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There are pros and cons to nearly every running surface available, and runners can debate endlessly over which surface is the best or worst for running or walking. You need to keep in mind that there are different styles of running and different needs from person to person, so what one person feels is the best running surface may seem like a horrible choice to another style of runner. Granted, the relative hardness of the surface is crucial, but there are other variations to keep in mind as well, such as the surroundings, whether the surface is hilly or straight, and even what the surface will feel like when you take a tumble.
Grass is almost universally admired as a good running surface. It’s got a nice, cushiony feel to it and is easy on your joints. It also gives you a really good workout with minimal chance of injury. The downside is the difficulty you may have finding a nice, long stretch of grass for running. Golf courses and parks may prefer you keep off the grass. Wet grass can be dangerous, as it’s very slippery, so rainy day jogs through the grass aren’t a good idea. On a clear, crisp day, however, there’s not much that can beat running on grass.
Cinders were once the surface of choice for athletic tracks everywhere, but they are increasingly rare except at small schools or areas where synthetic tracks haven’t yet taken over. The are almost as easy on your joints as grass, but they can shift a bit under your feet on hot days, when the stones tend to be a bit looser. You’ll also hate picking cinders out of your knees if you stumble and fall. If you find an old cinder track, it’s a decent alternative to grass that is reliable and that won’t have unexpected holes or dips, so you aren’t likely to fall unless you’re really distracted.
Synthetic tracks are reasonably forgiving; they aren’t as good as grass, but they’re widely available and offer you reliability grass can’t. Let’s face it, you’re far more likely to find a nice synthetic track than you are to find a two mile stretch of uninterrupted grass. Keep in mind, however, that you can overstress the joints on one side of your body (usually the left) because you have to make regular, repetitive turns to stay on course.
As many treadmill reviews point out, treadmills are actually one of the best running surfaces around. They’re certainly the best indoor running or walking surface. Although the comfort will vary depending on the brand of treadmill and the relative “bounce” of the individual track, most treadmills give you plenty of shock absorption, making them easier on the knees than almost any other surface. In many situations, the feel is comparable to running on grass. The advantage is you don’t have to worry about dips in the road, hidden obstacles such as gopher holes, or any other problems that can trip you up when running outdoors. You can also use treadmills when the weather outside makes running on grass or any other outdoor surface impractical.
Asphalt gives you a fast run, so far speed you can’t do much better, but it’s harder on the joints than grass, dirt trails, treadmills or synthetic tracks. The best thing to be said for asphalt is that it isn’t concrete. Although you can usually find plenty of asphalt for running on if you live in the city – and with relatively few potholes or other problems.
Dirt trails are an extremely mixed bag. In most cases, they offer decent shock absorption, but if the trail is extremely packed down or the weather is dry, a dirt trail can become as hard as asphalt. You also need to watch for muddy conditions, when dirt trails can turn into shoe-sucking hazards. With ideal conditions – firm, but not too packed, a clear path and not too much undergrowth encroaching on a trail – running on a dirt trail can give you a very good workout combined with awesome scenery. Keep in mind, though, that it most likely won’t be an even path, so expect hills and valleys. If you’re looking for a flat path and an even pace, you’re probably better off with the treadmill.
Concrete sucks. It sounds harsh, but concrete is fully ten times as hard as asphalt and will do some serious damage to your knees, ankles and hips over the course of years of running. When running or even walking briskly on concrete, you’ll feel every single step right up through your teeth. Of course, for many city dwellers it’s the only choice of running surface available. Looking on the bright side, you’ll find plenty of sidewalks and concrete roads that will give you plenty of space and a completely unobstructed path, so you can concentrate on your technique, stance and stride without having to watch for every step for potential pitfalls.
There is no best running surface for everyone, but one good option that will work for most individuals is the treadmill. With built-in workout programs, most treadmills can now give you the feel of a variety of routes, from rolling hills to flat stretches. You’ll also protect your joints and get a good workout without having to worry about crowds, bad weather or stray dogs. They may not be the perfect running surface, but they’re darn close to it, and available every day, year round.
This article is a guest post, and doesn’t necessarily share the same opinions as RunAddicts’ team of writers.