The 10 Best Surfaces to Run On

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 surfaces to run on, including pros and cons for each surface, so that you know all the surfaces that might be great for your next run!

women running on best surface track

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.

Pros

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.

Cons

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 track. 

2. Asphalt

fitness exercising couple training for marathon running lifestyle

Asphalt is ubiquitous, so it’s a great surface to run on. There’s a good chance that it’s right outside your door. Plus, it’s a good training surface since many races are run on asphalt.

Pros

Asphalt is a great option because it tends to be flat and fast. Plus, it’s easy to measure distances when you’re running on it. It’s very easy to get into a nice rhythm on asphalt, and it’s incredibly accessible because almost all roads are asphalt.

Cons

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)

Young woman running outdoors in a forest, going fast (motion blurred image)

Park trails are great because you’ll get to run on dirt ground, and they tend to be quite flat. This is a great way to avoid injuries from overuse because you’re giving your body and feet a break from harder surfaces.

Pros

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 a little bit farther out. 

Dirt is always an excellent place to run because it’s easy on your feet, and park trails are especially great because they are flat and you likely won’t have to worry as much about watching out for tree roots.

Cons

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, the mud can become quite slippery when wet.

4. Hiking trails (hilly with technical sections)

Sole of sports shoe walking in mountains on rocky path. Cross country runner training in inspiring nature, dirt footpath on Tenerife, Canary Islands Spain.

Who doesn’t like to go for a hike in the woods? They are also great for running. While you’re definitely going to have to work hard, especially going up those hills, you’ll get all the benefits of a great hike plus the advantages of an amazing run. Sounds like a win-win to me!

Pros

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.

Cons

Hiking trails are in nature, which means that they are not man-made and can be uneven. 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 quite muddy and slippery.

5. Grass

women running on grass

If you run on grass, you’ll channel your inner kid. What kid doesn’t like grass? And it turns out that 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.”

Softer surfaces like grass are a great way to keep 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. You’ll feel like a kid again!

Pro

Grass is a low-impact surface, meaning that it’s easy on your muscles and joints. At the same time, it actually making your muscles work hard, building your strength. It’s especially great for speedwork if you can find a flat area like on a golf course.

Cons

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.

6. Treadmill

Fit brunette running on treadmill at the gym

Some people love them, and some people hate them, 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 or other factors like stray dogs.

Pros

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 it’s such a flat, smooth, and even surface. You simply have to press a button to the speed that you want to work on and sustain it for whatever time you desire. 

Finally, treadmills are a great option if it’s raining, snowing, or just nasty weather outside. Many people (even those who prefer to run outside) will use a treadmill in the winter to avoid the elements.

Cons

Treadmills are known for being incredibly boring. You are running in one spot essentially and depending on the length of your workout, you might be there for a long time. Even if you use the fans, you might sweat more than you would outside because there isn’t a breeze.

Finally, most people don’t own treadmills because they are pretty expensive and would have to go to a gym to use one. This might not be economical for some people depending on their finances. Plus, you also have to factor in the drive to the gym, which might be tiring when you have a long day at the office.

7. Cinder track

running on cinder surface

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 good surface to check out. If anything, it will be a nice variation to your traditional running surfaces.

Pros

You get the benefits of a track—a distance that is measured exactly—with an easier surface on your feet. Cinder tracks will make your muscles and tendons feel much better than running on the road, especially if they are well-maintained and even.  

Cons

First, you always have to be on the alert for loose cinders, as you don’t want to hit these the wrong way and go flying. If you’re a bit unsteady on your feet or if you’re trying to run really fast, cinder tracks might not be the best option for you.

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. 

8. Snow

Winter trail running: man takes a run on a snowy mountain path in a pine woods.

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. Even so, it shouldn’t be ruled out as a great surface to run on.

Pros

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.

Cons

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 probably want spikes for safety reasons, so you’ll likely need two pairs of shoes in order to successfully run in snow.

9. Cement

women running on cement surface

In addition to asphalt, cement is another extremely accessible surface for runners. No matter where you live, there’s a good chance that there is a cement surface nearby that you can run on.

Pros

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.

Cons

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!

10. Sand

A young woman runner runs at sunset in a park in the park by the lake.

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.

Pros

Sand is also an amazing running surface. In fact, it’s near perfect if it is flat and firm. When you run on dry and deep sand, you’ll get an incredibly challenging, but powerful workout for your calves.

You can also try running on the firm strip of sand right by the edge of the water, if you don’t want to work as hard running in deeper sand. You’ll get an amazing workout either way when you run barefoot in the sand. Plus, it’s great for strengthening your feet and toes.

Cons

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.

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!

The Wired Runner