It’s true running is as simple as lacing up your shoes, walking out your front door and putting one foot in front of the other. However, to put your best foot forward, there are some things you should learn about those roads that can help any road runner avoid injury and get the most out of your training.
We talked to two experts to get the facts about running on pavement that every runner should know.
BE AWARE OF RUNNING SURFACES
When it comes to running surfaces, pavement is the hardest there is. This doesn’t inherently mean you’ll be injured, but you should be aware of how this running surface impacts your legs. Additionally, you should be aware of certain hazards that come with the terrain — such as sloped areas or potholes — so you can try to avoid injury from tripping or falling.
“Roads usually are higher in the center than the sides to allow for drainage,” says Dr. Joe Griffin, a podiatrist at Coastal Foot Center, a practice with two locations in Alabama. “This mild slope may be enough to cause imbalances, so make sure you alternate which side of the road you run on. Common possible injuries from running on roads include shin splints, stress fractures and knee irritation, all due to the hardness of the road itself.”
Though roads have fewer obstacles than trails, for example, they can prove to be a little too ‘reliable,’ causing runners to feel more comfortable than they necessarily should.
“The immobility of the road sends more force through the foot, limb and back during foot strike,” notes Will Rodgers, head coach at Running Lane. “Most runners do not switch from roads to other surfaces during the same workout and this sameness of surface can compound the load to the system.”
KNOW YOUR ETIQUETTE
When you start running, some of the first things you’ll learn are the rules of the road. Just as there are rules for running on a track or the trails, running on the roads comes with its own set of rules, too. Not only will following these rules keep you safe, but it will also allow everyone around you to have a safe and enjoyable experience running, as well.
“In general, you should always run against traffic and wear reflective clothing (especially at dusk and dawn),” explains Dr. Griffin. “Also, if you insist on listening to earphones, leave one out so you can hear oncoming traffic.”
A few other important rules to follow include only running two abreast when running with other people and, if you are running on the sidewalk, alerting people walking or other runners you are going to pass them by simply saying, “On your left.”
WATCH FOR OVERUSE INJURIES
As mentioned above, because roads are such a hard surface, the consistent pounding on your feet and legs requires you to check in with your body for any aches and pains that could be early signs of injury. Dr. Griffin notes that while there is no consensus on whether or not running on harder surfaces leads to an increased risk of injury, just running on one surface can cause overuse injuries due to the repetitive motion.
“In my experience, I have found that there are more overuse injuries that occur for runners who only run on the pavement,” remarks Rodgers. “The constant pounding of the road can cause more stress to the metatarsals in the feet, tibia and femur of the leg as well as tendons like the plantar fascia and Achilles. This makes the runner more likely to develop injuries such as tendonitis, stress fractures or neuromas.”
To lessen the chance of injury, runners should start by making sure they have the right shoes. Getting fit by a specialist for road-specific shoes is the best way to make sure your shoes have cushioning in the right places for your foot type. Additionally, making sure you do supplemental work not only helps reduce injury risk but also helps you become a more well-rounded runner.
“I find that most runners tend to enjoy one thing and one thing only: running,” adds Rodgers. “However, it is also important to focus on strengthening the hips and core in order to minimize running-related injuries. Stretching the major muscle groups involved is also a key factor in reducing injury risk.”
Another way to reduce that injury risk is to switch things up. Even if you primarily run on roads — or are training for a road race — you should also try to hit the trails or track at least once a week. Dr. Griffin adds that, in addition, you’ll increase your endurance and even reduce potential boredom thanks to the challenge of different terrains (all in addition to that lessened chance of injury, of course).
“Recent research shows that different terrains activate different lower leg muscles and require different levels of ankle stiffness,” he notes. “For instance, running on asphalt requires stiff ankles, running on gravel requires more stability in the ankles and running on grass puts the least demand on lower leg muscles.”
Of course there is a chance of injury that comes with any type of terrain, but you run a greater risk of an overuse injury specifically if you stick with just one. In addition, you aren’t doing your body justice as a runner by sticking to one running surface. Hitting the track or trails — even when training for a race that takes place solely on roads — means you’re working different muscles and conditioning your body in other, equally valuable ways.
“The take-home message is this: I think everyone can benefit from mixing up runs by doing both road and trail runs,” concludes Rodgers. “Is running on the roads important for someone training for a half-marathon or marathon? Absolutely. You need to practice and train on the surfaces you plan to race on. Just be sure on your easy or recovery runs — when time or pace doesn’t matter as much — that you take time to hit the trail and smell the roses. Your joints, muscles and mind will thank me later.”