• Sara Kotila, LMT

How different surfaces affect running injuries


A track, a trail, asphalt road, hills; they all have different terrain features, but does where you run matter?

You bet.

The surface you’re running on has a great impact on not only which muscles and joints are being calling into action, but also the shock and ripple effect of landing on these surface.

Even standing water has an effect on injury when your foot lands on the ground.

Let’s take a look at each of these surfaces to see their impact on the body.

Track - Tracks are the most forgiving of all running surfaces. Since most tracks in the last half century have been built with a rubbery surface, the bounce back aids in shock absorption and rebound after landing. This helps with reducing injury, but does not eliminate it altogether.

Track runners are susceptible to repetitive injuries from running around bends. Bend running puts stress on the peroneals (lateral lower leg muscles), lateral ligaments of the ankle and knee and medial adductors from having to lean in order to avoid falling over.

Sprinters are at a greater risk for injuries like muscle sprains and strains due to the explosive power needed to participate in their events.

Trail - Well groomed trails provide still a softer surface than an asphalt road which are better for absorbing shock, but provide it’s own unique sets of challenges. Uneven surfaces and up and down hilly terrain increases the chance of ankle sprains and foot pain due to stress fractures of the metatarsal joints caused by the stiffer material of trail running footwear.

Since trail running is not as repetitive as road running, the varied terrain can help you avoid common repetitive use injuries suffered by most runners such as IT Band pain, knee pain and tibial stress fractures (shin splints).

Road - Road surfaces vary from hard concrete to softer paved asphalt. Running on hardened surfaces causes more force to be absorbed in the muscles and joints and can lead to repetitive use injury in the hips, knees and ankles. Plantar fasciitis and tibial stress fractures are also common in road runners.

Of all the joints of the lower body, ankle mobility is the most important in preventing injuries due to the constant inversion and eversion (lateral side to side motion) of running on hard surfaces with a slight grade on one side. Mobility in the ankle, or lack thereof, directly affects the knees and the hips.

Similar to track bend running, road runners who consistently run on the same side of the road risk leg-length imbalance from the leg nearest to the middle of the road to appear shorter than the other. This causes an asymetrical pelvic tilt, QL and back pain.

Hills - Running up or down hills uses the same muscles as all other running surfaces, however, the muscles emphasized changes with a vertical incline or decline.

For example, the erector spinae and iliopsoas (spinal stabilizers) have to work harder due to a tilted angle. Inclines places greater stress on the tibialis anterior, extensor digitorum longus and extensor hallucis longus muscles of the lower leg as well as the hamstrings and glutes posteriorly.

Decent on the other hand emphasizes greater stress on the gastrocnemius (calf), soleus and quadricep group due to their need to absorb both the impact of landing and the downward force of gravity. The iliopsoas and tensor fascia lata (TFL), which controls the IT band, are also put under more stress when descending hills due to it’s control and stabilization of the pelvis.

No matter what type of surface you run on, make sure to mix it up every once in awhile. If you regularly run on roads, next time try a trail? This will keep you from developing musculoskeletal imbalances that can put you on the sidelines.

If you are sidelined with an injury, we can help. Give us a call (603) 370-9193 or book an appointment online.

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