Top 10 Running Surfaces

Not all running surfaces are created equal - we've rated the top 10, from asphalt to woodland

by Marc Bloom and Steve Smythe

top 10 running surfaces

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.

(Ratings are out of 10.)

1. Grass
At its best, the grassland of parks, golf courses and football pitches provides the purest, most natural surface for running. Areas where sheep graze are often home to fine, close-cropped turf, too.
Pros: 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 in wetter conditions) and, unlike a track, can give you space to run whole repetitions without having to make tight turns.
Cons: 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.
Conclusion: If you can find a flat, even stretch of it, grass is the best training surface for most runners, especially as you get older.

Rating: 9.5

2. 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.
Pros: Usually easy on the legs and located in scenic areas that make you keen to return.
Cons: 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.
Conclusion: 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.
Rating: 9

3. Earth
This heading covers a wide spectrum of trails, from the worn-out routes across playing fields to the 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.
Pros: The medium to soft surfaces decrease the risk of overuse injuries and reduce impact on downhills. Bare earth trails are often in inspirational settings with shade in the summer.
Cons: 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 civilisation, the surfaces are likely to become rougher, making twisted ankles more likely.
Conclusion: One of the best surfaces to run on, though sometimes difficult for the city-based runner to find.
Rating: 8

4. Cinders
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.
Pros: 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.
Cons: 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.
Conclusion: 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.
Rating: 7.5

5. 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.
Pros: Synthetic tracks provide a reasonably forgiving surface and, being exactly 400 metres around, make measuring distances and timing sessions easy.
Cons: With two long curves on every lap, ankles, knees and hips are put under more stress than usual. Longer runs also become very tedious.
Conclusion: Tracks are ideal for speedwork, but you have to be dedicated to use them for anything else.
Rating: 7

6. Treadmill
When the weather’s bad, a treadmill is the best indoor running option for most runners (well, it beats running on the spot in your living room). Most treadmills have monitors that display incline, pace, heart rate, calories burned and other data. The hardness of the running surface varies between machines – some are far softer than others.
Pros: The smooth surface is generally easy on the legs, and hitting a desired pace is simply a matter of adjusting the machine (as long as you can keep up!). Additionally, you don’t have to worry about external factors such as dogs, wind and bad weather. The precise level of control makes a treadmill ideal for speedwork.
Cons: Effectively running on the spot isn’t very exciting, and if you don’t concentrate on keeping up your pace, you could be unceremoniously dumped behind the machine. Without the benefit of a natural breeze, treadmill runners tend to sweat profusely. The machines are too expensive for most individual runners, and gym membership may be uneconomical if you just go there to run.
Conclusion: Not everyone’s cup of tea, but fine if you live in an inner-city area with few trails, little grass and freezing weather. Also good for rural runners when the days are short, and for runners who find it hard to keep up a steady pace.
Rating: 6.5

7. Asphalt
Asphalt is the mixture of gravel, tar and crushed rock that makes up 95 per cent of Britain’s roads. It isn’t the softest surface around, but it’s difficult to avoid and it’s better than concrete.
Pros: As all road-runners know, asphalt is one of the fastest surfaces you can find, it’s easy to measure distances on it, and it’s simple to keep up a steady rhythm. While it’s rather solid, it’s a predictable, even surface that puts less strain on the Achilles tendon than softer or uneven terrains.
Cons: You face cambers, pot-holes, traffic and a pretty unforgiving surface that does put a strain on the body.
Conclusion: Though it’s a hard surface to run on, asphalt is also one that’s hard to stay away from. If you intend to race on it, some training (but not much) on it is advisable.
Rating: 6

8. Sand
Sand offers a run with a real difference. If it’s dry and deep, you can give your calf muscles the work-out of their life without risking any impact damage to your joints. If you’re on the beach, you get the sea breeze and the surroundings as a bonus, and if you don’t fancy the dunes, you can choose the relatively firm strip by the water’s edge as a brisker alternative.
Pros: Sand gives an opportunity to run barefoot in an pleasant environment. Running through dunes provides good resistance training and strengthens the legs.
Cons: Despite being great for building leg strength, the softness of the sand means a higher risk of Achilles tendon injury. Also, though the sand is firmer at the water’s edge, the tilt of the surface puts uneven stresses on the body. And while it’s tempting to run barefoot, watch out for blisters.
Conclusion: Flat, firm sand can be a near-perfect running surface, but most beaches have cambers and any uneven footing can overstress muscles. It’s probably best to limit runs on sand to shorter distances.
Rating: 6

9. Concrete
Concrete is primarily made up of cement (crushed rock), and it’s what most pavements and five per cent of roads are constructed from. It delivers the most shock of any surface to a runner’s legs.
Pros: Concrete surfaces tend to be easily accessible and very flat, and if you stick to pavements, you can avoid traffic.
Cons: The combination of a hard surface (reckoned to be 10 times as hard as asphalt), kerbs, and the need to sidestep pedestrians, can lead to injury.
Conclusion: City dwellers probably have little choice but to do a large proportion of their running on concrete. If you get the slightest opportunity, though, look for softer surfaces.
Rating: 2.5

10. Snow
If you live in Britain, you won’t generally have many opportunities to run on snow. That’s just as well, for where there’s snow, there’s usually ice too.
Pros: Snow can convert a drab park into a winter wonderland, giving you a sense of adventure as you tread through a freshly fallen snowfall. It also forces a slow pace, which is excellent for muscles recovering from injury.
Cons: Once broken, snow can be slippery, and slush, ice and frozen footprints make the going even more unpredictable. Snow can hide dangerous objects and cause muscle fatigue, and as well as increasing your risk of injury, it’s also bad for your shoes.
Conclusion: Initially a pleasant change, but the feeling doesn’t usually last.
Rating: 2

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Discuss this article

Hi all, I'm a complete newbie to all this, so i plan to follow the walk a bit/run a bit progression, untill i can do a 30 min run. Is it better to do all this on the gym treadmill or all out on the roads, or, a bit of both ?
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 00:06

wherever you feel more comfortable
personally I'd hit them streets asap
good luck

Posted: 14/01/2003 at 00:08


The title of this was "Street or Gym" or something like that ? The answer is "STREET" unless the recent snow means it's too slippy to run there - it can never be just too muddy or too cold (not in England/Britain - are you in England/Britain ? ) - do it in the street unless there is a good reason for doing it somewhere else (being too DARK could be a valid reason for doing it somewhere else by the way)

Ciao, ciao

Posted: 14/01/2003 at 00:40

If you can hack the cold, then go for the Street, the treadmill does not use the same muscles as normal street/road running, and so the sooner you take the plunge the better.

Best wishes, NN
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 00:44

Agree - definitely better to take to the road as soon as possible.

It is much easier to walk/run on the road where you simply have to change the speed your legs are moving at than on the treadmill where you keep having to adjust the speed of the belt and where you always have half an eye on the console.

It's also far more interesting being out and about. And, as NattyNoodle has already said, treadmill running does not provide quite the same training for your legs as road running.

Posted: 14/01/2003 at 06:53

Definitely Street!!
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 08:43

Well I will play devils advocate and disagree a little. If you are already a member of a gym then by all means use the treadmill to gain some experience of running. Put it on a 1 degree incline and away you go, also treadmills are generally a bit gentler on the legs.

BUT treadmills are no substitute for getting outside, so do this when you are feeling more confident.

Oh, and get some decent running shoes whether running outside or on a treadmill.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 09:13

Hi Rhino - I agree with everyone who's said 'street''s much more interesting, I think, that running on a treadmill. BUT I'd qualify that by saying if you'd rather start on a treadmill, just to get you going, then go for it.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 09:40

Again, I do agree that street is 'better', but for a real newbie, I think a treadmill (being easier), is perhaps the best place to start building aerobic and cv fitness levels.

Then move onto the street when you feel more confident about achieving the distance/time you wish to do on a certain run.


Posted: 14/01/2003 at 09:55


Treadmill can be useful for judging pace and building on your CV work. Also, whilst at the gym you can do a bit of cross training and resistance work. I find the gym useful when my marathon training says "2 miles fast" because i can't be bothered to get changed to just do 2 miles so I go to the gym and do the mileage on the treadmill and then chuck some weights around or use the rower.

Street, well you really just can't beat it, unless you use trails as well. You get to see other runners and there's always somewhere to spit. Plus, it's more interesting, gives your legs a better all round test and makes other people realise that you can actually run. My favourite time to run is about five o'clock at night so I'm moving faster than all the sad commuters stuck in their car. makes me glad to be alive, even when it's raining.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 11:20

Thanks 4 all this advice. It's given me a bit more confidence to get out there earlier than i otherwise might have. Think i'll try day runs outside and night sessions in the gym.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 11:56

I'm an opinionated old b*gg^r but I would go straight for the street myself. I tried the gym first off and couldn't get on with it at all, weights etc., great, but running no.

The street is much more interesting and serves to keep your motivation up even on a slight negative eg.

Running on treadmill, feel like stopping = stop and get off!

Run a mile or so from home, feel like stopping = you've still got to get home and whether you walk or run it's still good exercise!!

And in the confidence stakes, (just read you other thread re weightloss) don't forget;

You could easily be fitter than most of the people you see out there even if you've just started

Not all slim people are fit, they just like to think they are

Most of those you see max exercise is a walk to the station

If other runners see you, they'll be as pleased as the people on the thread that you are doing something!!

Go get em

Posted: 14/01/2003 at 14:11

Rhino--it all depends on how good the totty is in your gym. If there's loads, stick with the treadmill. If not, head out . . . !

Ahem. If you're already going to the gym, or the weather is inutterably vile, run in the gym. If not, run outside. You'll soon find out which you prefer (and it'll probably be outside).

I used to find treadmill running much easier than running outdoors, til I realised I was going at half the speed on the treadmill because I was afraid of falling off! So I could go twice as far. In theory treadmills do teach you how to run at exact speeds, 6 min mile or 8, or whatever, so they are useful for that too.

Happy running!
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 21:04

I hear what everyone says about Streets being the best. But personally as a beginner I have found treadmill a much better start. FOr me anyway...not having done ANY exercise for years and with zero running experience...I found the treadmill better in terms of a) removing uncertainty re: which routes to run on the street b) it was bit easier physically c) I could carefully monitor speed and distance.

This is the problem I still have with streets running (the little I have done)...I have no clue whatsoever re: how fast I am going (I like to aim for a specific speed to maintain) and I have no clue re distance run.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 21:36

Just come back from my gym running sesion. As far as i've found, the benefits of this are;
I get to watch totty while running
I can watch tv while running
I can run plugged into my walkman and not get mugged
I can tell exactly how quickly i'm going
The downside;
I have to pay for the pleasure
It's dam hot

Still the main thing is i ran, i enjoyed it and i plan to run again
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 22:27

I've just tried a treadmill for the first time, (I usually run around the streets). It was completely knackering even at a lower speed than I usually run. I'm also very stiff!
Either I had the incline on without realising or running outside hasn't made me as fit as I thought!
I think running on the road allows you to subconsciously alter your speed to suit your knackeredness rather than having to run at a constant speed.
If that helps!

Posted: 15/01/2003 at 09:45

Rhino - great stuff. As you say, the main thing is you ran and enjoyed it...that, in the end, is the bit that matters.
Posted: 15/01/2003 at 09:55

If you are going to run outdoors try and run off road,grass is more forgiving on the joints than tarmac.
Posted: 15/01/2003 at 11:16

Hi Rhino

When I started running, I did a bit of each: treadmill, roads and grass. But definitely outdoors now!! But as beginner, definitely start off slow, I used to run too quickly and I was knackered after 10 minutes. This put me off and I didn't run for ages because I thought I was too unfit to run! Two and half years on, I just love it, I can't believe that I can run over 10 miles CONTINUOUSLY, I'd never think it would be possible....once you get used to the outdoors, spring and summer will be a good time to do outdoors, you'll never go back to the treadmill, unless you really have to!

Happy Running!

Posted: 15/01/2003 at 13:06

I'm a complete novice -only been 'running'( I use the term loosely at this stage) two months -but never on the street - yet. Frankly the thought terrifies me, but I know it's got to come - good to know hto' that so many of you much prefer running outside - get the feeling I'm missing out on something!

Posted: 01/08/2004 at 18:47

I am a street kid - the great outdoors for me - the sights the smells the lack of people in the mornings, the wind in your face.Catherine - you are missing out on something special I think.
Posted: 01/08/2004 at 18:52

I do have to agree with everyone that says Street is best.

No matter how many sarcastic comments I've had, I'm just happy in the knowledge that I'm out there doing something to improve my fitness whereas the people making any comments are probably couch potatoes out to get more crisps from the local corner shop. And they probably used the car to get the 100 metres to the shop as well!
Posted: 01/08/2004 at 21:38

I would definatley have to say outside running is best. The major problem that I ahve encountered with treadmills is that they are sooooo boring. I usually run with an MPĀ£ player on anyway but any mre than half an hour on the treadmill and it just get a wee bit too dull.
One of the main advantages of the treadmill though is that you do have all the correct distances etc (Im sure some of them are wrong though) but this can be countered if you buy a heart rate monitor and you could drive the routes that you take to mearsure the distance and from that you can get your speed etc)
If you are running outside though I would definatley reccomend that you first get a good pair of running shoes, the roads can be horrendous for dishing out injuries like shin splints and the like. Your body will let you know if you have done too much too soon.

Posted: 03/08/2004 at 08:05

i do quite an accurate measure with a road map and bit of string David . BTW what happend to the other 16 David Taylors.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 08:08

Nooooo Hooose - that's number isn't to tell us that he is version 17 of David Taylor, it's one of those cinema age restriction doobries. Anything he says is only suitable for people of 17 years of age and above!
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 08:36

Oh I'm alright then (just!!)
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 08:37

Personally I can never run on a treadmill. I find it sooo boring.

Outside you can get out into the countryside, see the wildlife nad breathe in the fresh air.

I think it is the difference between exercising for exercise sake and exercise for enjoyment. Just get out there and enjoy the ourdoors, sprint to a tree if you want to, stop and look and the badgers if you want to. The time just flies
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 08:40

As a new runner myself I started on a treadmill for the 1st week, now on week 6, this was mainly as it was easier on my poor legs and also because I felt so shockingly unfit when I started. Though once i could run for 20 minutes I started outdoors.

I'm lucky enough to be only 2 minutes from a 3mile off road trail, so no vehicles to worry about.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 14:38

Well, I can only speak from my own experience, but I'd recommend starting on the treadmill. I was far too fat and self conscious to go outside at first, so I made sure I could do 5k at a reasonable pace before I ventured outdoors! All depends on self-confidence and the route you're planning on running. I found it easier in the gym because the treadmill is so controllable and I worried about pacing myself outside. After I ventured out, I found I love running outdoors, but for me treadmills still have their place. I use them for interval training and speed work and like long runs outdoors.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 15:47

I agree with Twinklemel.

I realised my love for the running game on the treadmill. I train about 4 times a week. Usually 3 times on the treadmill and at the weekend outside.

Sometimes the other way round, but these mornings are even too hot for me at the mo.

The treadmill helps me with my pace, although it is harder outside, but more exciting x

I too use them for interval training x

Posted: 03/08/2004 at 18:35

Hey there, I am also very new to all this running,but I am looking to take part in a half marathon.I am now able to run for 30mins on the treadmill, but I feel that I'm not getting the best out of my run. How can I improve?
Posted: 04/08/2004 at 22:06

Treadmills can be very useful if testing out after injury - you can stop if it hurts without having to worry about getting back home. I use both, but the treadmill is very booring - couldn't cope without the radio & Johnny Walker! It does help with speedwork & timed distance runs though.
Posted: 05/08/2004 at 08:45

Gemma - I don't think you can ever get the best out of running on a tready anyway - as Doreen said tthey are useful after injury for reasons given - Running out however is a beautiful, spirit lifting experience though hard at times.
Posted: 05/08/2004 at 08:53

I started on the treadmill, and think it's good if running is not something you've ever done much of. You can start off slowly (I walked on it for the first two weeks), and there are fewer things to worry about (cars, dogpoo, uneven surfaces, darkness, weather, being far from home, and just the unstructured style that outdoor running brings). There are also usually qualified people there to help you out, there are other fit/sexy people to look at and get motivated by, and there are usually TV's or entertainment, so you can distract yourself whilst your body builds up a tolerance.

Having said all that, I agree with the majority of replies - being outside is great. Despite being a 45-minuter on the treadmill, I did have to start again when I went outdoors, getting used to all the elements mentioned above, aswell as the local pikeys watching me as they lurked outside Mothercare. But I did get used to it, and am now running 1hr20 outside, and did my first 10k race on Sunday.

If you like gadgets and you've got some spare cash, try a Garmin Forerunner 201 - it tells you your speed, distance and time, so it's a bit like you're on a huge world-sized treadmill. Which of course we are.

And the best advice has already been given - do what makes you happiest.
Posted: 06/09/2004 at 20:52

Roads are great, but with dark winter nights, poor road surfaces, waiting to cross roads, dog dirt and people walking or talking that would rather see you run through mud and puddles than make a little space for you to pass, I personally think tread mills have a useful place in any winter training program.
Posted: 15/02/2006 at 20:01

At the moment, the weather is simply horrid. I'm getting more confident on the treadmill, and will probably join the running group at my gym which is divided into groups (10 minute mile, 12 mins, 7 mins I think) as I would feel a lot safer going out and about in a group - the social aspect would also be good.

Posted: 15/02/2006 at 20:45

I started on roads, felt too self concious to go to the gym, and also the road is just there out the front door, and free. At this time of year though I have to run twice a week on a tready at the gym because its pitch black by the time i finish work and hae had a scary mopment with a wierdo in a car (I wasn't in the car btw!!)

Agree that treadmills are useful for winter running, but you can't beat the road and the great outdoors!!
Posted: 15/02/2006 at 22:48

I can't stand treadmills...does anybody else just watch the seconds go by, its so frustrating i cant do more than 10 minutes. On the road time just flies by! I would recommend cross country at this time of year, its good for the knees and great fun
Posted: 19/02/2006 at 11:27

Just starting out on this 'running thing' too. Have completed one road run (walk 2 min, run 2 min) and was going to just stick to road running as I begrudge paying extortionate gym rates.

However, as I have entered into the Great North Run (self-bullying to excercise and motivate!), should I also run / train on the threadmill or can I do it all with road / outside running.

Posted: 21/02/2006 at 22:56

Entering a race is the only way I get motivated! You can do it all outside if you want, I would if it was light in the evenings all year round but when its dark I use the treadmill more as a matter of personal safety than anything else!!

Also there are NO hills where I live so the tready comes in handy for that, and since I've been usuing the treadmill I've found I can maintain an even pace better.

Good luck with the GNR!!
Posted: 22/02/2006 at 09:52

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