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If you want to get the most from your workouts, variety is not just the spice of life, it’s one of the basic food groups. Certainly you know that’s true for your weightlifting routine. And if running is your main source of cardio work, then that axiom is equally applicable – especially when it comes to the types of surfaces upon which you pound those peds.
According to Edward A. Schwartz, DPM, a podiatrist who works with many runners at Coordinated Health Systems, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based orthopedic medicine clinic, using many types of running surfaces “helps you vary the different types of stresses that your lower extremities have to accommodate. And that’s better overall for your muscle groups and joints.” Adds Bob Howard, MS, ATC, head athletic trainer at the University of Connecticut, “Every surface offers a different type of training. You want to be able to switch things up.” This will help keep your body challenged but also injury-free. So get out there and mix it up, but before you lace up, know what you are in for. M&F’s guide to running surfaces will give you the “dirt” on all levels.
Mixing up the surface you run on ensures the best overall fitness results. But each surface comes with its own set of pros and cons. For direction in your selection, we asked Edward A. Schwartz, DPM, and Bob Howard, MS, ATC, lead athletic trainer at the University of Connecticut (Storrs), for their advice. Here are their evaluations:
Pros: Gives more spring, and typically is a more level surface. Often the only choice for urban runners.
Cons: Concrete has less give and there’s more shock that the body has to absorb. There can also be many breaks and shifts in cold weather, which can create safety problems. Most coaches try to keep their runners off concrete as much as possible.
Pros: Has a little more give than concrete and requires less energy expenditure than softer surfaces. Generally a pretty level surface with few irregularities. In the summer it may have even more give than in winter, when it can be rock hard. Often the most convenient choice for many runners.
Cons: There’s still a lot of force on impact. And there’s also more of a slope – you’ll want to change which side of the road you run on because one foot has to continually pronate (turn inward) and the other supinate (turn outward) to accommodate the road surfaces. This can create serious foot problems, which can cascade into knee, hip or back problems.
Pros: Polyurethane tracks are level and have even surfaces with some give. The newly designed Tartan tracks are made with materials that offer good traction and a hard but giving surface.
Cons: Depending on the materials used, they can often be either too hard, in which case they don’t cushion well, or too soft, in which case they slow you down.
CINDER/CRUSHED LIMESTONE TRACKS
Pros: There’s not a lot of force on impact. Overall, cinder is an easy surface for your joints.
Cons: There can be more energy expenditure depending upon how loose the cinders are, which means footing may not always be really solid. They’re hard tracks to find.
Pros: They have a little more give than concrete and asphalt.
Cons: Can be weather dependent, and can be almost as hard as concrete in hot, dry weather. Clay tracks are somewhat hard to find.
Pros: Cushion well. Try to get half or more of your runs on a typical back road or dirt trail.
Cons: You might have to work a little harder. And you need to watch out for rocks or any other irregularities – they can result in an ankle injury.
Pros: Very little mechanical stress. You can burn a lot of calories with very little stress on the muscles and joints.
Cons: You won’t develop much force in your legs if you do it a lot. There’s a learning curve before you can sustain an adequate workout. It doesn’t typically put you in the most anatomical position to be running. You have to find a comfortable cadence.
Pros: Lots of give, minimal shock. If you go on a hard surface for a few days, try a grassy surface to recover.
Cons: Beware of roots, rocks and holes, which can result in an injury. Watch out for slippery dew if you run shortly after sunrise.
Pros: Not a lot of force on impact with sand.
Cons: Running on sand requires muscles and tendons of the foot to really work overtime to stabilize the foot, so there’s a lot of energy expenditure. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can run barefoot, or you may end up with a stress fracture. If running at the beach, run closer to the water’s edge, where the sand is more compact and less irregular.
Pros: Treadmills are convenient. They’re generally in a weather- and light-controlled environment, they give you direct feedback on running speed and elevation, and the surface gives, to some degree.
Cons: It’s a somewhat unnatural form of running. You’re basically standing still while the surface is moving. You don’t typically run on a treadmill, you “hop” because you have to project yourself into the air to let the belt roll under your feet. Try to do most running off the treadmill and save it just for an occasional run.
Individual foot structure plays a key role in what kinds of surfaces a runner should select, says Schwartz. “A high arch is not the best shock absorber, so you may not want to do a lot of training on hard-impact surfaces,” he explained. “I’m not saying you can’t, but you should minimize it.” The opposite would be true for someone with a very flexible foot, the kind that over-pronates (rolls inward) upon striking the ground. “You probably don’t want to spend a lot of time training on soft surfaces,” Schwartz offers. “It would create more stress on muscles and tendons.”
Frank Claps is a free-lance writer, personal trainer and owner of Fitness for Any Body in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.