Runners, coaches, sports scientists and doctors vary in their opinions about the best surfaces runners should run on and how each affects the body. Most are focusing on athletes’ short-term ability to perform better. I feel they may be missing the mark on the long-term effects of some of their recommendations and might consider what consistent extensive exercising and especially running does to the body over a lifetime. This aspect of exercise has been overlooked because the evolution of ultra running and other endurance sports is relatively new with the longstanding effects just now surfacing.
The perfect example of this endurance exercise issue is the Ironman Triathlon. We are just beginning to learn the toll of this event and what the required training to compete can inflict on the body. As my long time Ironman patient, Scott Tinley, said in 2007 of his femur prior to hip resurfacing surgery, “My hip looks more like a pumice stone than the shiny, well-lubed and smooth piston of my past.” No matter how much treatment Scott received, the years of running on pavement and the amount of miles he ran could never be completely negated. So, as a runner, sports scientist and doctor myself, I have had a unique perspective and set of tools (my hands) with which to evaluate 1,000’s of athletes’ bodies and their physical responses to exercise. Over the last 35 years I have performed more than 400,000 treatments; you might say I’ve been a human Ferrari mechanic.
In science we say for every action there is a reaction. We know gravity is compressing us constantly, which is why the average person shrinks 2 to 4 inches by the time their 70. We have no control over gravity, but we can control how the forces are absorbed by the body from the ground up. These forces start at foot strike in a chain reaction of predictable interdependent actions throughout the body’s 206 bones, 600 muscles and 1200 ligaments. Add to this our average lifetime mileage is 250,000 to 350,000 miles. The vertical forces can generate 3 to 6 times a runner’s body weight with each foot strike. This translates into absorbing more than 440,00 lbs, or 220 tons per foot per mile. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that any reduction of these forces whenever and wherever possible will be beneficial in the long run. Excuse the pun.
I have discussed the body’s need to be balanced from left to right already in custom orthotics and what side of the road to run on articles. These excessive forces are much easier for runners to absorb and avoid injury from if they are balanced and their weight distributed equally from the feet upward during the running gait. This is very important as unbalanced forces, over time will cause everything from bunions, stress fractures, knee tracking issues, hip socket pain to degenerated hips and spines with a lifetime of fixing. I have also written about the need for proper running shoes and the need to maintain the normal 40 degree angle of the heel bone (calcaneus) to prevent and treat plantar fasciitis, shin splints and achilles tendinitis. Stability and motion control shoes provide the body’s best shock absorption system. Much like a car, you could drive one with bad shock absorbers, but do you really want to? I look at barefoot running much like driving a car without shocks, which would definitely wear the car out prematurely.
A critical component in the life prescription for pain free running are the surfaces you run on. Different surfaces offer different shock absorption rates. Our inability to negate these forces as well on harder surfaces accelerates degeneration. It may not be realistic to always run on softer surfaces. As a marathoner, I only run on pavement when I have to. I recommend running on softer surfaces whenever and wherever you can. Even in my marathon training guide, I recommend training on softer surfaces. The only time I pavement run by choice is during a road race. To allow yourself the ability to run into your 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s comfortably and injury free, you need to be smart when you are younger. Running on softer surfaces adds the benefit of reducing the vibratory forces throughout the body. I saw a young woman the other day running barefoot on the sidewalk, not even in Vibrams! My thought was, “Yikes!”
Ideally, beach running at low tide near the water’s edge in compact sand is the optimal surface. This surface makes you use your leg muscles up to 20% more, so it can be used as a speed work enhancer. It provides the best shock absorption and spring action to protect our body during impact giving you more bang for your buck. Yes, not all of us are in a geographic location that makes this type of running possible. Next on the list of the best running surfaces are DG (decomposed granite) paths and manicured grass. There are many articles written about running injuries that occur on grass and I agree that, like trail running, if grass is not cut short to allow level passage, twist and turn injuries like strains and sprains can occur. Running on trails and fire roads have been my staples for the last 30 years. I love the hills as they enhance runners’ endurance, although down hill can be a challenge generating 4-8 times the body weight, but is so much fun! I have also spent many years recommending and preventatively taping my ankles for those Baja 1000 type trail runs to avoid the infamous ankle sprain. See my ankle sprain taping. Getting to run on a track at your local school is another running surface that trumps the pavement and asphalt experiences. Treadmills, especially the non-motorized ones, offer a good alternative to the road and in-climate weather as well.
When all else fails, or it is mandatory because of a race, I will run on the street. Most marathons and road races are going to require this anyway. They will have a dramatic physical impact on your body no matter what you do, but if you have used some of the other surface choices to lessen the impact during your training runs prior to the race, you will recover faster and have much less potential long term symptoms and degeneration. There is rarely a reason to run on cement, unless you are in a city and pavement running is too dangerous and not an option. It is the most rigid and least forgiving surface. The young may get away with it for a time, as they forget that this one chassis must last for at least 80 years and 300,000 miles. Even though it may be hard to find a beach, park or dirt road to run on, it should be feasible to limit your asphalt and cement running.
Dr. Paul R. Copeskey, D.C., C.C.F.C.