Mary Jennings: What is the best surface to run on?

It’s the perfect time of year to test yourself on new terrain such as grass and sand

When I started running, I always ran on footpaths and roads. I never really considered anywhere else. My local paths and roads were safe, even and well lit. Most races take place on city streets so I just assumed that I should train on a similar surface. It never actually entered my mind to run on grass, trail or sand. Happy on my local footpaths, I considered “off-road” running something that serious cross-country athletes enjoyed, ploughing through mud and jumping through puddles. But I have changed my mind in recent years.

A fair-weather off-road runner

In case you think I’m going to tell you to get off the road, you need not worry. I’m not here to move everyone to the trails, I just want us to become a little more aware of the opportunities and benefits that different surfaces can bring to our running and our wider perspective. Change is good for our running body and while we might not have the opportunity to travel different places on our runs these days, we can add variety in other ways. I may not become a dedicated trail runner (yet) but more of a fair-weather off-road runner.

Find pockets of green

If you are a cautious runner afraid of uneven ground I encourage you to start with a gradual move from path to grass. You don’t even need to head too far off the beaten track. Sometimes we just need to notice what is right beside us. Getting off road within your local routes might not be possible for the full duration of your run but you can include pockets of off road in your usual run. Is there a local green you could do a few laps of? Do you pass any parks or trails? Are you lucky enough to live near the coast and have compact sand to run on? This week take a side step off your usual path, try a few minutes on those surfaces and notice how it feels.

The perks of a different path

The first thing you will notice is that you have to concentrate a little more on your footing when you leave the smooth, even path. This will help you become a more mindful and focused runner. Your body will physically work differently too as everything from your core to your toes will strengthen to adapt to uneven and unpredictable ground. Try not to tense up and let your body relax into this new ground. Some of the force of running is absorbed into the softer ground that would have transferred up through your body on a harder path so there is less impact on your joints. It can feel harder to move yourself forward initially and you might run slower. But you will develop confidence as you practise and relax into the new path.


Is road running bad for us?

When you return to the footpath after being on the grass for a while you will probably notice a few things. Firstly, running may feel quicker and easier. Your legs might feel lighter and there will be more bounce to your run. But have a listen and you might hear your footing and feel the added impact too. It is hard to avoid noticing the pounding of feet when you can hear it more. Interestingly while the impact of road running certainly sounds heavier on the body, the research on running surfaces is not that clear-cut. In fact, there is no hard evidence to suggest that one running surface is perfect for runners. Most research points to the fact that variety of surfaces can be the best approach for runners as each surface challenges us in a different way. The problem is that many of us road runners just run on the road and never look beyond it.

Making you a stronger runner

We may run slower on softer surfaces as we navigate obstacles and focus on the uncertain ground ahead. Measure distance if you must but don’t feel you need to hit the same speed as on the road. Remember, you are strengthening your body in other ways and this strength will stand to you when you do get back to road racing again. I find that adding the different surfaces makes me much more aware of my running technique. It also breaks my run into sections mentally rather than focusing on just the finish line. Most of my runs now have a little bit of every surface I pass. There is no avoiding footpath for some elements of my runs but when I do get an opportunity to leave the harder surface, I do.

Staying on the right path

For the winter months the footpaths and roads were the only option for many runners due to visibility and safety. But now is the perfect time to experiment with new terrain. As we move into spring, the grass is dryer and there is a path worn around the perimeter of most parks from fellow runners and walkers with the same agenda. Short intervals on the new surface is a great way to go. Choose a surface that is reasonably even, dry and bright to start out with. If you can’t relax on the ground underfoot you will tense up your body, you won’t enjoy it and you risk injury. You also might have to spend an entire run looking at the ground which in turn will impact technique and breathing. So break up the run into sections and run safely and sensibly.

An added bonus of freedom

Pounding the pavements is a phrase often used to describe what we runners do. But we can do more. Let’s try to make our local running routes more interesting, challenging and rewarding by simply taking a different path. You even might enjoy it. All that is needed now is the weather and there will be no stopping me – and you too I hope.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

– Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Mary's book Get Running published by Gill Books is out now.