So many places to run – your neighborhood street, the beach, park and let’s not forget the treadmill. Is one surface better than another for your knees? The jury is out. Although many runners insist that harder surfaces lead to more injuries, research does not bear this out. Instead, those in the know advocate variety rather than avoidance of particular surfaces. For best results whether you are a weekend warriors or race runner mix and match surfaces so you arrive at the starting line with the best flexibility, speed, strength and endurance to cross the finish line or finish your run strong.
Runner’s World magazine rates grass 9.5 out of 10 as a running surface. The advantages of running on grass include the soft surface, which can reduce impact (many runners insist this keep their knees happy). Still, your muscles get a good workout that translates to improved performance on other surfaces. Grass also offers beauty and wide open space, so running can feel more like a retreat. Proceed with caution. A drawback of running on grass is the danger provided by the dew. Grass can be slippery and the soft surface can induce muscle fatigue more quickly than a harder surface. Finally, like dirt, grass can hold hidden dangers such as sticks, roots and sprinklers. Outside Magazine recalls Mickey Mantle’s knee injury during the 1951 World Series. He caught his shoe on a sprinkler running across the field. Other drawbacks include the likelihood of twisting your ankle on the uneven surface and the trouble you may have getting traction. Consider wearing cleats, if you have them, to dial back some of the dangers of running on grass.
These great friends of indoor fitness enthusiasts earned a 6.5 on a 10 point scale. Treadmills offer consistency and control. Just pick your program and stick with it. For example, you can choose to run on an incline which puts less strain on your knees than downhill running. The treadmill can help you create less stressful conditions for tired or injured knees as well. There are no weather worries to contend with or technology to fuss with on the treadmill either. The built in computer does all the work for you as you run safe and free from the elements. Treadmills offer a smooth surface that is easy on the joints, including your knees, and programmable variety to alleviate boredom. If you have trouble maintaining a regular pace and you are recovering from a knee injury the treadmill is a very good option to include in your surface repertoire.
Sand lands about half way along the scale of running surfaces at a six. If you are old enough to have seen the movie Rocky or tried sand running yourself you know this surface poses some significant challenges. Sand running gives your calves a great workout but it can be tough on your knees. Your Achilles tendon is also at risk on this super soft surface. Still, running on sand can be an important surface addition to your running program because of the excellent training it provides for your legs. Don’t include this surface too often though. The risk of injury over extended time and distance outweighs the benefits.
Probably the most common running surface because of its accessibility – just step outside – rates a 2.5. Concrete is very hard and as a result leads to the greatest impact on your body. Despite this, concrete does not necessarily lead to greater injury than other surfaces. In fact, Competitor Magazine recounts the training regimen of Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, an exercise physiologist recovering from a knee injury. Tanaka opted for softer surfaces and ended up twisting his ankle on the uneven ground. Further, a study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine did not find a correlation between injury and running surface. Concrete surfaces are generally even and allow you to get better traction than you can on grass or sand. So there are definitely some advantages. Experiment with shoes to determine the right level of support for your gait and arch to reduce injury.
The best strategy for runners hoping to protect their knees is to vary surface, cross train, include rest days and build a strong core. Fatigue, overuse and poor mechanics are more likely to result in knee injury than any individual surface.