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The Best and Worst Running Surfaces

What kind of surface should you be running on? I am going to share this with you purely based on my experience and what I’ve been told over years of being an athlete. I feel that the most you learn about the sport of running is when you are injured. It makes total sense because you learn what to do and what not to do to keep yourself healthy. I can honestly say I have tried many different shoes, socks, running strides, and foot strikes. I’ve run numerous half marathons, a few full marathons, many 5K and 10K races, and about 50+ triathlons. I’ve learned over time what feels good and works well, at least for me. I hope to give you some insight to help you think more about where you are running.

Having been a military wife for many years, I came to know (and love?) the Navy docs who took care of my sports injuries over time. The one Navy provider that stands out most was actually a Navy Physical Therapist who took care of me when I had tibial tendonitis in my left ankle. I had been putting in a lot of mileage on a concrete sidewalk in our neighborhood, running several mornings a week before the sun came up. I started to have some tendonitis in my ankle. I asked about running on concrete and he told me to try and run on these surfaces (and in this order):

1. A dirt trail – this is the most desirable he said because it is very friendly to the joints. You have to be super careful to make sure to not step on a rock or an uneven surface of the trail. Try to find a smooth, well-travelled trail.

2. A rubber track- also very nice on the joints and you can count on a uniform even surface.

3. Black top road-somewhat harder on the joints but better than concrete. I am guessing that blacktop heats up during the day and becomes a little softer than concrete.

4. Concrete- avoid this if you can because it is very hard on the joints as it is the densest of the surfaces to run on. Concrete has the least amount of forgiveness. I do remember running cross country in high school and getting shin splints from running on the concrete sidewalks in the neighborhood around the school.

And what about the treadmill? The treadmill is a nice soft surface that is nice to your joints. It is not however actual running outside like the above surfaces. I’ve read somewhere (don’t remember where) that your stride is actually a little shorter when you run on a treadmill versus outside. So, I guess a treadmill is up there with dirt trail and rubber track as far as surfaces go, but if you want to simulate race conditions, it’s better to go outside.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention pool running. Although you can simulate the leg turnover motion in the water, you are not weight bearing in the water as on land. I love pool running for those athletes who are nursing a lower extremity injury. You can get your heart rate up for some good cardio and go through the motions of running without hurting your foot, ankle, knee, whatever. It’s a great surface for running when recovering.

When you are training for an Iron distance event it’s important to think about the surfaces you are running on most often. I often encourage my athletes to stay on softer surfaces if they can- and that means usually avoiding concrete. Why not preserve the joints if at all possible?

I hope you find my insights helpful.

Lastly, have you thought about getting a run gait analysis? This is a great tool to increase your running efficiency and improve race times. I can do this either in person or remotely. Click HERE to sign up and be sure to shoot me a message at I would love to help you become a better runner!

Got an upcoming iron distance event and need an experienced coach to hold you accountable? Set up a free 15 min call with me by clicking the button below! Send me an email message and we can chat about your goals!

Mary Timoney

Ironman Certified Coach

USA Cycling Coach

ACSM Trainer


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