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

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.

Why Do Runners Get Hurt?

Running injuries happen for a few different reasons. Maybe you overtrain, or increase training at an accelerated pace. These types of overuse injuries happen when you put too much pressure on the same parts of your body. Without giving yourself rest days between sessions.

Your body's biomechanics also play a role in running injuries. If you have high arches or flat feet, running may be harder on your muscles and tendons. So, to avoid injury, you may need the added support of custom orthotics.

Even with the best training schedule, and the right support, running could hurt your feet. Because the surface you train on is part of the injury equation. And some training surfaces are just safer for your bodies than others. So let's take a closer look.

What’s the best training surface for runners? 

The surface on which you run matters. That's because it puts different pressure on your feet when they strike the ground. If you stop and think about it, this makes a lot of sense.

A surface with lots of give (like a rubber floor) absorbs lots of your foot strike’s impact. But a hard, unforgiving surface like concrete pushes all that force back into your body. And that push takes a major toll 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:

  • Grass is soft, with lots of give. That helps reduce the impact on your feet and legs. And it lowers your risk for stress fractures and shin splints.
  • At the same time, your legs work harder to stay stable on an uneven surface like grass. So that means you’ll build supportive muscle even faster.
  • Running outside gets you in fresh air and—hopefully-exposes you to at least a little sunshine. In turn, this can help you stave off symptoms of Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) if you train year round. (Something us lucky Houston runners can easily pull off!)

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.

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 what do you get? The reason why our Houston podiatry team wants you to enjoy some good grass…while you run, that is!

Now, in our Houston podiatry practice, we also get asked this question a lot: should I run outdoors or on the treadmill? Of course, this answer isn't cut and dry. If you're here in H-town, the heat and humidity index is through the roof at noon. Now, if that's the only time you can run, you may need to stay indoors. (But here are some ways to make hot runs a little safer, if you're brave enough.)

Running up north or on the east coast? You've got your own challenges to deal with. And those include low temps or icy conditions throughout the fall and winter. Again, it's best to use your personal judgment when you're facing inclement weather. I always advocate safety before outdoor running. And so should any podiatrist worth their medical degree. 

Still, when the weather is nice and the conditions are conducive, where would we recommend running? Read on to discover our evidence-based recommendations for the best training surfaces.

Is a Treadmill Workout Better Than an Outdoor Run? 

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

As we've spent much time pondering this question, we must review some of the advantages of treadmill running. First, it's easier to control the incline at which you train. So, if you're coming back from an injury and aren't ready to run up or down hill, the treadmill could be your best bet. Furthermore, if you want to try out a new technique such as backward running or walking, it's a lot safer to do on the treadmill. And yet, when choosing between indoor and outdoor running, we always come back to an amazing breakdown from CNN. It suggests that outside running is best for your body, 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:

Calories burned per hour
Outdoors: 970.
Indoors: 661.
Winner: Outdoors.

Average heart rate

Indoors: 129.
Winner: Outdoors.

Risk of injury

You’re more likely to get injured running on a treadmill than outside. Why is that the case? Well, on the treadmill you repeat almost exactly the same motion with every strep. And that ups your risk for overuse injuries like shin splints.

But outside? You’re forced to use different muscles as you run over varying terrain, adjusting 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. (They even killed Dave Goldberg, former husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. And led to recalls of dangerous Peloton treadmills.) Winner: Outdoors.

Fun factor

Studies show that running outside increases your feelings of well-being. It also decreases depression, stress and anxiety. Even better? Outdoor runners are more likely to train with a friend, while treadmill addicts often run alone. And that makes 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! And make an immediate appointment with our office if you notice pain while you're running. No matter what surface you train on!





Dr. Andrew Schneider
Connect with me
A podiatrist and foot surgeon in Houston, TX.