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Running surfaces

Even though you've been consistently running indoors, the start of an outdoor running program can trigger aches and pains. Why does this happen?

The aches from running may be attributed to any or a combination of the following: improper shoes, poor running form, muscle tightness or the type of running surface. Specifically, aches and pains during the transition from inside to outdoors are most often related to your choice of running surfaces. Evaluating running surfaces is the first step to decreasing possible injuries. As with most ventures – including running, the old saying of "success starts from the ground up" rings true.

When you run, your foot is forced to adjust to the ground with each step. If the surface is too hard or uneven, the foot will have to work harder to absorb shock and maintain its neutral position respectively. Running on uneven surfaces can cause problems including pain along the entire kinetic chain from your toes, feet and lower leg all the way to your hips and back.

What is the best surface to run on? The ideal surface is a dirt trail that's not packed down or slanted. A dirt track provides a balanced running surface soft enough to allow for optimal shock absorption and flat enough to enhance the stability of your feet. Since not everyone has access to this, what are some other options? A treadmill with an appropriate deck provides good shock absorption along with a flat surface that can be varied to suit your needs. However, there are some drawbacks to only using a treadmill – boredom, lack of change in the running surface (this factor may be good or bad depending on your specific training needs) and very limited interaction with the outdoors and fellow runners.

Running on soft ground (not frozen) is good for shock absorption, but has its own cautions. Remember to watch for uneven areas and holes especially in thick grass to avoid ankle sprains. Grass, such as on a golf course, is an ideal running surface and recommended for high mileage runners or runners with a history of overuse injuries. If a soft, grassy surface is not available, running on asphalt is the next best choice. The asphalt has more shock absorption than cement and frozen ground. To prevent injury when running on these hard surfaces, make sure you have good supportive shoes and limit the frequency and/or duration of your workouts.

If the only surface you have to work with is slanted, try alternating directions. Run one lap clockwise and the second counter-clockwise. For example, a training routine on a banked track should include running half your workout in one direction and then reversing direction for the second half.

An alternative to outdoor running is deep water running; also known as aqua jogging. This creates less stress on the joints because there is no impact due to the buoyancy of the water, however you still get a great cardiovascular workout. This surface choice can often times allow an injured runner to maintain his or her fitness level while also allowing the injury to improve.

Make sure to check with your physician prior to beginning a fitness program. If you have questions about running surfaces or any other sports medicine topic, call the Aurora Sports Medicine Hotline™ at 414-219-7776 or 800-219-7776.