Running Terrain Compared: What’s The Best Surface To Run On?

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One of the great things about running is that you can do it pretty much anywhere, on any type of running terrain.

From rocky trails to smooth and even running tracks, from sandy beaches to grassy parks.

But what is the best surface to run on?

In this article, we will take a look into the eight most common running surfaces and compare their benefits and drawbacks: we will take a dive into . . .

  • Running on Concrete vs Asphalt,
  • Running on a Treadmill,
  • Running on Grass,
  • Running on Sand,
  • Running on Trail,
  • Running on Running Track,
  • Running on Snow,
  • and finally, what the right side of the road to run on is!

Ready to find out more about the pros and cons of each of these surface types?

Let’s get stuck in!

​​Running Terrain Compared: What's The Best Surface To Run On?

What’s The Best Surface To Run On? – Running on Concrete vs. Asphalt

Sidewalks are the most common terrain for runners, they are everywhere and are very accessible. 

What exactly are the differences between concrete and asphalt?

Well, concrete is mainly made up of cement, whilst asphalt is made up of a mixture of gravel, crushed rock, and tar.

Unfortunately, concrete sidewalks are the hardest surface around to run on, closely followed by asphalt. This means that they deliver a lot of impact through your legs as you run.

If concrete is the only running surface in your life, and you’re a regular runner, the sheer force of your feet repeatedly striking the solid surface can lead to stress fractures and shin splints. 

But, on the flip side, the predictability of these surfaces means that you are more stable on your feet, your chances of falling are low, and you can go fast.

Also, as most half marathons and marathons are run on road, if you have a road race lined up, it is important to do the bulk of your training on the same surface type. 

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

What’s The Best Surface To Run On? – Running on a Treadmill 

Whilst softer than concrete and asphalt, a treadmill is still considered a hard surface

It is important to note that running on a treadmill is just different to running on any other outdoor surface for many reasons; your stride length will be different, you will keep an ‘unnaturally’ even pace, and you’re actually working different muscles. 

Outdoor running will inevitably work your smaller, stabilizing muscles as you balance on its uneven terrain. But on a treadmill, these muscles may not engage.

And your larger muscles are also worked differently on a treadmill.

When you run outdoors, you have to actively propel yourself forwards using your hamstrings.

But when you run on a treadmill, the belt actually pushes you forward, meaning that you will engage your hamstrings less, and your quads will take more of the load. 

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

On the upside, a treadmill gives you the chance to mix up your training and the freedom to continue to run during those times where running outside may not be possible; during a snowy winter, a scorching heatwave, or a rainy day

What’s The Best Surface To Run On? – Running on Grass

Grassy terrain is soft and easy on your joints and bones in terms of impact, whilst its slight give means that your muscles will be working hard– win, win!

If you can find an open area, grass is also a great surface to work on your speed, as doing your speed workouts on sidewalks can often mean dodging pedestrians and their dogs.

Although, obviously, grass can get slippy when wet. If you still want to do your speed session on grass after a period of rain, take a leaf out of a cross country runner’s book and get yourself a pair of running spikes to help you grip the ground.

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

What’s The Best Surface To Run On? – Running on Sand

Running on sand is a lot harder than it looks! 

As sand is so unstable, the ground underneath you is constantly slipping out from under your feet. It takes a whole lot of energy to stabilize and balance yourself on this ever-moving terrain.

Although it may feel like a constant battle, running on sand will make you a stronger and more stable runner.

The shifting, soft ground will mean that your body needs to compensate by using other muscles, leading to greater muscle balance. 

Just don’t expect to hit the same speeds you do on the streets!

Sand is also a low-impact surface in comparison to road.

This eases the strain on your weight-bearing joints – knees, hips, ankles – and reduces the risk of impact-related injuries, like stress fractures. 

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

What’s The Best Surface To Run On? – Running on Trail

Trail running means tackling tricky and technical underfoot terrain.

It is not uncommon for the trail to be littered with roots, rocks, and muddy puddles. These obstacles require constant attention otherwise there is a real risk of injury.

But the risks of trail running come with plenty of rewarding benefits.

For starters, trail running offers significantly less joint and bone impact than manmade running surfaces. 

The naturally uneven surface also means that your running gait will be uneven. This lends itself to strengthening and stabilizing your joints as well as improving your agility. 

The focus needed for trail running is something that draws a lot of people to the discipline.

Keeping your brain engaged on the simple goal of not falling over can prove to be almost meditative. 

Another benefit of trail running is the psychological boost that comes from spending time out in nature. Spending time in nature has been shown to lower stress levels and boost mood. 

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

What’s The Best Surface To Run On? – Running on Snow

Whilst many runners would not even consider heading out for a run after a snowfall, others may view it as an opportunity for a running adventure.

Running in the snow can offer an exciting change from your standard running routine.

It also forces a slow pace on the runner, which may be a good thing in smaller doses, as running slow is excellent for muscle recovery.

But be warned, once the snow has been walked over, running in the snow can get slippery.

Snow turns to sludge, and as it melts, pools of ice can be hidden underneath piles of snow. All of this leads to a very treacherous terrain and increases your chance of falling and injuring yourself.

If you chose to run in snow, make sure you have proper waterproof shoes, or your toes will turn to icicles! And make sure that you are aware of the unpredictability of this running terrain!

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

What’s The Best Surface To Run On? – Running on a Running Track 

Running tracks are the ultimate speedwork surface.

They are completely even and predictable meaning that you can precisely plan and execute your speed sessions and aim for consistent times.

However, with two long curves on the 400m running track, your ankles, knees, and hips can be put under an uneven and constant strain.

It is probably best to stick to shorter workouts on the track, as choosing to do your long runs on a running track can get mind-numbingly tedious.

Check out our complete guide to running on running tracks + track workouts

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

Which Side Of The Road Should You Run On?

If your running surface of choice turns out to be the sidewalk, you might want to think about which side of the road you should run on. This is especially important to consider if you chose to run on the road itself.

So what’s the advice?

From a safety perspective, it is advised that you run against the oncoming traffic. For most of the world, this means running on the left side of the road. And if you’re in Australia, the UK, India, or South Africa you should stick to running on the right. 

However, if you find yourself running down a windy country lane and you approach a hill or a blind curve, it may be wise to momentarily switch sides. 

A driver coming over a hill may not see you until they are right on the tip of that hill. You don’t want to get caught in the wrong place! And the same goes for a blind curve, they are called ‘blind’ for a reason. 

​​Running Terrain Compared What's The Best Surface To Run On

So, What’s the Best Surface to Run On?

As we have discussed, each surface type comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

There is no perfect running surface. Which surface you choose really comes down to your personal goals, preferences, and situation. 

Recovering from an ankle injury?

Steer clear of technical trails.

Is it slippery and icy outside?

Opt for a treadmill run.

Are you training for a road race? Run along pavements and roads. 

Are you looking to strengthen your stabilising muscles? Sand running is for you. 

Want to improve your running cadence by taking on speedwork sessions? Find yourself a running track.

For a more in-depth analysis of different running surfaces check out these articles:

For running on sand click here!

For running on trail click here!

If this talk of track and grass speedwork has left you curious about running fast, check out this article on the benefits of speedwork.

Photo of author
Maria Andrews is a runner, adventure lover, and UESCA certified Ultramarathon Coach. When she's not running around the woods or plotting adventures, she's spending time with her nearest and dearest, cooking up a storm, or working on Marathon Handbook's sister website, :)

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