What Is The Best Surface To Run On To Avoid Injury?

We compare running terrains for comfort, safety, and injury risk

As a certified running coach and competitive runner, I am always looking for ways to reduce the risk of injury.

Among important factors like following a sound training plan, listening to your body, replacing your running shoes before they wear out,1Taunton, J. E. (2003). A prospective study of running injuries: the Vancouver Sun Run “In Training” clinics. British Journal of Sports Medicine37(>3), 239–244. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.37.3.239 incorporating strength training, and varying your workouts, running on a variety of surfaces can also reduce the risk of injury.

Softer surfaces such as grass, trails, and synthetic tracks can provide more cushioning than road running on asphalt roads and concrete surfaces.

However, there can be downsides to training on some soft surfaces or exclusively running on grass vs roads. So, what is the best surface to run on?

This is why incorporating different running surfaces into your running routine can be the most effective way to reduce injury risk while experiencing the benefits of each running surface.

In this guide, we will discuss the pros and cons of running on soft surfaces, such as trail running, sand running, and grass running, versus running on harder surfaces, such as asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks to determine the best surface to run on to decrease the risk of injury.

What Is The Best Surface To Run On To Avoid Injury? 1

Which Type of Surface for Running Reduces the Risk of Injuries?

I often get asked by runners who I work with what is the best surface to run on to prevent injuries during their daily workouts.

Generally, there isn’t a single best running surface.

Running on softer surfaces, such as grass, synthetic tracks, and trail running on soft soil or wood chips, provides cushioning benefits.

However, there are also downsides, as many of the soft surfaces have uneven terrain, and because there is more give to the softer running surface, your muscles have to work harder.

For this reason, injuries like ankle sprains and Achilles tendinitis are greater when running on grass, sand, snow, or any uneven surface with a lot of give.

Similarly, there are benefits to running on harder surfaces such as asphalt roads.

Hard surfaces give you more energy rebound, which can help you run faster, which can be ideal for speed work.

This can help you improve performance over time because you have the ability to train at a higher heart rate and higher intensity without having to focus on watching every foot strike so that you don’t trip and fall or overcome the loss of energy from the softer surface.

Plus, most road running takes place on a smooth surface, so there is a lower risk of ankle sprains, and you don’t have to be as mindful of your footing as when running on uneven surfaces.

However, the impact stress2NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x when running on concrete surfaces or asphalt roads can increase the risk of injuries like stress fractures and knee pain.

Finally, it is important to note that the best running surface will also depend on the type of racing you will be doing.

Trail runners should focus on trail running or other off-road terrain so that the smaller muscles in the ankles, hips, and core get used to the running technique and running form adjustments required for uneven terrain.

On the other hand, if you are training for a road race such as a half marathon or marathon, always running on sand, trail running, or even doing treadmill running exclusively may not prepare your body for the high-impact forces of asphalt roads.

Specificity of training is important for optimizing your performance and reducing your risk of injury on race day.

A person running in the grass.

What Is the Best Surface to Run On?

Here are some of the pros and cons of running on different surfaces:

Grass

Running on grass can be great for anyone who deals with knee pain, shin splints, a high risk of stress fractures, or who wants to strengthen their ankles.

Grassy fields such as football fields, golf courses, or well-manicured cross-country courses are great because the grass is usually short, and you can see your footing.

However, lumpy or tall grass can make running difficult and increase the risk of ankle sprains and ticks.

Grass can also be quite dewy in the morning and the soil underneath can get muddy after the rain, which can make your feet wet. 

This can get your running shoes soaked, which can be uncomfortable, increase the risk of blisters, and cause you to run slower.

A person running on the beach.

Sand

Sand is one of the softest, joint-friendly running surfaces3Jafarnezhadgero, A. A., Fatollahi, A., & Granacher, U. (2022). Eight Weeks of Exercising on Sand Has Positive Effects on Biomechanics of Walking and Muscle Activities in Individuals with Pronated Feet: A Randomized Double-Blinded Controlled Trial. Sports10(5), 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports10050070 and running on the beach can certainly be enjoyable.

However, running in sand is extremely tiring, particularly running in dry sand because the sand doesn’t stay put when you land or push off.

This decreases energy return. 

It also increases the risk of Achilles tendinitis, ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis, and pulling a muscle, such as a quad strain or calf strain.

Wet-packed sand is generally a better running surface. 

However, much like a cambered road that is sloped for drainage, running on the beach is usually also a cambered running surface as the shore slopes down to the water’s edge.

It is important to switch directions frequently to prevent knee pain and hip pain due to the uneven surface.

Two people running on treadmills.

Treadmills

High-quality treadmills are generally designed to provide a low-impact surface due to the well-cushioned running deck, and the treadmill belt is the epitome of a smooth surface.

Treadmill running allows you to have a very controlled running surface, which can be great for speed training or as a safe alternative to road running in the dark, where you might twist your ankles in potholes that you can’t see.

However, the treadmill belt is such a smooth surface and the motor pulls you along, so it is important to set the treadmill incline to 1%4Jones, A. M., & Doust, J. H. (1996). A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. Journal of Sports Sciences14(4), 321–327. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640419608727717 to replicate the metabolic and muscular requirements for road running outdoors.

There is also a risk of overuse injuries because every foot strike is exactly the same, as the running surface lacks variety.

A person running on a trail.

Trails

Running on trails offers cushioning and allows you to use different muscle groups, such as your core muscles and hip muscles to navigate the uneven terrain.

However, rocky trails or technical terrain increases the risk of twisting your ankles.

Additionally, because you have to watch your footing, trail running isn’t usually the best running surface for speed workouts.

Trying to run super fast without paying attention to your running technique and avoiding obstacles will increase your risk of injury while doing the opposite won’t allow you to run as fast as on smooth pavement.

Synthetic Tracks 

Synthetic running tracks are the ideal running surface in terms of the cushioning of the vulcanized rubber.5Zhou, W., Lai, Z., Mo, S., & Wang, L. (2021). Effects of overground surfaces on running kinematics and kinetics in habitual non-rearfoot strikers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2021.1898194

Even cinder tracks offer a softer surface than running on roads.

The known distance and flat terrain also make running tracks best for speed workouts.

However, distance runners who try to do regular distance runs on a track all the time can be quite monotonous, and the long curves can irritate their hips, knees, and ankles if they are always running around the track in the same direction.

Three people running on a track.

Asphalt Roads

Asphalt is softer than concrete, but it is still a hard surface, so there are high impact stresses on bones and joints.

Additionally, some asphalt roads are cambered and have potholes or lots of tight 90° turns if you run in a city.

Snow

Running on fresh snow can feel nice initially because the snow absorbs impact forces, but it is slippery, and packed snow or deep snow requires a pretty significant change in running form and technique to maintain balance.

This can cause you to run much slower and increase the risk of running injuries.

Concrete 

Running on concrete is one of the worst running surfaces. 

Especially if you wear minimalist running shoes, there will be almost no impact stress attenuation, which increases the risk of shin splints, stress fractures, knee pain, and other high-impact overuse injuries.

Overall, there are pros and cons to all of the different running surfaces.

The best strategy is to run on a variety of surfaces, focusing on those that line up with your intended racing environment or choosing the type of running surface based on your injury risk history.

Running on softer surfaces is best if you are prone to joint pain or bone injuries and running on harder surfaces if you are prone to tendinitis, muscle injuries, and ankle sprains.

For more information on running in the snow, check out this next guide:

References

  • 1
    Taunton, J. E. (2003). A prospective study of running injuries: the Vancouver Sun Run “In Training” clinics. British Journal of Sports Medicine37(>3), 239–244. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.37.3.239
  • 2
    NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x
  • 3
    Jafarnezhadgero, A. A., Fatollahi, A., & Granacher, U. (2022). Eight Weeks of Exercising on Sand Has Positive Effects on Biomechanics of Walking and Muscle Activities in Individuals with Pronated Feet: A Randomized Double-Blinded Controlled Trial. Sports10(5), 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports10050070
  • 4
    Jones, A. M., & Doust, J. H. (1996). A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. Journal of Sports Sciences14(4), 321–327. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640419608727717
  • 5
    Zhou, W., Lai, Z., Mo, S., & Wang, L. (2021). Effects of overground surfaces on running kinematics and kinetics in habitual non-rearfoot strikers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2021.1898194
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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