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)


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