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The pros and cons of different running surfaces

Asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks, trails, or the track? Which running surface is best (and worst)?

Exercise physiologists say switching up running surfaces is just as important as varying mileage and training intensity when it comes to injury prevention. Some surfaces are harder on our bones and joints than others. Here are the pros and cons of common running surfaces:

Asphalt roads

Pros: Most races are run on the streets, so training on roads sets you up for race day success. Asphalt is also softer and sturdier than other options, and it’s especially good for people with Achilles tendon issues.

Cons: Running on the road can be dangerous. Always dress in bright colors, run against traffic, keep your music low, and stay aware of your surroundings.

Concrete sidewalks

Pros: When it comes to convenience and safety, sidewalks are hard to beat in many areas.

Cons: Concrete is hard on your joints and muscles — about 10 times harder than asphalt. If you have another place to run, choose it over the sidewalk, especially if you have ankle or knee problems.

Dirt trails

Pros: Packed, even dirt trails are one of the best running surfaces.  The surface is soft and particularly forgiving for people with shin splints, runner’s knee, and IT band problems.

Cons: Trails can be uneven — there can be soft spots of sand or branches sticking out of the ground. If you think staring at the trail during your run will solve the problem, think again. Doing so could cause you to take a branch to the face. Trails aren’t a good choice for people with ankle problems — ankle sprains are most likely to happen on soft, uneven surfaces.

Synthetic tracks

Pros: Who doesn’t love the spongy feeling of running on a track? It literally adds bounce to your step. Tracks are great for people with ankle injuries. They’re soft enough to reduce stress on your joints, but sturdy enough that they won’t cause stability injuries.

Cons: Running in an oval over and over again can get boring. Taking the tight turns on a track also stresses your calf muscles and IT bands.


Pros: Running on sand ignites muscles that often get neglected, so it can help make you stronger. Plus, if that sand you’re running on is the beach, the beauty of coastal scenery can be tough to beat.

Cons: The sand is unstable and puts a ton of pressure on the knees, ankles, Achilles tendons, and hips. Keep sand runs short and don’t do them too often.


Pros: Grass is often touted as one of the best running surfaces because it’s soft. Running on grass is especially beneficial for people with impact-related running injuries, such as hip bursitis and IT band syndrome.

Cons: Grass surfaces tend to be uneven and covered with hidden obstacles — think rocks and dog waste. It can also be tricky to find a long stretch of grass to run on.


Pros: Treadmill belts are great running surfaces because they’re cushioned and even. They reduce the impact of running on your back, feet, knees, and hips.

Cons: Treadmill running can be monotonous, especially if you love running outdoors. (These tips can help you beat treadmill boredom.) Running exclusively on a treadmill can make the transition to road racing difficult, too. Some people find running long distances or hitting paces on a treadmill easier since the belt propels you forward a little.

Of course, running on any surface beats not running at all. What’s your running surface of choice? I’m a sidewalk girl, but that’s only because there aren’t many other options near my home. 

Written by Jen Matz.

Related on WalkJogRun: Finding the best running shoe for you

More about running surfaces: Runner’s World | FitSugar