Runners, especially beginners, often wonder what surface is the best for distance running. While some surfaces are obviously superior to others, the answer to this question can differ depending on your physical abilities, goals, and other needs. Here are the pros and cons of various popular running surfaces:
Tracks today are typically made of synthetic materials like recycled tires. The pros of running on track are that the surface is squishy and forgiving, meaning the softer surface somewhat lessens the impact on your knees and other joints when running. Tracks are excellent for speedwork because they have essentially no barriers, as opposed to running on earthy trails. Also, you can accurately measure your run and time yourself as most tracks are exactly 400 meters per loop.
However, tracks aren't the best for everyone or every type of running. If you're running distance – two miles or more – being on a track can be tedious. A lot of people like a change of scenery for their long runs. Additionally, the long curves on each lap are rough on the ankles, hips and knees, putting undue stress on those joints.
A lot of people enjoy running on the treadmill. One pro is that it doesn't require any special gear to stay warm or cool, outside what you'd normally wear, since you're indoors. Also, treadmills allow you to measure precise distance, calories burned, heart rate and other things that runners often like to know to gage their progress and performance. You have a lot of control when you're running on a treadmill, and the smooth surface is pretty easy on the knees, legs and back, which can prevent injuries.
However, there are some cons to treadmill running that are especially potent for distance and performance runners. For starters, because of the support you get from the moving belt during treadmill running, your hamstrings don't have to work as hard as they would otherwise. Also, treadmills are consistent. This can be a good thing, but if you're gearing up for a 10k or a half marathon, the terrain will surely not be as predictable as the treadmill surface. It might instead be good to train on less smooth terrain, at least occasionally. Another con is that treadmills do not provide a breeze. This means that there is no wind resistance to push against – which can give you an even better workout – and you'll also probably sweat profusely because air isn't rushing past to cool you.
The positives to running on concrete are few, but the surface is flat and if that means you're running on a sidewalk, you're likely to be pretty safe from traffic. Many city-dwellers spend much of their time outside running on concrete. The cons of concrete is that it's an incredibly hard surface – it's made of crushed cement, after all, and is said to be 10 times harder than asphalt. Concrete gives your knees, ankles and legs the most shock and should be avoided if at all possible.
If you have to run on the street or sidewalk, hit the pavement or asphalt instead. It's easier on the joints and is typically flat (save for a few potholes) so it will put less strain on the Achilles' heel than some even softer surface that are uneven.
Trails, grass and earth
The ground and woodland trails are your best bet for distance running outdoors. A golf course-type surface is ideal, in fact, though it's unlikely most people have access to that. Still, running trails in the woods are good because they have enough give for your knees. However, if you're working on speed, stay away from these surfaces because it can be difficult to measure your distance and you could get tripped up (literally) by roots and other debris on the messy trails.