Bobby McGee is an internationally acclaimed endurance coach who has produced an Olympic Champion, world champions and numerous world record holders. Through his coaching, lecturing and writing, he has become a much sought after figure in the world of human potential fulfillment.
Running on Concrete, Asphalt, Dirt, Grass or Sand?
By gradually running for increasingly longer periods on a softer surface, you will learn the technique and come to realize the benefits in injury prevention and speed.
Many people advocate running on grass to save your knees, ankles, etc. I've tried that, and can feel a bit of difference, but the undulation and general uneven footing push me back onto the running path. I’m a big guy and would like to do everything I can to protect my knees and ankles long term, but not sure if there is a big difference for someone who is typically running short distances. Does anyone out there actually run on the grass? I just find it so much easier to maintain pace and footing on concrete.
Dear Big Guy (I am a big guy too!),
Great question – let’s get something out of the way first. As an African coach I have always been amazed when people tell me they quit running because of their knees. Truth be told, running is good for your knees! The motion “oils” the joints by increasing lubrication and smoothing out the articulating surfaces. Running (progressively done) also increases bone density much more than swimming or cycling—a good thing. Most runners have knee joints of people 20 years younger than them. There are a few caveats to this though: You should have good linear running mechanics and a reasonably sound structural foundation, i.e. your skeleton as pertains to the legs and pelvis should be within the ranges that ensure normal running motion.
All that being said, concrete surfaces are some five times harder than asphalt and both these densities increase as temperature drops, meaning frozen surfaces are even tougher to run on. If you have a low stride rate, i.e. take less than 180 steps per minute, the amount of time spent on each foot strike is too long. This increases the amount of shock the body needs to absorb per foot strike. Also remember that running is a storing of elastic energy and releasing of it while adding some impetus. With the acceleration of body weight up to 4.5 times the runner’s weight per foot strike, there is a significant “shock absorption” requirement.
By running on a more forgiving surface, with appropriate foot wear (both in terms of motion control and shock absorption), the runner can significantly reduce the impact forces. This delays muscle fatigue and reduces the chance of impact related injuries (like stress fractures).
Many runners increase their run mileage by running on grass. In fact, many top runners and triathletes do some barefoot running on grass to strengthen their feet and lower legs for racing off the bike. The trick is to find smooth, even grass at first. Astroturf is great for this, so too are dirt packed roads. Many clients that I coach struggle on uneven grass when they are new to the sport, or come from cycling or swimming backgrounds. Lack of balance, coordination, and specific support/core strength is to blame. Just watch high school cross country runners; they have no problem running on these uneven surfaces, as it is a skill that they have learned by having acquired the specific strength, balance and rhythm of the activity.
By gradually running for increasingly longer periods on this surface with a nice quick stride rate (180 plus steps per minute) you will learn the technique and come to realize the benefits in injury prevention, improved foot, ankle, and leg strength, better balance, and increased speed.
So even if you only do 20 minute runs at a time, you will benefit by doing a portion of these runs on grass. Avoid those uneven surfaces at first, until groin, ankle, and foot strength, as well as core strength and balance, have improved sufficiently. Get onto those smooth soft surfaces straight away though! Many great coaches have achieved wonderful results by training their athletes on sand. But training on the beach requires a lot more preparation before hand, as the surface is almost always cambered and the push off phase is unstable. Running on soft sand makes for great gains in strength, but is highly risky—one needs a flat footed gait, so as not to dig in too deep – that’s why snowshoes work so well in the snow.
Experiment with surfaces, think gradual safe progression, and enjoy the added benefits of safer, but more challenging surfaces.
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