Testing terrain

Road, grass, dirt, treadmill or trail? Which surface is best for your body?

Testing Terrain

As long as you have trainers and a few minutes to spare, you can run – just about anywhere. The inherent simplicity of the sport is one of its greatest appeals. Whether it’s a late-night run through the city streets, a blustery sand-in-your-trainers beach run or a muddy off-road trail – push it hard wherever you happen to be and you’ll always get a good workout.

But, not all surfaces were created equal. You will best improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury by understanding the benefits and drawbacks of running on different surfaces – and working out how to mix and match them to best effect.

‘Each terrain has a different effect on your running style and on your body’,
says running coach Nikki Howes (www. runningtogether.co.uk.) ‘Softer grass and dirt absorbs more of the impact so are kinder on your joints – but they can be more uneven so they force you to balance more as you run as well as making it feel tougher to run.’

It’s important to understand the pros and cons of each terrain and choose what suits your individual needs, Nikki says. ‘For example, if you are prone to impact injury, you might want to add in some grass running. If you find the treadmill dull, head outside for some trail running and hills instead to bring an added new challenge.’

When the going gets tough, Chris Adams (www.therunning-coach.co.uk) says it’s crucial that you focus on correct running technique to avoid injury. ‘A soft surface like grass, dirt or sand might seem easier, but it pulls you down and can feel more challenging’, he adds.

‘Maintain an upright, centred posture to help your balance. Land with your feet as close to your body as possible – avoid great big strides,’ he says.

Coach and chi running expert Balavan Thomas (www.runandbecome.com) says changing terrain keeps motivation high and reduces your risk of injury. ‘We all have our favourite terrain, but try not to get stuck on one surface – mix it up as much as you can’.

PROS Predictable, even, all-weather, convenient and safe.

CONS Hardest running surface of all so greatest force on joints and muscles. Flat and predictable so burns less calories and tests muscles and balance less than off road. Road camber can tilt your body in one direction or aggravate hip and back injuries. Traffic hazards.

TIPS Hard and unforgiving so mix up with off-road or treadmill running whenever possible. Wear cushioning trainers to reduce impact on joints and muscles. If running on road, run in the centre to avoid camber. If you have a regular run, go round backwards instead of the same way every time, to avoid strains from road camber.

PROS Soft, low-impact, reduced risk of impact injury, tougher workout than road running. The force from your foot striking the ground is absorbed by the grass rather than travelling back up your leg so kinder to your body.

CONS Risk of tripping and is much tougher work if you’re tired, soggy and uncomfortable when it rains.

TIPS Watch out for hidden rabbit holes and stray dogs running across your pathway.

PROS Softer and lower impact than road running, great if you are coming back from injury and want to reduce impact. Instability on rockier trails adds intensity to the run and engages more muscles as your body has to stabilise itself.

CONS Can be uneven and particularly punishing on ankles and foot ligaments. Take extra care if you’ve recently had an ankle injury.

TIPS Choose less rocky trails if you are worried about twisting or tripping. Add hills to bring in even more intensity. Direct your gaze a few feet ahead rather than on your feet to spot hazards early. Run up hills more easily by shortening your stride, pumping your arms, bending them to 45 degrees rather than the usual 90 degrees and lean your whole body forward into the slope from your ankles (not from the waist since this can increase injury risk). When running on a downward slope, bend your knees more and avoid slamming your feet into the ground as this will jar your body.

PROS If you’re running on the beach it can be scenic and uplifting. There are added health benefits from the negative ions generated by the ocean surf, that are said to boost mood. You will work the leg muscles harder as you struggle to balance and sink in the sand. Reduced risk of impact injury. Thought to burn more calories as it’s harder work.

CONS Watch out for Achilles injuries as your leg adjusts to your feet sinking, more tiring, and tricky to run on for beginners.

TIPS Run on the harder sand where the sea meets the beach. Take it slowly if you are new to beach running in order to avoid painful Achilles strain.

PROS Fun, soft and forgiving so less risk of impact injury.

CONS Sticky so it pulls your legs and makes it harder to run. Tiring on the legs. Watch out for slipping and tripping injuries.

TIPS Keep your posture as upright as possible to avoid slipping. Make quick, light foot movements and land as lightly as possible to avoid getting stuck.


PROS Predictable, controllable, cushioned bed so less stress to the knees, back and hips. Less likely to trip up on obstacles. All-weather, warm in winter, less risk of sunburn in summer.

CONS Can be dull, takes a different running style (using your own body to propel you forward) and treadmill fitness might not be the same as outdoor fitness, too easy as no resistance from wind or surface changes. May burn less calories as it’s easier than a more uneven surface.

TIPS Add in some elevation and use the machine’s training programmes to break up the monotony.


Written by Women's Running Magazine | 1476 articles | View profile

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