Most of us are creatures of habit, following the same few routes when we run. Perhaps it’s three laps of the park, the usual river path or a circuit around the houses. Whatever the surface, if you run on it often, it will have a powerful impact on your body and if you’re not fit, that impact could be a negative one.
“Your joints are not designed to receive repetitive loading,” says physiotherapist Holly King at Ocean Physio & Rehab, in Devon. “If they’re not looked after, these joints can become worn or painful. Running on tough surfaces, such as roads, can be good for you, but if you don’t have the muscle strength or control to protect your joints, you could be asking for injuries.”
“Training on different surfaces if you’re doing a marathon is not essential, but it can reduce the impact on your joints,” says personal trainer and ultra runner Anne-Marie Lategan. “For experienced runners, I would recommend a variety of surfaces because you know your running style and will know how to adapt to different surfaces. But for beginners, I would say practise on the surface that matches your race.”
“Running solely on roads can become monotonous,” says Peta Bee, runner and author of fitness books, including Wild Gym: 50 Ways to Get Fit Outdoors (Guardian Newspapers Ltd). “I believe your muscles and ligaments should be tested in a variety of ways; changing terrain forces you to adapt your running speed accordingly. My old coach used to get us running up log steps in nearby woods instead of doing gym work once a week. Of course, the majority of your training runs should be on the road or trails, but by adding at least two different types of training a week, the roads will suddenly seem a lot easier.”
Well-exercised muscles do their job – contracting and lengthening as you run to offload the impact of your feet hitting the ground when you run. With each footstrike your body is subject to impact forces that amount to several times your weight. This impact travels into the foot, then the knee, then to the hip, then the lower back and so on; if problems occur, it will be in the weakest area.
In general, roads or pavements are the worst surfaces to run on. But each type of terrain affects the body in a different way and your individual weak spots and fitness levels will respond accordingly. For example, uneven off-road conditions can be problematic for anyone with poor stabilising muscles and weak ankles.
Whatever your chosen surface, make sure you protect yourself against injuries by wearing the right shoes. Some trainers absorb a huge amount of impact from the ground; others offer less protection. Choose what feels right, not what looks best.