Training for a race is like studying for an exam: You get the best results when you’re able to practice in the same or a similar environment to that in which you will be tested. On race day, you don’t want to be running on the race’s type of surface for the first time. Preparation is key.
As we run, our bodies seek out the most efficient pattern of movement possible. Even if this pattern of movement must be different for each surface we run on, the body always wants to adapt. Let’s take a closer look into the mechanics of running on soft surfaces versus hard surfaces and how your body reacts to each.
Soft surfaces (grass, trails) absorb some of the force as your foot strikes the ground. In doing so, the amount of proprioceptive input given to your feet and legs on impact allow them to work harder to maintain balance and posture, and, consequently, to increase strength (think about running on sand and the workout it gives your calves).
Hard surfaces like roads, on the other hand, provide less absorption of force upon contact, and the energy you use at footstrike is reabsorbed back into your body and straight up through the kinetic chain. Most people who switch from running on soft to hard surfaces complain of soreness and tightness in their calves as a result. This is not a bad thing. Your body learns to adjust to these surfaces to help you increase your efficiency of movement, just as it does on soft surfaces.
While soft surfaces are great to train on and offer a multitude of advantages, so do hard surfaces. More important, if your race will be on a hard surface, you should incorporate road running into your training routine.
Varsha Parasram, PT, DPT, MST, is a physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Rehabilitation Department. She received her doctorate in physical therapy from Columbia University and her masters in teaching from Pace University. Prior to becoming a physical therapist, Parasram taught high school English and coached high school boys’ and girls’ cross-country and track & field through NYC PSAL. Parasram is a lifelong runner and has completed two marathons, several half-marathons, and many 5K races. Her clinical interests include sports-related injuries and how they relate to musculoskeletal deficits.