The Importance Of Varying Your Running Surfaces

Are you stuck in a running rut? Take your running where it’s never been before–quite literally.

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Runners, by our very nature, are creatures of habit. Anything and everything related to our running—from the shoes we wear, to the food we eat (and when we eat it), to the races we run year in and year out — is regulated by routine. Think about it. When was the last time you missed your annual Thanksgiving Turkey Trot? Probably the last time you switched shoe brands or failed to spread a tablespoon of peanut butter on half of a bagel some 35 minutes before jumping on the third treadmill from the far window at the gym.

The bottom line is that for runners, routine rules—and where we run is no exception. Whether you’re a runner who prefers to pound the pavement, tear up the trails or trot on the treadmill, chances are you’re tied to your terrain like a dog on a leash. You’re scared to stray too far from your usual stomping grounds and play in some new puddles, so to speak. Well, it’s time to break up the boredom, put an end to the mind-numbing monotony and start treading over some new terrain. It’s not only good for your mind, but beneficial to your body and paramount to improving your performance.

“Changing running surfaces works different leg muscles which will lead to physical benefits,” says Eric Blake, head cross country and track and field coach at Central Connecticut State University. “And different scenery in your running will lead to mental benefits.”

For the road warriors out there, get off the asphalt every once in a while. Retreat from the roads and seek softer surfaces to run on – some of the time, anyway. Your feet, shins, knees and hips will thank you!

While the roads are always readily available for running, they’re not the best thing for your body. If possible, find a softer surface to run on at least once a week, be it a trail in the woods, grass field at your local high school or path through the park. Aside from steering clear of troublesome traffic, the off-road impact is significantly easier on your body. Let’s explore a phenomenon I like to call it the golf ball effect.

Throw a golf ball at your driveway. What happens? That’s right; it takes off into the atmosphere. Now throw that same golf ball at your front lawn with the same velocity. Where did it go? Yep, it’s still there on the ground, where the grass has absorbed most of the impact. Now imagine that golf ball is your body and the above process gets repeated a couple thousand times over the course of a 5-mile run. Which surface is more forgiving on your body?

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If you guessed the grass, or some other similarly soft surface, you guessed right. Not only will you keep those everyday aches and pains to a minimum, but you’ll recover quicker, strengthen your ankles and develop your lower leg muscles more rapidly.

“The softer surface of trails and gravel roads that I run on keeps the impact stresses down and allows me to recover from workouts faster,” says Kevin Tilton, a two-time member of the Teva U.S. Mountain Running Team. “Plus, running on the trails makes you use a lot of little stabilizer muscles that you may not use running all of your miles on the roads. I also find the trails more interesting and that allows me to get in more training.”

Staying soft doesn’t always make the most sense, however, especially if you’ll be racing on the roads. You’ll need to harden your legs to the harder surface, and the best way to go about doing so is to pound the pavement every once in a while. Aside from not worrying about rolling an ankle on a root or dodging some other unforeseen obstacle, you can work on your race rhythm much more effectively and get your fast-twitch muscle fibers firing that much faster.

“My road racing helps keep me in touch with speed that I may not normally find if I did all my training and racing on the trails,” Tilton admits. “Plus, getting my butt kicked in big road races gets me fired up for my trail and mountain races.”

Racing on the weekends isn’t the only recipe for getting your butt kicked and running on the roads isn’t the only way to work on your rhythm. Taking it to your trusty treadmill every so often will do the trick as well. Even for competitive runners, the treadmill doesn’t have to be synonymous with dreadmill. Blake, a three-time winner of the Mount Washington Road Race, does a lot of his training on the treadmill, a somewhat surprising circumstance for someone who’s a regular winner on the road-racing scene. Aside from the impact being easier on his body, training on the treadmill from time to time allows Blake to closely control his pace, increase the incline when necessary and monitor his effort level continuously.

“You know exactly your pace and distance,” Blake said. “And the treadmill is one of the only places you can run on a 10-12 percent grade for a long time. Training on a treadmill at an incline is very specific to the event.”

So, regardless of where you run, take a break from your regular routine, switch up your surface every so often and literally take your running where you’ve never taken it before. As the miles add up, not only will your risk of injury be lower, but the fun factor will be that much higher.

“I don’t get too burnt out by doing the same thing over and over,” says Tilton. “Running is supposed to be fun after all, right?”

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