Training

Dear Coach: How Important Is the Surface I Run On?

Where you run—not just how much—can make a big difference to your run form and fitness.

One of the often-overlooked aspects of run training is the surface on which you run and the impact this can have on your body, your training, and your recovery. Especially as we approach the winter—when many athletes tend to increase their run volume—thinking about where you are running, as much as about how you’re running—is definitely a worthwhile consideration. I typically advise my athletes to “move around a lot” when it comes to run surfaces, that is, run on all sorts of terrain, so let’s look at some of the different options as well as some things to watch for.

It might sound obvious, but some surfaces are harder than others, with the general rule being trails/packed dirt paths are the easiest and kindest on your body, followed by asphalt roads, and then—last choice—concrete. Asphalt roads are always going to be better than concrete, and I would always advise doing anything you can to avoid running on concrete as it’s the hardest on your body. There is one caveat to this, which would be: If you are headed to a race where you know the run is predominantly going to be on concrete then you will want to work some runs on concrete into your training to be sure your body is ready to handle that kind of surface. The same can be said for trails or dirt: If you’re going to a race that features a trail run, be sure to work plenty of time on trail into your training in the build-up.

It would be an oversight not to mention treadmills here too, as they are obviously a popular run surface. While they are most definitely a great option, especially in the winter months and/or for speed work, remember that if you never hit the road or the trails, you’re going to suffer come race day. Do some “surface-specific” running in your key preparation period leading into your race.

There are a couple of pitfalls to watch out for when running on outside surfaces, which include:

  • Cambers: this refers to the slope at either side of the road which can seem insignificant, but running on a road with a slant/slope for a long time or repeatedly day after day can add up and cause all kinds of injuries. Be mindful of this and be sure to mix it up.
  • Even footing: while it can be super fun to get out on trails, gravel, or snow-packed roads, these surfaces can also cause a lot of slipping, sliding, or ankle twisting, so be as careful as you can be when running on uneven surfaces.

Obviously a lot depends on geography and the terrain you have available to you, but my go-to recommendation for the majority of your running is to opt for dirt trails or roads, as even and smooth as possible, to help you get the most from your run training and your day-to-day recovery. That said, working in plenty of miles on your race-specific surface is also important (when that time comes). All of these choices can help keep your training consistent and ultimately make a big difference in your run form and performance.

Marilyn Chychota is a USAT-certified coach and former pro triathlete who is now owner and head coach at Marilyn Chychota Coaching. Find her at MarilynChychotaCoaching.com.