How Often Should You Vary Your Running Terrain?
By Paige Smith
Most runners have a preferred path or type of terrain they gravitate toward. But if you're running the same exact surface every time you lace up, you're missing out. Alternating the terrain you run on can help strengthen your muscles, prevent injury, and prepare you for races.
The Benefits of Running on Different Terrain
“When you run on different terrain, you make subtle changes to the way you run," says Janet Hamilton, exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach, and founder of Running Strong, a coaching and rehabilitation service. You may shorten your stride when running on an uneven trail, for instance, or lift your feet higher if you're sprinting through tall grass.
Running on different surfaces forces you to practice balance and recruit muscles you might not ordinarily work, says Carl Leivers, a USA Track and Field-certified run coach. From a structural standpoint, he adds, challenging different muscles helps you become a stronger and more well-rounded runner.
Varying your terrain is also an important factor in preventing injuries caused by overuse.
"Different terrain is associated with different forms of tissue stress," says Hamilton. Running on hard surfaces like concrete places more stress on your bones, she says, whereas running on soft surfaces, like sand or grass, places more stress on tendons.
There are benefits and risks that come with every type of terrain, however. “I don't think there's one surface that's perfect for everybody," Leivers says.
Hamilton agrees. “Varying your terrain," she says, “is the closest you can get to having a perfect solution."
How to Start Changing Your Terrain
“Any time you vary something," Leivers says, “it's a new stress or challenge on your body."
If you're accustomed to running the same path every day, it's best to introduce new surfaces slowly. Start with once a week for one of your shorter or easier runs, Leivers says, then build up gradually if your body can handle it.
What terrain you incorporate — and how often — depends on your goals as well. For instance, “if you're going to be running races on roads," says Hamilton, “your body will feel beat up if you don't train on harder surfaces." Or, if your goal is to complete a 10-mile run on a nearby steep mountain trail, you need to start running trails and hills at least once a week to prepare.
Here are six types of terrain every runner should try.
Roads are one of the most popular places to run for two main reasons: they're easily accessible and they provide a smooth, stable running surface. Roads can be tougher on your joints, though, but you shouldn't avoid them completely, especially if you're training for a road race.
If you're gearing up for a road-based marathon or half-marathon in particular, Leivers says you should aim to do 30 percent of your weekly mileage on concrete and asphalt to prepare your body for the pounding and impact.
Dirt trails rank among the more difficult types of terrain to run on, but they're also the most dynamic. Compared to asphalt, dirt is softer, Hamilton says, which means less pounding on your joints. Plus, the unpredictable nature of trails “forces you to pay attention and keep your stride collected beneath you," she says, “so you don't get strung out."
Of course, adjusting your footing to account for roots, rocks, and fallen leaves helps engage and challenge different muscles, but uneven terrain can also be a trip hazard. If you haven't run trails before, or don't run them often, start small. “Pick a trail that's flat, open, and well-groomed," Hamilton says, “then get accustomed to that before you do more technical terrain."
“Getting onto a softer surface like grass is less wear and tear on your body and easier recovery after your run," Leivers says, “but it also forces your body to work just a little bit harder." That's because grass has more give than a harder surface, so springing forward after each step requires more effort.
If you can't find a grass area large enough to run on for an entire workout, opt for post-run strides on a smaller grassy strip. This is a great way to incorporate speed work, Leivers says, while also adding some resistance due to the softness of the ground.
A track is the ideal place for speed work. Because you know the exact distances you're running on a track, you can develop better pace awareness, Hamilton says, whether you're sprinting for short intervals or doing a longer tempo workout.
It's also a soft, uniform surface. “For people who struggle with overuse injuries caused by impact," Leivers says, “it may be helpful to get on the track to take some of the stress and pounding off."
Keep in mind, though, that running in circles in one direction can take a toll on your body. Depending on the direction you run, Hamilton says, your form changes slightly and your body takes on different loads. If you usually run counter-clockwise on the track, she says, make a point to run the opposite direction every so often.
Hills are essential for runners. Running uphill is a great way to build strength and power in your lower body, Leivers says, which can help you transition more easily into speed work. Downhill running forces you to you practice shortening your stride while controlling your speed, a process that can also translate to increased muscle growth.
The best part? Hills aren't limited to one surface. They can take the form of dirt, grass, or asphalt, so you can get plenty of terrain variety simply by running different hilly routes. As a general rule, Hamilton says you should aim to do at least one run a week that includes elevation changes.
Treadmills are an effective, convenient way to score a good workout when you can't run outside, either because of extreme weather or a lack of safe, accessible running routes in your area. Treadmills can be particularly helpful for long, sustained efforts, Leivers says, like a tempo run or distance run at your goal race pace.
“For some people, the treadmill actually makes them a little more sore," he says, “but for others the give they have is better."
The Beauty of Alternating Your Terrain
Depending on where you live, you may find it tricky to change your running terrain, but it's smart to take advantage of different options when you can.
“Not only will it help you from a standpoint of improving your physical strength and altering the loads so you reduce risk of injury," says Hamilton, “you get to see new things and enjoy different surroundings."
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