On Different Surfaces
by Dr. Jeffrey Ross, D.P.M., F.A.C.F.A.S.
wonder why so many people run in the parks, on dirt trails
where itís nice and soft, rather than that hard concrete
we punish ourselves on during marathons? The answer is
very simple: natural trail surfaces "give"; concrete does
As we all know too well, the legs, knees, and feet of
a runner take on the full extent of impact trauma, shock
absorption, and friction. Under ideal conditions, therefore,
we look for surfaces that will absorb shock to the lower
extremities while simultaneously providing energy return
to the foot in a continued motion.
There are quite a number of surfaces one can run on: artificial
snow, asphalt, bark, carpet, cinders, clay, concrete, dirt,
grass, hard synthetics, rock, sand, snow, and wood. In
a report featured in 1983 in Athletic Purchasing and
Facilities, John Sprague described 106 synthetic surfaces
At one point, you may have run on a majority of these
surfaces. Which one did you like the best, and which surface
gave you the best without injury? Which surface has the
best efficiency, and yet lowers the risk for repeated trauma
to legs, knees, and feet?
One frequently asked question is, "Should we run on a
natural surface or a synthetic surface?"
I prefer more natural surfaces, but with a cushioned ride there is also a trade-off.
Soft surfaces give great shock absorption and cut friction down tremendously,
however they sacrifice stability of foot and body alignment. This can translate
into excessive supination/pronation of the foot, which can develop into heel
pain/plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, posterior tibial and peroneal
tendonitis, ankle sprain, and overuse knee pain. How many times have you run
on a nice soft grass/dirt running trail, and quickly caught yourself in a divot
or chuck hole? Iím sure weíve all experienced that at one time or another.
I suffered an ankle sprain that took many months to recover from after my foot
rolled off the asphalt trail at a golf course. I always advise friends and
patients to watch where they are going when they run on soft surfaces, particularly
if it is a new course or trail.
Soft surfaces often feel bouncy, and seem to give us the
energy return that makes a run enjoyable and less stressful
on our legs. We usually complain less about our knees the
next morning. The problem with dirt/gravel or grass/dirt
trails is that our 5K, 10K, and marathons are rarely ever
run on these surfaces, and so, while it may be a great
training surface on which to avoid injury during long runs,
it does not prepare our bodies for the upcoming stresses
of the city streets we have to pound during the course
of most marathons. I often advise my running patients that
if they do not experience or train on some concrete and
asphalt before the marathon, they will set themselves up
for a potential stress fracture of the metatarsals or the
So whatís a good compromise? I like asphalt. In fact,
I love asphalt! I can immediately tell the difference
between concrete and asphalt during the marathon. After
running on asphalt, my legs shock and strain, whereas running
on concrete batters my calves, hamstrings and knees. (Of
course, if you think these surfaces are tough, try running
across steel/concrete bridges at the N.Y.C. Marathon. All
the carpet in the world on that bridge doesnít soften the
worst surface Iíve ever run on.)
So if concrete is too hard, and grass/dirt is too soft,
what is one to do?
You could choose intermediate surfaces that donít expose you to harmful injury.
Indoor tracks are a good example. Indoor tracks offer wood surfaces, some with
air suspension, and synthetic surfaces, many very well padded and rubbery,
with excellent shock absorption properties and energy return. I have always
enjoyed running on these indoor track surfaces during thunderstorms, heat,
and inclement weather. I also like to run on these during rehabilitation from
leg or foot injuries. They are excellent to start a walk/run program on, limiting
the shock and friction which can lead to a recurrence of the initial injury.
And what about you winter runners? In the Panhandle and
North Texas, snow is not unheard of, and many Lone Star
runners like to travel to ski country. On my honeymoon
in Austria, after skiing and before dinner, I would run
around the Lake Zell am See, with flurries in the night
sky, reflected by the lights, and listen to the church
of the snow beneath my feet. I could feel the difference
immediately. It was soft yet stable (except for the slide),
and was actually fun to run on. Due to friction, you had
to use the hamstrings a lot more to prevent hydroplaning.
Iíve run on snow in Colorado, New England and New York
in the winter months, and it is quite and experience. Snow
cuts impact shock tremendously, but you do not have to
So when pondering whether to run on asphalt street, or
new development concrete, consider your past experiences,
lower leg/foot health status (injuries), the distance and
speed you are going to run, and then decide if the park
with its soft surface is better or not. Also, pay attention
to your shoes, keeping alert to the possibility of age
and E.V.A. breakdown. When running the streets, good shoes
with good shock absorption is a must.
Dr. Ross is a Podiatrist, M.D. in private
practice in Houston, TX. To book an appointment with
Dr. Ross or find out about his services he can be reached