Where Should I Run to Avoid Injury?

Every time you go out for a run, you’re taking major steps towards better cardiovascular health and an important active lifestyle. But you’re also putting yourself at risk for running injuries like shin splints, heel pain and more.

So, how can you balance your quest for a 10 (or nine, or eight) minute mile with your desire to avoid injury? As it turns out, the surface that you run on can make all the difference.

What’s the best training surface for runners? 

The surface on which you run matters so much because it puts different pressures on your feet when they strike the ground. If you stop and think about it, this makes a lot of sense. A surface that has lots of give (like a rubber floor, for example) has lots of give and absorbs a good portion of your foot strike’s impact. A hard, unforgiving surface like concrete, however, pushes all that force back into your body. And that push puts a major hit on the bones, muscles and tendons of your legs and feet.

Now, for most of us, running on bouncy rubber (or, even better, pillows!) just isn’t an option. So here’s a real-world option that can take some force off of your feet: try running on grass!

Why grass running is great running!

Here are all the reasons you should try running on grass:

  1. Grass is soft, with lots of give, reducing the impact on your feet and legs, and lowering your risk for stress fractures and shin splints.
  2. At the same time, your legs work harder to stay stable on an uneven surface like grass, which means you’ll build supportive muscle even faster.
  3. Running outside gets you in fresh air and—hopefully-at least a little sunshine, which can help you stave off symptoms of Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD.)

Basically, grass-running packs a one-two punch in the battle against injuries. It absorbs much of your running impact, taking a load off the delicate bones in your feet, shins and ankles. But it also gets you off-balance, meaning other muscles in your body, like those in your core and your legs, work harder. And when those muscles pull more of the weight during your runs, there’s even less pressure on your feet as you train. Add up all those factors, and you’ll see why this Houston podiatrist wants you to enjoy some good grass…while you run, that is!

Now, as a Houston podiatrist, I also get asked this question a lot: should I run outdoors or on the treadmill? Of course, this answer should be nuanced. If you're here in H-town, and the heat and humiity index is through the roof at noon, which is the only time you can run, you may need to stay indoors (although here are some ways to make hot runs a little safer, if you're brave enough.)

And the same goes for those of you in the North or East, who may face dangerously low or icy conditions at various points throughout the fall and winter. Again, it's best to use your personal judgment when inclement weather is involved. I always advocate safety before outdoor running, as should any podiatrist worth their medical degree. 

Still, when the weather is nice and the conditions are conducive, where would I recommend running? Read on to discover my evidence-based recommendation.

Is a Treadmill Workout Better Than an Outdoor Run? 

As I've spent much time pondering this question, I always come back to an amazing breakdown from CNN that I discovered. It pointed me straight towards the proper answer, which was always my gut instinct: outside running is best, by all accounts. Lucky for us Texans, year-round outdoor training is a very real possibility.

Here’s how the two break down in comparison:

Just look at these pictures: where would you rather run???

Calories burned per hour

Outdoors: 970.
Indoors: 661.
Winner: Outdoors.

Average heart rate

Outdoors:163.
Indoors: 129.
Winner: Outdoors.

Risk of injury

You’re more likely to get injured running on a treadmill than outside. On the treadmill you repeat almost exactly the same motion with every strep, upping your risk for overuse injuries like shin splints. Outside, you’re forced to use different muscles as you run over varying terrain and adjust for curbs and incline increases.  The more muscles involved in your run, the less likely it is that any one part will incur damage. Additionally, treadmill injuries accounted for 24,400 emergency room visits in 2014 (and even killed Dave Goldberg, former husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Winner: Outdoors.

Fun factor

Studies show that running outside increases your feelings of well-being and decreases depression, stress and anxiety. Also, outdoor runners are more likely to train with a friend, while treadmill addicts often run alone, making exercise monotonous and less of a lifestyle boost.
Winner: Outdoors.

There you have it: outdoor running pretty much trounces gym jogs in every way possible. Get your sneakers and get outside!

Dr. Andrew Schneider
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Dr. Andrew Schneider is a podiatrist and foot surgeon at Tanglewood Foot Specialists in Houston, TX.