Running Surfaces Examined: Which Ones are the Best?

One of the beauties of our sport is that you can run on just about any surface, anywhere in the world. As long as you have feet, you can train wherever you find yourself. But not all surfaces are created equal – vary your location and you’ll vary your session, because of the different impacts involved and the stresses which make their way up to your joints.

“In the summer, when I run mainly on grass, my whole body seems to relax,” said two-time world indoor champion Marcus O’Sullivan after winning a mile race. Concrete, he noticed, sent shock waves through his body and was a surefire route to long-term damage. There was only one way to sum it up: “I’m convinced that if you run on softer surfaces, your career will last longer.”

The 35-year-old Irishman is still mixing it with the world’s top milers, and many other runners have noticed that they feel different, physically and psychologically, when they run on different surfaces. And while running-surface preferences are something of an individual matter, varying from runner to runner just like favourite shoes, the following guide will clear up the merits of the various alternatives so that you can make the very best of what’s available to you.

Top 5 Best Surfaces to Run On


At its best, the grassland of parks, golf courses and football pitches provide the purest, most natural surface for running. Areas, where sheep graze, are often home to fine, close-cropped turf, too.


While grass is soft and easy on the legs in terms of impact, it actually makes your muscles work hard. This builds strength and means you’ll notice the difference when you return to the road. When it’s flat, it provides an excellent speedwork surface (spikes may be necessary for wetter conditions) and, unlike a track, can give you space to run whole repetitions without having to make tight turns.


Most grassland is uneven and can be dangerous for runners with unstable ankles. It can also be slippery when wet, runners with allergies may suffer more symptoms when running on it, and its softness can tire legs surprisingly quickly. Finally, of course, while the very best grass for running is often found on bowling greens and golf courses, the owners are not always happy to discover runners on their hallowed turf.


If you can find a flat, even stretch of it, the grass is the best training surface for most runners, especially as you get older.

Woodland trails

For a run that mixes constantly-changing surroundings with near-ideal running surfaces, head for your local woodland. Soft peat is God’s gift to runners, trails are usually quite level, and in some forests, they go on for miles. They can sometimes be rather muddy, though.


Usually easy on the legs and located in scenic areas that make you keen to return.


Unless you’re lucky enough to find wood chips or well-drained peat, woodland trails can be muddy and slippery. Tree roots can be a hazard for unwary runners.


Woodland trails can be a bit of a mixed bag in terms of quality, though the odds are usually in your favour. A wood-chip trail through a huge forest is the ultimate runner’s treat, though these are found in greater abundance in Finland than in Britain.


This heading covers a wide spectrum of trails, from worn-out routes across playing fields to winding tracks heading out into the back of beyond. There’s a point at which an ideal trail becomes too muddy or too hard-baked to be of much real benefit, but in practical terms, you can’t go far wrong with good old accessible dirt.


The medium to soft surfaces decrease the risk of overuse injuries and reduce the impact on downhills. Bare earth trails are often in inspirational settings with shade in the summer.


Wet, slippery mud is very hard to run on and increases your risk of injury – especially to calves and Achilles tendons. Also, as you get further away from civilization, the surfaces are likely to become rougher, making twisted ankles more likely.


One of the best surfaces to run on, though sometimes difficult for the city-based runner to find.


This gritty composition of fine rock, carbon, ash and slag made up the running tracks of the pre-synthetic era. A few of them are still around, and you can also find cinder paths in some town parks.


Cinders are much easier on the legs than roads are. If they’re well-maintained, they can provide a good, even surface, and a track has the obvious advantage of being of an exactly-measured distance.


Cinders certainly don’t provide an all-weather surface! In the heat, they become loose and slippery, and in the rain, they can turn into a quagmire. Loose cinders can also create slight slippage underfoot.


As all-weather surfaces grow in popularity, cinder tracks are few and far between. If they’re well-kept, though, they’re still one of the most comfortable surfaces to run on.

Synthetic Track

Nowadays, almost all British tracks are made of modern synthetic materials. While most people think of them purely as fast surfaces for fast runners, they’re more versatile than that.


Synthetic tracks provide a reasonably forgiving surface and, being exactly 400 meters around, make measuring distances and timing sessions easy.


With two long curves on every lap, ankles, knees and hips are put under more stress than usual. Longer runs also become very tedious.


Tracks are ideal for speedwork, but you have to be dedicated to using them for anything else.

Which Side of the Road Should You Run On?

If your running surface of choice turns out to be the sidewalk, you might want to think about which side of the road you should run on. This is especially important to consider if you chose to run on the road itself.

So what’s the advice?

From a safety perspective, it is advised that you run against the oncoming traffic. For most of the world, this means running on the left side of the road. And if you’re in Australia, the UK, India, or South Africa you should stick to running on the right. 

However, if you find yourself running down a windy country lane and you approach a hill or a blind curve, it may be wise to momentarily switch sides. 

A driver coming over a hill may not see you until they are right on the tip of that hill. You don’t want to get caught in the wrong place! And the same goes for a blind curve, they are called ‘blind’ for a reason. 

Running on Concrete Vs. Asphalt

Pavements are the most common terrain for runners, they are everywhere and are very accessible. 

What exactly are the differences between concrete and asphalt?

Well, concrete is mainly made up of cement, whilst asphalt is made up of a mixture of gravel, crushed rock, and tar.

Unfortunately, concrete sidewalks are the hardest surface around to run on, closely followed by asphalt. This means that they deliver a lot of impact through your legs as you run.

If concrete is the only running surface in your life, and you’re a regular runner, the sheer force of your feet repeatedly striking the solid surface can lead to stress fractures and shin splints. 

But, on the flip side, the predictability of these surfaces means that you are more stable on your feet, your chances of falling are low, and you can go fast.

Also, as most half marathons and marathons are run on the road, if you have a road race lined up, it is important to do the bulk of your training on the same surface type. 

Running on a Treadmill 

Whilst softer than concrete and asphalt, a treadmill is still considered a hard surface. 

It is important to note that running on a treadmill is just different to running on any other outdoor surface for many reasons; your stride length will be different, you will keep an ‘unnaturally’ even pace, and you’re actually working different muscles. 

Outdoor running will inevitably work your smaller, stabilizing muscles as you balance on its uneven terrain. But on a treadmill, these muscles may not engage. And your larger muscles are also worked differently on a treadmill.

When you run outdoors, you have to actively propel yourself, forwards, using your hamstrings. But when you run on a treadmill, the belt actually pushes you forward, meaning that you will engage your hamstrings less, and your quads will take more of the load. 

On the upside, a treadmill gives you the chance to mix up your training and the freedom to continue to run during those times when running outside may not be possible; during a snowy winter, a scorching heatwave, or a rainy day. 

Running on Sand

Running on sand is a lot harder than it looks! 

As sand is so unstable, the ground underneath you is constantly slipping out from under your feet. It takes a whole lot of energy to stabilize and balance yourself on this ever-moving terrain.

Although it may feel like a constant battle, running on sand will make you a stronger and more stable runner. The shifting, soft ground will mean that your body needs to compensate by using other muscles, leading to greater muscle balance. 

Just don’t expect to hit the same speeds you do on the streets!

Sand is also a low-impact surface in comparison to roads. This eases the strain on your weight-bearing joints – knees, hips, ankles – and reduces the risk of impact-related injuries, like stress fractures. 

Running on Snow

Whilst many runners would not even consider heading out for a run after a snowfall, others may view it as an opportunity for a running adventure.

Running in the snow can offer an exciting change from your standard running routine. It also forces a slow pace on the runner, which may be a good thing in smaller doses, as running slowly is excellent for muscle recovery. But be warned, once the snow has been walked over, running in the snow can get slippery.

Snow turns to sludge, and as it melts, pools of ice can be hidden underneath piles of snow. All of this leads to a very treacherous terrain and increases your chance of falling and injuring yourself.

If you chose to run in the snow, make sure you have proper waterproof shoes, or your toes will turn to icicles! And make sure that you are aware of the unpredictability of this running terrain!

Running on Trail

Trail running means tackling tricky and technical underfoot terrain.

It is not uncommon for the trail to be littered with roots, rocks, and muddy puddles. These obstacles require constant attention otherwise there is a real risk of injury.

But the risks of trail running come with plenty of rewarding benefits. For starters, trail running offers significantly less joint and bone impact than manmade running surfaces. 

The naturally uneven surface also means that your running gait will be uneven. This lends itself to strengthening and stabilizing your joints as well as improving your agility. 

The focus needed for trail running is something that draws a lot of people to the discipline. Keeping your brain engaged on the simple goal of not falling over can prove to be almost meditative. 

Another benefit of trail running is the psychological boost that comes from spending time out in nature. Spending time in nature has been shown to lower stress levels and boost mood. 

So, What’s the Best Surface to Run On?

As we have discussed, each surface type comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

There is no perfect running surface. Which surface you choose really comes down to your personal goals, preferences, and situation. 

Recovering from an ankle injury? Steer clear of technical trails.

Is it slippery and icy outside? Opt for a treadmill run.

Are you training for a road race? Run along pavements and roads. 

Are you looking to strengthen your stabilizing muscles? Sand running is for you. 

Want to improve your running cadence by taking on speedwork sessions? Find yourself a running track.


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