In the past, I’ve volunteered with the local high school track and cross country teams. The boys and girls programs used to be combined, but recently the decision was made to split the program in two and I helped coach the girls. Summer training for the upcoming season began in July. For the first several weeks, we had a turnout of 1 to 3 girls before resting at a final number of 8.
We are a small school with ~800 students in grades 9-12, so the cross country and track teams have always been very small. We kicked off the season with a scrimmage against several other area high schools.
On average, our runners were 2 minutes faster this year at this time, than they were last year. In part, our improvement was due to our increased training on grass.
The results reinforced the importance of doing some of your training on the surface that you are going to race on. For example, if you are training for a trail race, some of your training needs to be done on the trails, just like if you are training for a road race, some of your training needs to be done on the roads.
Each surface, not only has a different level of hardness, but also stresses your muscles, joints and tendons differently. Doing all of your training on one surface and expecting to race well on another is setting yourself up for disappointment and possible injury. After all, if you train solely on soft surfaces, your body won’t harden enough for the demands of a hard surface.
This is exactly why I was injured my first year in college. I grew up a competitive swimmer and had these massive lungs accompanied by a soft body- a running recipe for disaster.
While my cardiovascular system could go forever, my tendons, bones and ligaments could not. I’ll put it this way–I was no stranger to stress fractures (I had 4 of them). But once my body became hardened to the demands of running, stress fractures became part of my distant past.
Softer surfaces like grass and dirt trails are considered to be ideal for training and racing because of the cushioning they provide. The softer the surface, the less impact your body endures each time your foot strikes the ground; However, running on softer surfaces does come with a couple of caveats. The unevenness of grass and dirt trails cause the legs, ankles and feet to move this way and that, increasing the chances of sprains and strains.
But once your feet, ankles, legs and rest of your body gets used to the instability, you’re chances of injury go down. This is also why it is important to strength train when you know your training is going to take place on an uneven surface.
Of course there are there are other factors that contribute to your chances of injury going up and they are your weight, stride length, muscle imbalances, weaknesses and genetics. Some of them you can affect, like your weight and stride length and some of them you cannot.
I prefer to train on softer surfaces. There is a noticeable difference when I’m running on them. But when I am training for a half or full marathon that takes place on the roads, I hit the asphalt a minimum of twice a week. Combining the trails and the roads works best for me; especially for key runs.
For example if I am doing a 16 mile run, I might run 10 of the miles on the trails at a moderate pace and then finish the run with six harder miles on asphalt. It is more important that your marathon-pace and tempo runs simulate race day conditions.
If you are running a shorter distance like a 5k or 10k, running on the road isn’t as important since the time you will be on your feet is significantly less. For shorter races consider running on the road at least once a week.
All in all, a variety of surfaces is best, as it mixes up the way your body is stressed. And when you mix up the way your body is stressed, you help to stave off injury.
What surface do you train on most?