If you’re running exclusively on the roads, you could be missing an easy way to become faster and stay injury-free. All you have to do is stop pounding the pavement all the time — Think: trails, grass, track, even the treadmill — switching up your runs to a softer surface brings so many benefits.
“There’s potential that when you switch surfaces and do more non-road training, you give your body the opportunity to work smaller accessory muscles in different ways,” says Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, Under Armour run coach and CEO of IRunTons.
Gaining muscle strength isn’t the only positive to leaving the roads. Different types of surfaces offer varied benefits to runners.
Here, we take a look at five alternative terrains:
Building muscle strength on soft surfaces starts with removing your shoes. During or after a run, find a patch of turf or a well-cared for grass field — any place where you can safely walk barefoot without the chance of injury. Either barefoot or in socks, start with 3–4 walks of about 100 meters. After a week, progress to light drills and then 100-meter barefoot strides.
“Barefoot running helps develop the small tendons in the foot that help with explosive power and injury prevention because you’re not relying on the shoes to do the work. Your foot is creating this tension,” says Gallagher-Mohler.
Even if you race primarily on roads, the track is a valuable resource for interval workouts. Because of the set distance, runners can use the track to understand rhythm and pace recognition. The surface is also more forgiving on your muscles when running short and fast repeats.
Gallagher recommends heading to a track for workouts of mile repeats or less. Runners can also benefit from circling the track during their long interval workouts or tempos as well.
READ MORE > 5 REASONS TRACK RUNNING IS THE BEST
If you don’t have access to a track and you don’t want the pounding of the road, grass is your best bet. While your intervals will not be as speedy as on flat ground due to uneven terrain, grass allows runners to strengthen their legs without the pounding of the roads.
“If you can create 200- or 400-meter loops out of a grass field, you’re pretty golden,” says Gallagher-Mohler.
When you run on trails, every step is different, which is a good. The varying terrain works the smaller muscles in your feet, Achilles and calves. When choosing a trail, remember to embrace the hills. Though your pace may slow uphill, the strength you build increases your power and speed when on flat ground. Heading to a trail is not just good for your physical running health. Being surrounded by nature is a great way to mentally reset and get back to the roots of running.
There are some things to be cautious about on trails though. Due to the terrain, expect to run slower than you would on the roads. Runners should also be alert and watch their footing for any rocks, roots or debris. Finally keep your earbuds at home when trail running. You need to stay alert, especially if your trail is in a secluded area.
Sure, sand is technically a soft surface. But runners should think twice before they go for a waterside run. Many runners are inclined to run barefoot on the sand. However Gallagher-Mohler warns against this, citing her own bad experience. A short 30-minute barefoot run on the beach put so much strain on her calf muscles that she could not exercise for two months.
“If you do run on the beach I highly recommend everybody wear shoes and save the deep sand for very short [runs] less than 20 meters. If you are doing a run of maybe 3 miles move to the more packed sand,” she warns.
Start with varying your soft surface on one run per week, increasing as your legs become accustomed to the new terrain. You may just be surprised how much faster you feel when you return to the roads.