” practices for workouts, including surfaces. The key aspect, as you well know lovely running one is to look at the goal and the priorities. Competitive athletes and baby boomers with joint issues might go for totally different surfaces. Teen athletes are in a special category called Keep Safe and Happy. Your cross country girls are lucky to have you! May your lawns be lush and your roads clear!
      KymberlyFunFit recently posted..Obliques Side-to-Side Abs Exercise with the Stability Ball: Right and Wrong Way to “Trim the Waist”My Profile

  4. Lea May 27, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Funny! They just put in new fancy sidewalks in my neighborhood. While running this week, I started running on the side walks while hubby kept to the street. I said to him, “You KNOW we have side walks now,” and he informed me that the asphalt was softer than sidewalks! All this time, I had no idea! So, I guess my neighborhood can keep their fancy sidewalks, I’ll keep running on the street. Thanks for your funny and informative post! :)
    Lea recently posted..What’s Beautiful? I Almost Missed the PointMy Profile

  5. Jody - Fit at 55 May 27, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    GREAT POST with humor of course! Would I expect anything less! :)

    I am in the gym all of my runs except 1 & unfortunately that one is one the sidewalk primarily for these reasons – too much traffic around here & even early, I don’t trust it. I have seen some crazy stuff with cars at my early hour & if not for being on the sidewalk, might have been hit.. The grass is there but uneven & roots & stumps & stuff so don’t want to be looking down nonstop. It is only 1 time a week & have been doing it over 30 years so… at least I have my Hoka shoes! :) I would prefer beach or other beauty though! :)
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted..Gratitude Monday, Memorial Day, Hair, FamilyMy Profile

  6. madeleine Vite May 27, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    The Which Running Surfaces Are Best information was really fascinating and very informative. well done thank you loved it.

  7. Pamela Hernandez May 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Sand is tough. Trails can be a nice alternative to asphalt. Then there is water running. Get in the pool and no impact!
    Pamela Hernandez recently posted..The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg ReviewMy Profile

    • KymberlyFunFit May 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

      Hi Pam! As boomers age and want to stay active, I think we’ll see more and more people getting in the water to protect joints. When I go to Rancho la Puerta I love taking the water classes. In general though I want to stay young and on powerwalking trails as long as possible.
      KymberlyFunFit recently posted..Is Stress Making You Fat?My Profile

  8. Tamara May 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    You have just affirmed my decision to not be a runner. I like to walk the shoreline trails and will happily continue stepping to get my cardio in!
    Tamara recently posted..Ten things I’ve learned about fitness and nutrition at Cub campMy Profile

  9. Lynda E. Sloan May 30, 2013 at 3:23 am #

    When we take shorter strides (a heavily cushioned or heeled running shoe encourages a longer stride) you land on the forefoot, load our springs, and are propelled forward, with almost no impact at all (in fact, Dr. Lieberman demonstrated that the shock wave found in a shoe (the heel strike, or what he calls the “impact transient”, is virtually non-existent when out of a shoe and landing on our forefoot.

  10. Evelyn May 30, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    I had no idea about the surfaces, because I have been doing light jogging for fun with my daughter on our little country paved road. I’m getting older and I gotta be mindful. Thanks for the helpful tips!


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