What kind of runner are you? A road runner? Trail runner? Track star? Sidewalk strider? A little bit of each?
There are many ways to answer this question. In many cases, the answer has much to do with what surface we are running on. While that is certainly a point of personal preference, not all surfaces are created equal. There are benefits and drawbacks to each. Our feet touch a lot of different surfaces, and it’s important to make sure that you’re picking the best surfaces to run on.
In this short article, we’ll cover the 10 best running surfaces, including their respective pros and cons, so that you know all the surfaces that might be great for your next run!
1. Synthetic track
Synthetic tracks are flat surfaces for fast runners (or those who want to get fast!). They are ideal for speedwork because they are measured and even. But you certainly could use them for other runs as well. In international competition, synthetic track is used for everything from the 100m up to the 10k.
Often called Tartan tracks, these are made from polyurethane materials and are proprietary to 3M. While are they are a fairly forgiving surface, their true benefit is that they provide a consistent surface regardless of weather conditions.
While synthetic tracks are not the softest of surfaces, they still are fairly comfortable and forgiving. Plus, they have the added benefit of being an exactly-measured distance, so you don’t need a fancy GPS watch to know how far you’ve run.
The curves that you’ll have to deal with on a track can be challenging on the ankles, hips, and knees because you’re putting more stress on them. In addition, like on a treadmill, it can be pretty tedious and boring to run long distances on a 1/4-mile track.
Asphalt is ubiquitous. As the default surface of paved roads and multi-use paths around the world, asphalt is so common that you have probably logged a large percentage of your miles on it.
It provides good traction in most conditions and isn’t as hard on the body as concrete. There’s a good chance it’s right outside your door. Plus, it’s a good training surface since many races are run on asphalt.
Asphalt can be found on all types of terrain including flat and fast or hilly with curves. There is often little tree cover over asphalt roads so it’s easy to measure distances with a GPS watch. You can get into a nice rhythm on asphalt, and it’s incredibly accessible because almost all roads are asphalt.
While more forgiving than cement, asphalt still puts a strain on the body. Plus, you can face potholes, and you’ll have to deal with traffic if you’re running on the road. It’s definitely not the worst surface, but still hard on your muscles and tendons.
3. Park trails (i.e. flat, non-technical)
Park trails are great because you’ll get to run on dirt ground, and they tend to be flat and smooth.
In trail runner talk, this is “non-technical” terrain, meaning that you don’t need to watch where every step is landing. You won’t find many steep hills or rocks and roots. They also tend to be clear of fallen branches.
This is a great way to avoid injuries from overuse because you’re giving your body and feet a break from harder surfaces.
Depending on where you live, you probably have a park trail nearby, whether that’s in a nearby playing field or a small, dirt country road.
Dirt is always an excellent place to run because it’s easy on your feet. Park trails are especially great because they are flat and you likely won’t have to worry as much about watching out for obstacles.
Since there aren’t as many “natural” elements in a park trail as in a hiking trail, the dirt can become mud very quickly. This is unsafe and challenging for runners, particularly for those who have issues with their calves and Achilles tendons. Plus, certain types of mud can be very slippery.
4. Hiking trails (hilly with technical sections)
Who doesn’t like to go for a hike on a beautiful, secluded path in the woods? Those same paths are also great for running.
Trail running is a great way to break up your running routine, and it offers unique challenges that road running can’t offer, such as sharper, steeper hills, and rooty, rocky terrain that can improve your foot strength and body awareness.
While you’re definitely going to have to work hard on the trails, especially going up those hills, you’ll get all the benefits of a great hike plus the advantages of an amazing run.
Hiking trails take park trails to a new level. First, in addition to great scenery and a comfortable surface, you’ll get a great workout with the hills of hiking trails. You’ll get a mix of elevation levels, and you won’t get bored with all there is to see.
Hiking trails are in nature, which means that they are not man-made and can vary greatly in surface. Some are simply rough trail, while others look more like a river of mid-sized rocks. You might have to dodge tree roots or figure out how to cross moving water depending on where the hiking trail is.
Also, if it rains at all, hiking trails can become muddy and slippery. Trail runners will tell you that it’s not a matter of if you fall; it’s a matter of when. Enjoy, but be careful!
When you run on grass, you channel your inner child. What kid doesn’t love grass? As it turns out, it’s great for adult runners too. Two-time world indoor champion Marchus O’Sullivan notes, “In the summer, when I run mainly on grass, my whole body seems to relax.” Note that this is an indoor track champion, championing outdoor running on grass.
Softer surfaces such as grass are a great way to mix up your running game and give your body a nice break. If you’ve found yourself in a little bit of a running slump, you might consider running on grass. Want to be a little extra with your grass running? Kick off the shoes and go barefoot. You’ll feel like a kid again!
Grass is a low-impact surface, meaning that it’s easy on your muscles and joints. At the same time, it’s actually making your muscles work hard, building your strength. It’s especially great for speedwork if you can find a flat area like a soccer complex or golf course.
Because many grassy surfaces are natural, they can be uneven, which can be dangerous for any runner but especially someone who has weak ankles or poor balance.
When wet, grass can become a slip ‘n slide, which no runner wants. Plus, it’s not great for people with allergies, and because you’ll have to work harder, you can tire out more quickly.
Some people love them, and some people call them the “dreadmill,” but the reality is that treadmills are a great surface to run on. They are smooth, and you never have to worry about the elements.
Treadmills are great because they are so high-tech now. You can measure distance, speed, heart rate, calories burned, pace, incline, and so forth. It’s all the data you’ll ever need. Plus, you can adjust the speed to meet your fitness level so you don’t ever push yourself too hard.
Treadmills are especially great for speedwork, because they provide such a flat, smooth, even surface in addition to reasonably exact pacing. You simply have to press a button to the speed that you want to work on, and sustain it for whatever intervals you desire.
Finally, treadmills are a nice option for avoiding bad weather. Whether that be rain, snow, cold, or heat, many people (even those who prefer to run outside) will use a treadmill to avoid the elements.
Treadmills are known for being incredibly boring. You are running in one spot, and depending on the length of your workout, you might be there for a long time. Even if you use fans, you might sweat more than you would outside because there isn’t a breeze. Also…how long can you stare at a wall without going nuts? Treadmills will call on you to up your in-workout entertainment game.
Also, most people don’t own treadmills, because they are pretty expensive. Gym membership is often the only option, but this, too, comes at a cost. Plus, you also have to factor in the drive to the gym, which might be tiring when you have had a long day at the office.
7. Cinder track
Depending on how old you are, the phrase “cinder track” may or may not ring a bell. Before synthetic tracks existed, there were cinder tracks, a composition of fine rock, ash, carbon, and slag.
You might have difficulties finding one nearby, but if you happen to live near one, it’s definitely a decent surface to check out. If anything, it will be a nice variation to your traditional running surfaces.
You get the benefits of a track—a distance that is measured exactly—with an easier surface on your feet. A cinder track will make your muscles and tendons feel much better than running on the road, especially if the track is well-maintained and even.
Cinder tracks bear many similarities to packed gravel, including a surface that is less-than-solid, and may be uneven or provide dodgy traction. Sudden starts and stops (for example, if you are doing spring intervals) can be an adventure in risk management.
Plus, a cinder track is not an all-weather surface, meaning that it’s really going to be best on a cloudy day in the spring or fall. They become slippery and loose in the heat of the summer, and they can become boggy if it’s raining.
Depending on where you live, running on snow may or may not be an option. If you’re up north, it definitely is. Snow can definitely be picturesque and a fun variation, but if you add in some ice, it can be quite dangerous.
Spend any time in the online running community and you are sure to come across that video of the unfortunate runner who sings the praises of snow as an ideal texture for running, and moments later wipes out after happening across a patch of ice. Even so, snow shouldn’t be ruled out as a great surface to run on.
Hiking trails are certainly pretty, but running on the snow takes it to a new level. You’ll definitely love running in the winter wonderland. You’ll also need to slow down some, which is good for recovery runs.
On the flip side, you’ll have to deal with cold weather and likely a much different temperature than you’re used to, so that could be a shock.
In addition, you may have to deal with slippery snow, slush, and ice, which means that your run could be much more interesting than you anticipate.
Finally, running is snow really isn’t ideal for your shoes. Plus, you should strongly consider adding spikes for safety reasons, so you’ll likely need two pairs of shoes in order to successfully run in snow.
City dwellers who are consigned to running on sidewalks know the ins and outs of running on cement. In addition to asphalt, it is a go-to surface in our much-paved world.
Cement tends to be smooth and ubiquitous. No matter where you live, there’s a good chance that there is a cement surface nearby that you can run on.
One of the biggest pros of cement is that it tends to be very flat, because you’re dealing with sidewalks and sometimes roads. This means that you can go fast, and if you’re running on sidewalks, you don’t have to deal with cars, making your run that much safer.
At the same time, cement is known to be one of the hardest surfaces to run on. Some people say that it’s 10 times harder than asphalt. And that’s definitely something to consider when you’re pounding the pavement.
In addition, depending on how populated the sidewalks are, you might be avoiding cars, but you might have to dodge people. And you can’t forget that you need to be on the lookout for curbs. You don’t want to trip on those!
Perhaps the best part about running on the sand is that it means that you’re on the beach and by the ocean! There’s nothing more relaxing than feeling the gentle breeze as the waves lap upon the sand.
Sand is also an amazing running surface. In fact, it’s near-perfect if it is flat and firm. For this, try running closer to the water’s edge. Further up the beach, you’re more likely to find sand that is dry and deep. This will kill your pace but you’ll get an incredibly challenging, powerful workout for your calves.
Staying in beach mode, now is the time to try kicking off your shoes and trying some barefoot running. This is a great surface for strengthening your feet and toes.
One of the downsides of running in the sand is that many people don’t live close enough to the beach to regularly work out there. In addition, you might have to deal with the tilt of the surface closer to the water, which puts undue stress on your body.
There is also the cantor of the sand. You won’t be running on a flat surface. You’ll also need to remember the sun screen as you won’t find any shade by the water.
Finally, if you’re running barefoot, you always have to be aware of an increased chance for blisters. If you get some when you’re running on the beach, you’re going to be in some serious pain with the rough sand rubbing against you.
In the end, each person is different and will have different preferences for their favorite surfaces to run on. But no matter what you like, you can never go wrong with one of these 10 surfaces!