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Running on Hard Surfaces May Be Better Than Running on Soft Surfaces

Updated on September 15, 2017
janderson99 profile image

Dr John applies his Biochemistry & Physiology research background (PhD) to develop reviews of exercises, training, run, walk, workouts, gym

Most runners believe that running on soft surfaces is easier on the body and protects them from jarring and impact injuries. However it appears that there is very little research evidence that a softer surfaces such as grass, sand, gravel or dirt tracks are beneficial to runners, in fact the opposite may be true. Soft surfaces may lead to more injuries such as twisted ankles, knees and pulled muscles especially if the surfaces are uneven rather than smooth.

Reviews of the literature show that there are no definitive comparative studies tracking the relative injury rates for large numbers of people sunning on soft or hard surfaces. Most people assume the obvious that the forces and impacts on your feet, knees, hips and legs will be much less on dirt or grass than on hard concrete. But are the injury rates different after you account for the unevenness of the surfaces and the way the runners gait changes with the surface?

The limited studies that have been done suggest that the body adjusts to different surfaces automatically to even out the impact. When you jump from a table to the floor you tend to automatically bend your knees as you land cushioning the impact on your feet, knees and ankles. Running with your ideal stride length and pace are also important for reducing injuries.

Good shoes are essential for running on hard surfaces, especially if its uneven.
Good shoes are essential for running on hard surfaces, especially if its uneven. | Source

Researchers in the 1990s found that when runners were faced with various running surfaces with different stiffness, they responded by changing the stiffness and flexibility in their legs to compensate for the differences.

For example runners responded by tensing their muscles more or less, and bending their knees more or less to compensate.

The outcome was that their total up-and-down motion remained perfectly constant.

When you're running, your legs function as springs to absorb the impact of your foot strike.

The ground provides another spring to absorb some shock.

Research has shown that when the springiness of the ground was changed, runners automatically adjusted the springiness of their legs by altering knee action and muscle tension.

The result of these adjustments is that the jarring force on their muscles and joints remained the same regardless of the surface. © janderson99-HubPages

  • When you run on a hard surface, your body responds by decreasing the stiffness of the limbs and making adjustments allowing greater flexibility to reduce the impact. You flex your hips and knees. On flat, smooth, paved surfaces every stride tends to be exactly the same and therefore your joints and muscles are stressed in exactly the same way with each stride. But this exact repetition may cause strain.
  • On a soft surface, your legs become stiffer and there is less need for cushioning and flexibility through bending your knees. But there is a need for variation, as no two steps are the same. This provides variety in the impacts on your body, perhaps reducing the risks for overuse injury. Too much unevenness, though, carries risks such as a turned ankle or twisted knee. Running on soft surfaces, especially sand, can help strengthen the lower leg muscles. It can also help prevent injuries such as ankle sprains and shin splints. Running in parks and on forest trails can also provide a welcome variety to your training plan and can also improves timing, coordination and can reduces boredom. It is wise to use a trail running shoe, which has extra traction and ankle support.

These responses appear to explain the finding from studies comparing the force on the feet on different surfaces.

No difference in the instantaneous forces were found when subjects with force sensors in their shoes, ran on concrete, asphalt, grass or a synthetic track.

Because of the profound changes in running action most people who want to change from a soft to a hard surface, or vice versa, should do it gradually to play safe.

There may also be problems if you train on soft surfaces and then run competitively on hard surfaces because the gait will be different and this may lead to other problems and lead to fatigue or muscle strain including side stitches.

Changing your running surface is similar to changing other aspects of your training such as changing your shoes, increasing your distance, pace or some other aspect of your training program.

Abrupt changes in these things can lead to injuries and disrupt your training program.

Given there is no established evidence that running on softer surfaces prevent injuries, many people prefer to training on the surface that they compete or race on. The favorite training surface for most runners is asphalt. Concrete is very hard and grass and dirt tracks may be uneven and pose additional injury rinks.

Advice for Various Surfaces

Dirt and gravel: A well-maintained path covered in crushed gravel is the best surface you can find - firm and flat but yielding. Traffic-free asphalt and gravel roads are close behind. Caution is needed on trickier trails with roots and holes.

Concrete: The hardest surface of all.

Many runners try to avoid it because it is unyielding and you are totally reliant on the cushioning in your shoes. But studies have failed to find any greater injury risk on concrete compared with asphalt. Sidewalks are generally level and generally car free but you will have to cross many roads.

Asphalt: Its everywhere and very convenient.

But cambered roads that slope away from the centre for drainage can put a strain on your joints if you always run on the same side, as you will always be on an angle. Alternate sides it traffic permits.

Grass: Running on manicured grass such as golf courses, parks and tennis courts that are very even can be a real joy.

But grass can be bumpy, uneven and may have holes or 'soft spots'. This increase the risk of twisting your ankle or knees. Many runners find it tiring as they have to concentrate so hard to watch out for bumps and hazards. Well used grassy paths are the best option.

Sand: The beach can provide one of the best and most scenic workouts a runner can get. Running on sand can strengthen your arches, ankles and muscles below the knees. Many runner find that it is the best and quickest way to build power in your lower legs. Running on sand is known to consumes more energy, especially climbing sand hills and running in soft dry sand. The impact force on your limbs and feet is lower on sand generating less stress and allowing you to work harder. You can choose between the soft dry sand and the harder wet sand and alternate between the two. The hardness depends on the tide and other conditions. You can run with or without shoes. Running bare foot can allow a fuller range of motion and allows you to deal with wet surfaces. You have fewer restrictions and therefore you can strengthen your ankles and feet. Running on sand has a negative side as it increases the risk of certain injuries such as strain your Achilles tendons and calves.

Synthetic track: These surfaces are generally softer than asphalt and provide an ideal smooth surface. The constant turning around a circular track may lead to injuries.

© janderson99-HubPages

© 2011 Dr. John Anderson


Submit a Comment

  • TheforestPhysio profile image


    11 months ago

    Very interesting article.

    I like that you mentioned running on cambered surfaces. There have been a number of studies linking ITBS/Gluteal tendinopathy due to increased relative hip adduction and foot pronation on the gutter side foot.

    Jon (

  • JoeDowgiallo profile image

    Joe Dowgiallo 

    4 years ago from Maryland

    I tend to consider the whole picture when I choose my shoes for my run. If I'm on asphalt, then I wear more cushioned shoes. On grass I wear less cushioned shoes. Each runner needs to find the kind of energy return that is optimal for them on the particular day for their particular purpose and then choose their footwear appropriately. I think your article does a good job of debunking some assumptions. You can take it one step further by thinking of the foot and leg function, shoes, and surface as adding to a sum total of running comfort.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    If the surface makes no difference then why do running shoes have padding in surely your foot will adjust? Why do trail shoes have less padding, its not for now reason. I would say from experience as a runner and coach that runners do not adjust their foot plant according to surface. Or if they do the reverse of what you say happens. You often hear runners feet slapping down hard when tired on roads because they know they will not step on anything uneven. Putting your foot down on gras you naturally place it softer. I have trained with East African's and part of the reason they are the best is that they avoid too much road running. Kenyan saying 'too much road kills young legs'

    You can get injured on any surface (and you will if you train hard whatever) but asphalt in winter is as hard as concrete. Elite runners avoid training on tracks like those used in the Olympics as they are too hard. They are set for running records esp in sprints, not training. Even a hard running track is a lot softer than asphalt.

    Before recent hundred or so years there was hardly any hard surfaces like roads, just a few rocky parts. You foot is designed for a softer

    surface. Most community parks have a decent surface as long as you keep you eyes open

    I did a lot of match fishing as a kid and they had a saying 'never sit behind a poor fisherman' A uk coach asked the coach of El Guerrouj what running on roads he did. He exclaimed that he did not fo ANY running on roads. I prefer to sit behind El G, his coach and the East African's who are the best runners in the world.

  • profile image

    Sachin Parikh 

    6 years ago

    Very nice article. As someone who has conducted research on locomotion in animals and have read hundreds of published articles on the subject, I can say that your information is accurate and laid out nicely. The picture showing the movement of our body's center of mass is exactly how we run; it is called the Spring Loaded Inverted Pendulum (SLIP) model. If I may add, many runners prefer running on asphalt or a synthetic track because those surfaces facilitate our running mechanics; they return more energy into our system than other surfaces, allowing us to run more efficiently. Well done!

  • Jason Matthews profile image

    Jason Matthews 

    6 years ago from North Carolina

    This one of the most informative hubs I have read lately. I really appreciate the way you discussed each type of surface, outlining the pros and cons. I really enjoy running on trails because you can often find a variety of different surfaces ranging from very soft (over a blanket of pine needles) to rather hard (gravel or rocky). I have found that trail running strengthens the tendons in my feet and also helps to build a little more agility because I do sometimes run into uneven surfaces.

    Overall, I like to vary it up. Some days on the road or a track, and others on a trail or grassy field.

    Again, great hub. Voted up!

  • elizabethmcgriff profile image


    7 years ago from South Alabama

    Thanks so much for the information. In my area, there has been lots of talk about "barefoot" running and the book Born TO Run. Since our anatomy is affected by the artificial padding in the shoes, they think the less the shoe compensates the better. I am getting ready to begin running training this winter and think I will concentrate on switching up surfaces as well.

  • SpiffyD profile image


    7 years ago from The Caribbean

    Very useful hub that challenged the 'common sense' approach to running surfaces. Running on a Mondo track feels much better than hard concrete surfaces. However, running on grass with the appropriate footwear, like soccer boots, is very good. Choosing the wrong footwear for the specific surface is less than ideal.


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