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Your Running Surface May Not be Responsible for Your Running Injury

By , SparkPeople Blogger
As an avid reader on the topic of running, what I have discovered in reading over 80 books on this subject is that the theory of running injuries varies as far and wide as the number of books I have on my shelf. Some have gone so far as to blame the shoes we wear or elect not to wear, while others blame our running form, while others blame the running surface and some even go so far as to blame the sport of running itself.

Last summer I wrote a blog on the best surfaces for runners to hone their skills. I did extensive research on this topic and was a firm believer that the type of surface we ran on either prevented or was responbile for causing many running injuries. However, my thought has shifted after reading several articles disputing the fact that there is no an ideal running surface for any of us.

After speaking with running coaches in my area on this topic, even attending several running workshops and a running symposium earlier this summer led by running coach and runner, Greg McMillan, I am taking a different approach as to what I believe is responsible for the injury rate amongst runners. In an article published earlier this summer in the New York Times, Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, an exercise physiologist at the University of Texas, states, "he could not find any scientific evidence that a softer surface is beneficial to runners, nor could other experts he asked." But what may be responsible for the running injuries is making a sudden shift to a different running surface.

Our bodies are quite adaptable. In other words our bodies become accustomed to the running surface we consistently train on which allows for the development of the muscles, bones and connective tissues to adapt to the stress we place on our body. The adaptation to running, or any exercise for that matter, occurs over a period of time. In other words, adaptation happens when one stresses his/her body and then allows time for his/her body to recover and repair from that stress. It is not unusual for you to feel some discomfort, even some soreness during or after a run, but if you should ever experience pain, you need to stop. Pain and running should not be in the same sentence.

While it's easy to blame shoes and a road surface for injuries, according to this same New York Times article, Dr. Stuart J. Warden, director of the Indiana Center for Translational Musculoskeletal Research at Indiana University,  is quoted as saying "abrupt changes are risky." And whenever we make an abrupt change to our running whether that is our speed, distance, time, shoes and yes, even the running surface, this is when injuries may occur.

I can attest to these so-called changes when I ran the Chicago Marathon in October 2009. Having spent a grueling hot Texas summer training primarily on concrete roads, the running surface many experts once touted as the worst surface to run on, I thought nothing about running on an asphalt road surface for most of the 26.2 miles the race covered. That was until I hit mile 22. I developed an issue with my Iliotibial (IT) band that caused me to walk in the last 4.2 miles. Having never experienced an injury, and never an IT band injury during any of my previous races or training, I was perplexed as to the reason.

Looking back I have since concluded that part of the reason may have been a change in the running surface—a surface I only spent a small amoun of time ever training on.
A lesson I now tell my runners is the need for them to find out the surface they will be racing on and begin the acclimation process to this surface, if it is different from the one they train on. If the running surface is not known, than you may want to vary your running surface just so that your body is acclimating to several different surfaces.

Just that little extra cushioning may have caused a slight deviation in my form, which my former running coach surmised may have been the cause of my injury. Thankfully, after taking a week off of running and then slowly returning to my old ways, including training on my beloved concrete roads, I have never experienced an issue with my IT band again.

Remember that the recommendations regarding how rapidly one should increase time, speed, distance or even the type of shoes you run in and the running surface you run on are just that-recommendations. One thing I have taken with me is when it comes to exercise, especially running, there are principles that apply to the masses, however, that does not mean they apply to everyone. There are exceptions to the rule.

You may have read about the runner who spent little or no formal training, who wears a shoe with no name brand association and does not take any refueling source and does just fine. But trust me these are the exception to the principles.

As a runner who has spent the past 5 ½ years sharpening my running skills, I have done everything from working one on one with a running coach, developing my own training program, changing to a the run/walk approach, even going so far as to join a running training group. What I have discovered is that my body loves to run. It loves the challenge of various training runs, especially hills and tempos, but I am also learning to appreciate the need to keep the slow runs slow and allow adequate recovery time between my runs regardless of the running surface.

For me, making myself an experiment of one has allowed me to remain injury free for most of my running career. But more importantly I have learned to never accept a one-size-fits-all approach to training. I do my homework and I ask lots of questions, just ask Greg McMillan. After all when I have a greater knowledge of the science behind running, it allows me to develop a running program designed just for me.

Do you believe that running injuries are preventable? Have you ever experienced an injury you can attribute to an abrupt change in running or the surface you run on?

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THINCPL2004 5/10/2020
Great Article, thanks! Report
MUSICNUT 3/3/2020
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Only time I was injured was doing too much too soon. I am a runner that when I started it was go further every run; or if time wouldn't allow more distance I would go way faster. So lesson learned. Best advice listen to your body. Report
I started running when I was 63, I took some time off for a few weeks due to a personal loss then made the mistake of picking up where I left off and then pushing myself farther. I injured a ligament that runs from my hip down to my groin and developed bursitis. I am now more patient with myself when taking time away and I start back slowly and work up to where I once was. Report
I haven't read all the way through the comments, but have any of you checked out "chi running". I've heard so many positive comments, that I've asked one of the leaders to organize a course in my home town. Report
I did not start running until I was in my 40's. I was never an athlete....EVER...before then. I think running is about listening to your body while pushing yourself to the limit. From what I can tell, most people get injured because: 1) they don't follow the basics (like wearing a new pair of shoes in a race listed in another comment) or 2) they don't get enough rest between runs or 3) they don't cross-train to keep other assisting muscles (like core muscles) strong. I have run without injury for 7 months...and I was more than 30 pounds overweight when I started running. I agree with Nancy: you need to educate yourself but also individualize what you hear so it fits Y-O-U. You are an experiment of ONE. Report
It seems that a lot of runners suffer injuries or complain of pain that stems from imbalances in the body. Running exclusively can result in tight hips and overdeveloped quads. Cross training is incredibly important! That's why Fuse offers classes just for runners.

Certainly running surface and footwear can contribute to injuries, but cross-training (Pilates or otherwise) can help prevent them! Report
Thanks, Nancy, this makes a lot of sense and this is new information for me. Thanks for giving me something to think about. Seems like one of the takeaways is to run on lots of different surfaces regularly, and that makes me glad I'm planning to have road and trail running as part of my training for the Big Sur Half Marathon! Report
I've never had a running injury, because I wouldn't be foolish enough to run on a hard surface where I'd injury my knees. There is a four mile dirt trail at the military base which is much better to run on. Report
This is the type of information I need. Thanks for both the blog and readers' input. Report
Very interesting.

I am a new runner and at first found I got some niggly pain when I ran on concrete, that I didn't get when running on softer surfaces. But after a little while this has stopped. I've noticed my running changes a bit on concrete - my footfall is more controlled with more/different muscles engaged to help me land more softly. So it doesn't hurt any more.

I suppose that supports the idea that its change that causes the problem! Report
as someone who is new to running in general (i'm doing the 5k your way programs), i found this article to be immeasurably helpful. Report
I totally disagree with TMACLEOD4! There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have survived Everest, just as there are runners who have overcome injuries and thrived. It's like equating catching a cold with dying. Injuries aren't all permanent. I have learned some things about myself, though, regarding injury:

I have been running for about 15 years, have done a couple of trail races of over 27 miles, but nowadays I run about an hour max, in Vibram Five-Finger shoes, on city roads. I don't usually have problems with injuries until I start to increase mileage. I think 3- to 4-mile runs are my "sweet spot" in terms of running injury-free for the long term. Whenever I start to aim for something long, every little niggling thing gets magnified.

I recently did a 7.3-mile trail race, during which I wore trail shoes that I haven't been training in much (I can't wear the VFFs on trails-- too sharp and pointy!). I am still horribly sore from the race, which was 4 days ago, and I had painful blisters from the unfamiliar shoes. My mistakes were that I haven't been trail running much, I haven't worn trail shoes, and I haven't run that far enough times. It all added up to a very painful last 3 days. Gradual preparation is key!

I also question whether I should race or not, because I seem to take more risks when racing than I would if I were just out for a training run. I rolled each ankle a couple of times during the trail race, and the outer tendons of my ankles were sore afterward. Being middle-aged, I wonder if I would be better off not racing. It's nice to have a goal to work towards, but I want to be running into my 80s! Injuries suck! Report
I don't believe running injuries are preventable. Just like I don't believe climbing Everest is safe. You may be able to do, but you may not. In running, you end up injured and on Everest you end up dead. Report
Completely, 100% agree!! I have dealt with shin splints for years and I feel at my best when I consistently vary my running surfaces every week. In one week I might run on a clay outdoor track, an indoor track, a treadmill, and asphalt. It's when I stay on one surface too long that I start to have problems. Report
I'd just commented on Spark's Virtual 5K page that I was glad for that race because it meant I could run it on my treadmill since hard tops always gave me shin splints! This article sort of gives me hope, but while I can walk for miles on hard top, I'm afraid to try running any distance at all because the injuries I suffer when I do often put me out of commission for weeks. The first time, I was running over 3 miles daily on trails, but then I ran a mile down asphalt and got major shin splints and actually sprains in both ankles--they swelled up to almost twice their size. I could barely walk, much less run, and I didn't run for years after that. It happened again to a slightly lesser degree when I went from trails to concrete on a "beach" in Chicago, then to a lesser degree when I went from my treadmill to a 5-mile run along a dirt path along a canal. I don't really realize the extent of those injuries until after the fact, so it would be hard to just stop when I hurt. Maybe I'll try just a quarter mile down the road and back. I'd love to be able to run anywhere I want to! Report
Nancy, I like how you think! An "experiment of one," indeed! As others are saying on this blog, this article is good, logical sense. Thanks for putting into words what I needed to hear. Report
My long training runs are on a mix of concrete, asphault & packed dirt but I always find that running races on just asphault leaves me more sore if not injured & in pain than anything else so it makes sense to me that regardless of what your body is used to, changing that is what hurts. Report
I believe running injuries for the most part are preventable, and I have never gotten an injury from an abrupt change in running surfaces. This could, however, be because I train on a variety of surfaces regularly.

A BIG factor for me is weekly mileage. While I suprised myself this weekend with doing more that usual, Monday I could tell that I had pushed hard and have let myself rest from running until today to make sure that I don't hurt myself. I also think strength training is very important. Once I increased strength training on my legs and core last year I noticed less knee and back pain associated with running. Report
I have been amazingly injury and pain free since I started running. I have found that yoga for me before a run is like magic and I usually toss in a little after just to stretch everything back out. And the other important factor for me has been rest. With other types of workouts I find it is good to actually push myself on the nights when I'm tired. I usually feel better afterwards but with running when I push to hard I don't usually have a good run. One extra day off during a busy or stressful week can make all the difference between a hard grind and a great night. Report
My normal route takes me over asphalt, concrete, grass, and dirt road. I guess I am covered then. lol Report
yes i can say that change is risky

i have been happily walk/jog training on grass predominantly with no issues

then i did a 5k walk in shoes given to me which are too big and i was on the tarmac and hilly.

towards the end of my walk i felt strain to the right side of my back and right leg ? sciatic.

i will be careful in future to wear right shoes and choos my route wisely

i would say hilly decline was a large factor and very large shoes. Report
I'd have to agree with the "experiment of one". I've been working with what I have known about myself for many years, ever since Grandma told me while hemming up a few pairs of pants for me (she was an alterations specialist at a haute clothing place) - and that is, that my left hip is larger than the right hip (which probably doesn't affect running or walking, just means my butt is larger on the left side, and that's still true today). The other thing she said was that my right leg was longer than my left leg. It's true. I can measure the inseam for both legs and right leg is longer, about 1/4 to almost 1/3 inch (might be more accurate to measure in CM but we didn't do metric back then. Still don't, really.). My chiropractors have all been surprised by what I told them about Grandma's comments and the X-rays they've taken prove it right, over and over.

So what this means for me is I do better when running on the right side of the center "crown" of a road, rather than on the perfect flatness of concrete/cement sidewalks. In the area where I live, because of extremes in annual temperatures, our residential neighborhood roads tend to be made with a softer material than concrete (actually I think it is a combo, with concrete at the bottom and some tar stuff at the top to allow for less chance of the roads cracking and creating potholes? Dunno), But with water run-off, the roads tend to be higher in the middle and slope off to the sides. If I run or walk or waddle on the right side of the road ("with the traffic" in USA term, since we drive on the "wrong side of the road", according to those who drive on the Commonweath system...), I'm far less likely to have problems with my right knee or right hip.

There have been times when I found myself suddenly walking on a road that was 100% sloped one direction and I was going the wrong direction and really really messed up my hip and knee (and I was too stubborn to turn around and walk the way I had just come, so that my right leg would be lower on the slope.). That wasn't too bright, and I ended up needing some PT to deal with the aches and pains. The PT (Physical Therapist, not talking about PT Cruiser or Part Time or anything else) also suggested I get a heel lifter for the left shoe and that seemed to work well enough that I could then walk on the "wrong" side of the road (left side, facing oncoming traffic - ie where they can be surprised suddenly, before they go ahead and hit me... I never understood the logic....).

So anyway... I'm not a runner...yet... but I have found it does pay to notice and observe the things about me that don't fit the "rules" that are generally touted as being what one should do...and try to work with it all so as to not mess my body up worse than it already is... Report
I would definitely agree with this!
I started running at 260lbs starting with the couch to 5k plan. I run on concrete side walks and even at my heavier weight had no problems and I was able to run nearly 5k 3 times a week. Then I decided to add a longer run at the weekend, I done 6 1/5k and after that I started to get knee twinges even on my usual run. I pushed to hard too fast, and had to take a break from running for a few months because I was too frightened of developing an injury. I went back to my normal routine and am now gradually increasing distance.
Long story short, even at 260lbs running on concrete I had no pain until I over done it suddenly. Report
I think what you say makes complete sense. We are adaptable, but transitions can be rough. For myself, I don't know exactly what caused my injuries. At the time, I was doing about half of my running workouts outside, and the other half on a treadmill. The important thing is that I found the solution: rest, different orthotics, different shoes, and different lacing. My long-standing foot problems (arthritis and tendinitis) both melted away after I started wearing Skechers Shape Ups every day -- although not for running. Report
I think this makes logical sense. At different points in time I've run primarily on different surfaces. In high school I ran cross-country and never injured myself despite the wildly uneven terrain. 3 or 4 years ago I began running primarily on a treadmill with no real problems. Now, I run primarily on concrete and asphalt (roads & sidewalks) with no real problems. However, when I recently hopped back on a treadmill for a 5 mile run, I had nasty, painful shin splints - most likely because I hadn't run on a treadmill in at least 2 years. The body can adapt to running on just about any surface, but the key is to build up slowly to allow the body the opportunity to adapt. Report
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