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Why you should choose your running surface with care

Runners worry about the smallest details, from shoes to stride. But one thing that is often overlooked is the running surface. Here's what you need to know

You should know the pros and cons of the surface on which you're running.
You should know the pros and cons of the surface on which you're running. (Istockphoto)

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It’s easy to put on a pair of sneakers and go for a run. Many people take their first steps into the fitness world with running. And despite rapid urbanisation, perseverance will usually pay when it comes to finding areas (apart from the gym treadmill) where running is possible. There’s much to process during the initial days of running: how much you should run, the type of shoes you should be wearing, what’s a good running time, and whether you should opt for a running coach to give you the correct stride. There is one question that often gets overlooked though—how does a running surface affect your body?

After all, running surface does matter, a lot. Now, there are broadly five categories of surfaces that you could run on: concrete/cement, asphalt/gravel roads, grass and other natural terrain, treadmills, and a synthetic running track. For example, roads in India are usually asphalt and gravel. Pavements, though, use a mix of concrete and other crushed rock, which might absorb more shock depending on the type of material used. One must treat them as hard running surfaces.

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Concrete surfaces: Easy to find, but the toughest on your knees and joints. Concrete is ten times harder than asphalt and/or gravel roads, and your joints will curse you after long running sessions on this surface. If you live in a housing society with winding concrete walkways, think twice before you start using them for running regularly.

“When we run and walk, every surface has a different giveaway—when the legs are in impact with the surface—and the muscles and tendons act like a spring,” says Abha Bansal, a physiotherapist working in the US, with a special focus on endurance injuries. Bansal has also been running since 2018. “If you are a slow runner, impact is minimal, so it is okay for slow jogs or a brisk walk. But if you are a fast runner, the force of landing on the surface is passing through your joints as well,” she adds. Ashok Nath, who has qualified for the Boston Marathon 12 times in a row, and also mentors other runners, says that it wouldn’t be too clever to do more than short interval training drills on concrete. 

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Roads: Most roads in India are a mix of asphalt, gravel and crushed rock. Most road races too are run on roads made of asphalt. Both Bansal and Nath say that running on the road is unavoidable if you are seriously considering the sport. “Cement is non porous. A road is still porous—there are gaps on the surface; and for a lot of people who have achilles and ankle issues, the road is a better option than anything else, because of the consistency and uniformity,” says Bansal. The drawbacks are obvious: one would have to wake up very early or find deserted roads to run on to avoid traffic.

Grass, sand, and natural terrain: “Natural trails are beautiful and gentle on the body but access to them is so difficult. The oncoming rains will not help these but while they are soft on the body, not that the traction with the surface is lower,” says Nath. The hazards here are stones or peaking roots and other slippery surfaces that act as traps, and can lead to twisted ankles.

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“The main benefits of running on grass are that the muscles are working hard and the impact on joints is low. It’s almost like resistance training—so if you have plantar fasciitis issues, then you should be careful about running on grass,” says Bansal.

For those living in coastal areas, sandy beaches are also an option, but know that the stresses on joints and muscles will be uneven on this surface. Bansal says that the calves will work all the time managing the body’s stability, because sand spreads under the soles.

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Treadmills: “Make friends with the treadmill because you will need it. It can be a saviour. You can easily put in 30-60 minutes irrespective of the weather outside. That flexibility will help all kinds of runners. It has absorbers, it is level, and things are under your control. I tell my mentees that the treadmill does the work, you just have to keep up,” says Nath. The drawback is of course the monotony of it, but Nath says that these workouts should be kept within the hour and it is entirely okay to take intermittent breaks. “It does pamper you because when you get off the treadmill and run on the road, it feels very different,” he adds. 

The cons are that not everyone might want a gym membership to access just the treadmill, and without any natural breeze, the body will sweat harder. However, the belt of a treadmill is cushioned and that helps the impact on the joints. 

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Running tracks: These are the hardest to access, unless you know the right places to go to. A running track is a synthetic track, usually 400 mts long, with an oval shape, surrounding a bigger pitch. The straight part of the track is the best surface for speed training, but make sure you know what footwear to use.

Nath has some excellent tips on how to use a track and avoid some of its drawbacks. “I suggest warming up and cooling down clockwise, and do the run counter clockwise. This is because on a turning track, the inner leg is running a tighter curve than the outer leg so you might wonder why one glute is more sore than the other. So balance it out.”

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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