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Stop pounding the pavement: the benefits of running on various surfaces

Have you ever thought about the surfaces you run on? Are you a steadfast road warrior who always pounds the pavement, yet finds themselves with shin splints or other overuse movements?

Limiting yourself to only one running surface (especially an extremely hard one like cement and pavement) may lead to further problems as your body breaks down.

Sounds great, but where do you start? Well, what is your goal? Do you want to run a marathon or other road race this year?

Odds are your race will be on asphalt and cement. Obviously you need to get used to those unforgiving surfaces, but that does not mean you should only run on asphalt and cement 100% of the time either.

Alberto Salazar, former world record holder and 3-time New York Marathon champion now heads the coaching program for the Nike Oregon Project where he coaches top runners like Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.

Salazar says his runners spend only 5-10% of the time running on hard surfaces such as cement and asphalt with very little injuries compared with others who simply pound the pavement.

So what are your other alternatives?

Speed work or exact times needed? There is nothing like going to a nice track and getting in some speed work.

A track with a rubber surface never goes out of style…just make sure to alternate directions every once in awhile so you can give your IT band some rest on youdr inside leg. Exact distances are clearly marked so you will be able to tell exactly how fast (or slow) you are going.

Looking for a more athletic run or something closer to nature? Trail running offers great variances in terrain and works muscles you would normally not use on the roads. Trail running is an excellent way to get variable terrain into your program to avoid both mental and physical boredom.

On an unforgettable trail run high in the Andes
On an unforgettable trail run high in the Andes

The variances in terrain will challenge your muscles, but also keep you mentally sharp and focused as you run over hills and surfaces you are not used to. You will also get in some great plyometrics by hopping over tree roots and twigs.

Tough weather outside? Treadmills are not a perfect substitute to running outdoors, but they can get you in great shape. Take advantage of the incline setting or incorporate some fun metabolic conditioning workouts into your program.

Doing intervals at the gym? Add in some exercises like pull-ups or kettleballs that you normally could not do out on the roads in between your 400m repeats.

Grass is my favorite surface by far, especially if the grass is cut short and even (like a golf course or soccer field). Be careful of certain grasses that are very thick and have a bouncy effect to them like Bermuda grass that is found in the Southern US.

Also, keep a keen eye out for tree roots, pot holes, mole hills, dog droppings, etc. The pros far outway the cons with grass, especially if you find a perfect pitch to kick off your sneakers and do some barefoot strides after a long run.

Not exactly the beach, but the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah served up some great scenery for one of my most amazing shoots.
Not exactly the beach, but the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah served as an amazing backdrop

Everyone loves a day at the beach. Hard-packed sand is a great alternative running surface if it is even. Be careful as tides shift and can cause a tough incline on the sand, which will throw off your hips, knees and back if you run on it for even short distances. A nice wide, hard-packed beach is your best bet.

Deep sand is challenging to run on. However, that does not mean you should not run on it….just limit yourself to a few minutes of light running at most in deep sand at a slow pace. It will work a number of different muscles in your legs that running on other surfaces can not touch.

Step into some liquid? My dad was years ahead of his time. He was such a proponent of pool running that he actually built a small running pool in our house when I was growing up. My mom thought he was crazy until my staple of pool running workouts led to more PRs on the track and eventually a track scholarship at The University of Florida.

Pool running offers full body resistance and an excellent workout. It should be part of your training program, not just part of your rehab program should you be faced with an injury.

It is time to get off the roads. Running on various surfaces should be included into your training program for a number of reasons from injury prevention to simply combatting bordem in not only your mind, but also your muscles. So what are you going to run on tomorrow?