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The Best Surface To Run On (According To Our Runners!)

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If you talk to a group of runners, you will likely find people with very specific preferences as to their favorite running surface. Whether you enjoy running on concrete, the road, gravel, grass or another surface, there are definite positives and negatives to each surface.

It is also true that not everyone will feel the same way about each surface. In other words, although there are some things that simply hold true for everyone, personal preference still comes into play.

What Is The Hardest Surface To Run On?

This is a trick question. Why do you ask? Because it depends on what you mean by “hardest.” If you mean what is literally the hardest surface as in density, the answer is concrete. Since it is denser, it produces more stress on your body. This is one reason why some people I know refuse to run on sidewalks. Instead, they stick to the edge of the road where it is just a little bit softer.

However, what if by hardest you mean mentally difficult? Some people go absolutely stark raving mad running on a treadmill. With nothing to distract the brain as you hammer out miles, treadmill running can feel a bit like running on a hamster wheel.

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The same can be said for looping around the track for a long distance. Ask any cross country runner who runs a 5K across the grass how it feels to do that same distance on a track. While some runners make that adjustment well and easily, others say running distances on the oval is maddening. A former athlete I coached was shocked when his coach moved him from the 800-meter dash to the 10K on the track. While he found it hard, other runners said they just hit auto pilot and got into a groove!

What if by hardest you mean most difficult to navigate? If you have never run on a technical trail where you are hopping over fallen trees and forced to step in streams and puddles in order to keep moving forward, this type of running can be hard for you. For other runners, this is their utopia!

What Is The Best Surface To Run On?

Grass

According to many, the best surface to run on is grass. Why? The grass is soft and easy on your legs as you hammer through the miles. Since the grass has give, it forces your muscles to work even harder which builds strength.

There are negatives, however. Since grass-covered ground can be uneven, you are at risk for twisting an ankle. In addition, you have to worry about the grass getting slippery if it is wet from rain or covered with dew.

Trails

Ask any trail lover and they will tell you that trails are the best surface to run on. Honestly, they are my personal favorite. But far be it for me to slant the dialogue toward my preference so I reached out to my running community. Turns out I am not the only one who feels that way!

Some trails are dirt, and others have gravel. I learned when doing a half marathon in West Bend, WI that running 13.1 miles on gravel can be hard on your feet if you are not used to it. Running on gravel may require shoes with more cushion to help ease the blow!

According to Derick Thielbar of Indiana, “dirt and gravel trails are my favorite. It’s soft like running on a recycled track surface but with changing scenery and no crowds. The disadvantages are that if it is raining you can end up a muddy mess. Plus, sometimes roots jump up and grab you!”

Photo Credit: Derick Thielbar

Synthetic Track

A synthetic track is a soft and forgivable surface. Your body reacts well to the cushion it will experience there. Much like the grass, a synthetic track has “give” to it. An added benefit is it is a set distance around. As the cross country runner turned 10K track runner mentioned above, you can get into a groove and just click through the miles.

Zoe Hill of Pennsylvania says, “I love our local high school track! It is almost springy and awesome to run on! I also found when it was snowing I was still able to grip it! Running on the track is good on my joints.”

Photo Credit: Zoe Hill

Treadmills

If you refer to yours as a dreadmill, you likely do not find a treadmill to be the best surface on which to run. However, there are people who love their ‘mill. Advantages include the ability to set your desired pace and just go. Also, you are on a softer surface than asphalt or concrete due to the give of the belt.

The downsides to the treadmill include boredom and you can get wicked hot. Personally, I find my hips get sore. I assume this is because of the width of the belt and how my gait changes when I am on the treadmill. Having said that, I have many running friends who do the bulk of their training on a treadmill.

Why? Convenience. If you are a super busy person with a crazy schedule, you can safely work a treadmill run in at any time without concern for the weather, if it is dark out, or how safe the neighborhood is.

Is Running On Asphalt Better Than Running On Concrete?

If you have run on a road you have run on asphalt. With more give than concrete, it is not terrible on most people’s bodies. If you ask most runners where they do the bulk of their running, this is the response you will get.

It absolutely is better for your body to run on asphalt than cement. No question.  Running on concrete, whether you are running on the sidewalk or a cement road, is quite hard on your body.

Is it Better to Run On Dirt Or Pavement?

“Better” is a loaded word. Running on dirt is softer and less likely to cause “impact injury” since it has give to it. However, if you are not acclimated to running on dirt, it could also feel less stable for you.  In addition, if you are running on a trail, there are other hazards that often coincide with this type of running.

The same is true for running on sand. I am often asked the following question:

Is Running On Sand Good For You?

Running on sand is challenging if the sand is loose. If it is hard-packed sand, right on the edge of the water, it is easier to run on. However, loose sand can be tricky and feel very hard. You need to work harder to stay balanced in sand. In addition, your Achilles and ankles will feel like they are getting more work when on loose sand.

Many runners love to run barefoot in the sand; but, if it is a hot day, this can actually be hard on your feet.

We Polled 200+ Runners…

When we asked runners from the Sub-30 Club about the surfaces they most often ran on, these were the responses we got:

  • 49% said they most frequently run on asphalt
  • 24% most frequently run on concrete sidewalks, roads or trails
  • 11% most often run on dirt road, paths or trails
  • 6% run most on a treadmill
  • 5% are most often on gravel roads, paths or tails
  • 3% gravitate toward an asphalt trail
  • 1% is almost always running on the track
  • 1% is usually on a technical trail

It is worth noting that the surface people run on most often is not necessarily their favorite. One runner reported her favorite surface is the track because of how it feels, but that she most often runs on asphalt. Yet another stated that although she most often ran on a treadmill due to childcare needs, her favorite surface is a dirt road or trail.

Whatever surface you choose to run on just remember: forward motion is what is important. Happy running, friends!