Sidewalk or Road: What’s the best surface to run on?

Victoria-Lavinskas

Victoria Lavinskas PT, MScPT

Registered Physiotherapist
Running Consultant

Are you an outdoor runner? What surface do you usually run on? The sidewalk? The road? A park path? The grass? The beach?

There are so many possible surfaces, but which one is the best?

The answer is there is no “best” surface, but here is what you should know about the surfaces you run on.

Sidewalk

  • Pros
    • Relatively flat/steady surface – less demand for muscles controlling ankle stability
    • Relatively safe – other than other pedestrians, not many obstacles such as cars in your path
  • Cons
    • Very hard surface – harder impact on landing

Street

  • Pros
    • Not as hard as the sidewalk – softer impact on landing
    • More similar to road race conditions (if training for a road race)
  • Cons
    • Camber – some roads tend to camber or “dip” towards the sidewalk, which means the leg closest to the sidewalk can land a little lower than the other
      • Tip: alternate the side of the road you’re running on (against/with traffic) to minimize the stress on one particular leg
    • Not as safe as the sidewalk – unless you’re running on quiet neighbourhood streets, you need to be careful with car/bike traffic
      • Tip: run against traffic to be able to see oncoming traffic (but don’t forget the last tip! A bit of a Catch 22!)

Dirt Path

  • Pros
    • Softer surface – softer impact on landing
    • Minimally variable surface – a beaten path won’t be completely flat, but won’t have big “bumps”  so there will be minimal demand for muscles controlling ankle stability
  • Cons
    • A “country” dirt path (less beaten) will have a more variable surface – increased demand on muscles controlling ankle stability / increased chance of ankle sprains

Grass

  • Pros
    • Softer surface – softer impact on landing
    • Minimally variable surface – a grass soccer/football field won’t be completely flat, but won’t have big “bumps”  so there will be minimal demand for muscles controlling ankle stability
  • Cons
    • Grassy areas in parks, for example, will have a more variable surface – increased demand on muscles controlling ankle stability / increased chance of ankle sprains

Beach

  • Pros
    • Softer surface – softer impact on landing
  • Cons
    • Very variable surface – increased demand on muscles controlling ankle stability / increased chance of ankle sprains

Forest Trail

  • Pros
    • Softer surface – softer impact on landing
  • Cons
    • Very variable surface – increased demand on muscles controlling ankle stability / increased chance of ankle sprains

In summary, there are pros and cons to any running surface, so be safe and try mixing it up a little! It’s good to challenge the muscles controlling ankle stability as this will make them stronger/more adaptable, so don’t be afraid to try a more variable surface!