Running: Train on different surfaces to boost performance

16 May

Running the same neighborhood streets with the same views can get pretty boring, even when you love your neighborhood.

Did you know that running the same patterns of turning, incline, and decline also get boring for your muscles? This is why you eventually reach a physical plateau if you run the same trail, path, or street every day without variance. Muscle memory adapts very quickly to a routine, one of the beautiful features of the human body. But when we train to become stronger, it’s a challenge.

running on sand

The best way to keep challenging your body, especially the muscles in your feet, ankles, and legs, is to regularly change the surface you run on. Grass, sand, street, and wooded trails all offer different opportunities and challenges for your muscles. Even small variations in slope and level makes a big difference in how your feet and ankles respond. These small changes can build a lot of strength in your lower extremities which will protect you from injury and boost your performance.

Here are some of the benefits of running on surfaces other than streets and sidewalks:


If you’ve ever run on the beach, you know how challenging it can be. If you’re used to doing 3 miles on the street, the same 3 miles on a beach will feel like four or five. Sand is a very unstable surface and rarely level, which makes all of the muscles from your hips to your toes work a lot harder and constantly adjust. It’s also more challenging from an aerobic standpoint, burning more than 1.5 times as many calories as running on a hard surface. However, if you’re coming off an ankle injury, avoid running on sand, as it puts heavy strain on your calves and ankles.

*** We usually don’t recommend running barefoot, but when running on sand, this can be quite beneficial. Wear athletic shoes on all other surfaces.


Compared to street or pavement, grass is a welcome relief for your feet, creating about 17 percent less pressure. If you’re rehabbing from a foot, ankle, or leg injury, start running on grass before you shift to sand or hard surfaces. The uneven nature of grass, and the soft cushion it provides, greatly reduces the likelihood of plantar fasciitis and shin splints.

Wooded paths or trails

There’s nothing quite like running a trail in the park. It’s beautiful, but demands intense focus to avoid rocks, tree limbs and roots, or any number of other obstacles which might appear on the trail – including wildlife. This constant adjustment: ascending, descending, speeding up, slowing down, twisting, turning – is extremely beneficial for the muscles, tendons, and cartlilage in your lower legs, ankles and feet. That is, as long as you don’t get your foot caught on a tree root which sends you sprawling into a creek.


That’s right, running in water. Water is awesome for building muscle strength, because it’s 800 times more dense than air and offers continuous three-dimensional resistance. That means every muscle in your hips, core, legs, feet and ankles are constantly working and building. A swimming pool is safest for this, because the ideal height of the water should be chest-deep.

No matter which surface you run on, always stretch before and after your run to protect your muscles. Warmups are far and away the best way to avoid injury.

3 Responses to “Running: Train on different surfaces to boost performance”

  1. Robinson May 16, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    “No matter which surface you run on, always stretch beforehand to warm up your muscles. Warmups are far and away the best way to avoid injury.”

    With static stretching being a no-no before running now, what do you recommend for pre-running stretching?

    • eastpennfoot May 16, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

      Robinson: There’s a lot of debate about static stretching before and after running. Some experts insist it’s not necessary, but we still believe it to be beneficial. We’ve certainly never seen anyone injure themselves BECAUSE they stretched, but we’ve certainly seen foot and ankle injuries because they didn’t (as best as we can tell – it’s very subjective).

      • Robinson May 16, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

        As someone battling Plantar Fasciitis, I’m sure you can see why I am interested!

        Would you recommend a warmup before doing the pre-run stretching? or stretch, then warm up?

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