Should I Run On Concrete Or Grass?
Running is a great workout for many reasons. It allows you to work on cardio, build up calves, quads, gluteus muscles, and work on breathing. It improves coordination and balance. Unless you’re running on a treadmill, running is likely one of the few activities that still gets you outside in the age of total technological immersion. Many runners consider their hobby to be a form of meditation or even therapy, and for good reason. One of the most important decisions runners make involves the running surface they train on. Between the treadmill, grass, mud, sand, concrete, asphalt, and turf, which is the healthiest option?
Why running surface matters
When we run, we repeatedly place stress on our joints (foot, knee, hip, and spine) with each step. This stress is a MULTIPLE of our body weight, because we are essentially landing from a small jump with each step. The two major factors which determine how much your joints are tortured during your run are your body weight and the surface. The basic physics at play here work like this: The energy from your motion moves downwards. Once your foot hits the ground, it stops moving downwards. The rest of your body continues to move downwards. Your ankles, knees, hips, and spinal column flex and put stress on your joint cartilage and other structures as they decelerate the forces. If the ground has zero give to it, your body absorbs all of that force. If the ground is a cushion, a lot of that force dissipates into the ground. This is why running shoes have a lot of high quality cushion in the soles. It’s also why the heavier you are and the harder the running surface, the more chronic damage you are doing to your joints each time you run.
Used in the construction of most sidewalks and some roads, concrete is generally the hardest and least forgiving substance that a person could run on. This surface absorbs no energy from the force of running, meaning that you must deal with it all - which your joints will not appreciate. After running regularly on concrete for a few years, you could expect to do irreversible damage to your ankles, knees, and possibly to your hips and spine. Excellent running shoes could mitigate this damage to an extent, but I still would not recommend it.
Significantly softer than concrete, especially when warm, asphalt is the most common material used for modern roads in the US. Still, running on black top can be uncomfortable and damaging for your joints if you run on it frequently. I do not recommend using asphalt as your primary running surface.
The primary benefit of running on grass is that it offers a much softer surface than concrete or asphalt. This soft surface absorbs a significant amount of energy from the stress of landing with your body weight on your foot, which could save your joints years of wear and tear. If you are running on grass, I must caution you about a potential danger, though. Unless you are an NFL player, the grass you run on is probably not a perfectly even and level surface. The unpredictable nature of the terrain could lead to a devastating ankle injury if you are not careful. That said, the rough and unpredictable surface could give your ankle’s stabilizer muscles and your balance a little extra work if you walk or jog carefully on your grass trail.
Depending on how tightly packed it is (and many other factors), mud can be a great running surface. My ideal mud is soft enough to absorb a lot of energy, hard enough to allow me to push off of it, and even enough to ensure that I don’t roll my ankle. Again, if you are running on an uneven mud trail, beware the roots and other obstacles that would love to destroy your ankle.
I admittedly have very little experience running on real soft beach sand. When I did try to run on the beach when I was younger, I found it to be a very difficult workout. When you land, the sand shifts a little, which does absorb some energy. Beneath that top layer is a pretty hard surface, so your joints won’t love it. When you push off, the sand shifts again, causing your muscle to work extra hard to move your body, which does provide for a challenging and unique workout. If you are running on sand, you are probably barefoot, which means that you are left without your super-valuable running shoes. I generally would not recommend running on sand, but if it works for you and if your joints feel fine on sand, go for it.
Unless you have NFL-quality turf, I think that this artificial grass is going to be quite hard, making it a less than ideal surface for running long distances. Unlike grass, turf is 100% flat and even, which decreases the likelihood of an acute ankle injury occurring. I do not recommend running on turf unless you could find a super soft version.
The track that surrounds high school football fields is literally built for running. It is composed primarily of rubber, which makes it much softer than asphalt while being hard enough to push off of during sprints and hurdles. I do not have much experience running on track, but it felt very good when I did use it.
Often the most convenient surface for runners, a treadmill is the only way a person could really run while indoors. Treadmills are even surfaces, unlike many outdoor trails. While it does not seem to be as soft as a running track, it is much softer than asphalt. It also allows you to incline or decline your track on demand, which you cannot really do outdoors. Changing the angle frequently allows you to rest some muscle groups periodically while working others. A treadmill also tracks your time, speed, and pace for you. I run on treadmills more than any other surface, and I think that it is pretty soft on my joints.
I recommend that you find the softest surface possible for your running. This should also be the surface that hurts your joints the least. It is also extremely important to warm up and stretch before running, especially when sprinting on running long distances. You will also want to get good running shoes and replace them when they wear out. If you feel your joints hurting acutely or chronically, rethink your approach so that you can continue to run for the rest of your long and joyful healthy life.