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Coach’s Corner: Not All Surfaces are Created Equal

Posted Nov 01 2010 10:18am

Have you ever been driving and seen someone running down the grassy median in the center of a busy road?  Really, you say to yourself? That guy must be crazy; or just really smart. Keep your eyes open and you’ll see runners searching and finding all sorts of crazy ways to vary the surfaces they pound on a daily basis.

If you want to prolong your running career, listen up and become educated on various surfaces God’s green earth has to offer. I guarantee that with a little thought you can turn your 100% hard surface run into something with as much variety as the first Idol audition in LA. Don’t settle for one surface running loops when you can easily begin mixing the options below into a perfectly balanced run perfect for both mind and body!

Breaking down the options…

1)      Grass – The green stuff is the greatest and often the most abundant of all running surfaces. You can find grassy areas in even the busiest of cities. If you don’t have a grassy park, simply find a grassy field and incorporate loops (big or small) into your run. Even 5-10 minutes on a small grassy surface will go a long way towards staving off injury and preserving your joints!

2)      Trail- You can’t beat off road trail running for variety. The uneven surfaces act to cushion while giving your stabilizer muscles a great workout. Just because you may not be able to get entirely on a trail, you can surely find a shorter one around a ball field or sneak onto a runner-made dirt path that can often be found along the side of standard asphalt or cement bike path.  I lead a running group for our local lululemon store and utilize a one-mile rubber wood chip trail around the Sprint World headquarters down the street from my house. It may be short, but we loop the wood chip trail with extensions on the bordering ball fields and tree lined green space. This area appears to be top secret since we rarely encounter other runners but always serves as a super way to recover and get my legs back.

3)      Cinders- A great source for cushioned running. Cinder trails consist of crushed rock and often become part of parks or levy systems around the country. In Lawrence, Kansas and Washington, DC where I did my college running, we enjoyed levy trails and toe paths galore. Again, if your local park just has a small ½ mile cinder fitness loop don’t hesitate to grab several minutes of looping in the middle of a hard surface run to give your body a break.

4)      Treadmill- Often the last resort for most of us, the treadmill can actually make a great cushioned alternative. WARNING. Just getting on a treadmill and running at 0.0 elevation is actually like running downhill and WILL, I repeat WILL wreck your body quickly. Be sure you bring the elevation to at least 2.5 to get relief from pounding and take advantage of the spongy deck.

5)      Asphalt- Better than nothing and up to 10 times softer than cement.  Asphalt will get the job done. If you have the choice, sneak onto the asphalt roadway instead of the cement path during your run. Remember to run against traffic!

6)      Track- Not all tracks are created equal, but there are some that offer a truly cushioned ride. I have found, over the last 20 years of track testing, that most junior high or grade school tracks are simply concrete/asphalt with a thin layer of rubber clumsily poured over. Simply put, a poor excuse for a track. Look for college or high school tracks as the best option. They tend to be thicker and provide a plush cushion that is great for an entire run or just a few miles in the outside lane that can be incorporated into your normal loop.

7)      Concrete- The worst of all surfaces. I have run strictly on concrete during trips to NYC over the years. My legs became sore and heavy after just a few days of this brutal surface. Be sure to change your shoes more frequently if this is your staple surface. You can also add cushioned inserts to help as prevention. If you only run on concrete, it’s time to search for the other six listed surfaces and incorporate them into your daily routes.

Conclusion: We are creatures of extreme habit. It’s just the way most runners are wired and this is something to embrace. That said, get out of your own way and diversify your surface diet with some creative looping onto alternative options. You may look like a fool but will have a set of legs that feel better with an extended shelf life!

-Coach Jerry

(Coach Jerry has competed as an elite runner at virtually every distance over the past 20 years. He has PR’s of 2:35 marathon, 29:50 10k, 14:09 5k, 4:13 mile and 1:09 half marathon. He has also completed multiple Triathlon’s and conquered the Ironman. Jerry has coached at the High School level and coached Carnegie Mellon’s track and cross country team.)

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