Facebook Pixel

The Risks and Benefits of Running on Uneven Surfaces: Should I Just Stay in Bed or Follow that Snow Plow Truck?

Rate This
running on trail Photo: Getty Images

If you have been keeping pace with my articles, you already have a pretty solid understanding of my love affair with running. I have missed approximately five days of running since 1995, and probably even fewer days in the 20 years before that when I first took to the road at age 12. I am an addict! I run through all types of weather and environmental conditions. One day this past winter, I awakened to minus 18 temperatures and over a foot of snow. As the alarm clock buzzed at 4:15 a.m., my husband asked me, “Are you seriously going to go out running in this?” He shouldn’t have even had to ask. Within minutes, I was out the door.

Admittedly, even I thought it was crazy, but as soon as I was halfway down the street I came upon the snow plow truck! My lucky day! I fell in right behind him as he plowed the road for me. I was running on clumps of freshly fallen snow, chunks of ice left from the day before and various bits of rock, sand and gravel. Definitely not the smoothest of surfaces upon which I had run, but it was better than trudging through a foot of snow! After a few minutes, the driver of the truck realized this crazy woman was behind him and then gave me an enthusiastic “thumbs up” as he stuck his left hand out his window. I followed him for a couple of miles and then retreated back home along the same route. It was a workout, as the uneven surface alone worked muscles in my legs I did not ordinarily use.

Most days I run out on our neighborhood streets or on the paved bike trail near our home. Unless situations force me to do so, I rarely run on grass, dirt trails, sand, etc. My first thought under such conditions is, “Will I step in a hole or slip off a slight edge and sprain my ankle?” That is not something this serious runner really wants to risk.

However, there are two schools of thought out there as to the benefits and risks of running on uneven surfaces.

Running on hard, flat surfaces is not so much of a problem compared to the result of doing so. When you run on a hard surface, you exert significant force as your feet land on the ground. This can result in overuse syndrome which can be a contributing factor in sprained ankles. The muscles that give our ankles their range of motion are trained to adapt to uneven surfaces. By consistently running on hard, flat surfaces, switching to uneven surfaces can be problematic. Your ankles are simply not used to it and don’t know how to adjust.

Proponents of running on soft surfaces do not necessarily occur because of the softness, but because such surfaces allow for the muscles controlling the foot and ankle to move through the full range of motion they were designed to move through. For millions of years, the human body was conditioned and trained to run on uneven surfaces. It’s not like the cavemen before us lived in the concrete jungles of today! (Nor were they running in a $200 pair of shoes!)

Runners do not necessarily sprain their ankles because they run on an uneven surface. They sprain their ankles running on uneven surfaces because they have continually run on hard, smooth surfaces, and their conditioned ankles do not know how to respond to the uneven surface.

Other running experts contend that running on softer surfaces, such as grass or sand, can increase the risk of injuries to runners. Each step taken upon an uneven surface can create varying pressures and forces in the feet, ankles, knees and hips. While some runners can readily adapt to such conditions, many do not have the skills to do so.

Uneven surfaces tend to slope, creating a dangerous off-center force on both the ankles and the feet. If you continually run on uneven surfaces, you run the risk of tendonitis, joint inflammation and even fractures.

As for my school of thought, well, let’s just say I am all for running on uneven surfaces on occasion….provided you have a snow plow truck right in front of you, clearing the way! For the most part, however, I do prefer the hard, smooth surfaces of asphalt. I would probably be one of those people who would switch to running on the beach and immediately sprain my ankle, blaming it on the sand itself as opposed to my body’s innate inability to respond. After all, I am a dedicated runner. How could that sprained ankle possibly be my fault?




Add a CommentComments

There are no comments yet. Be the first one and get the conversation started!

Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you agree to EmpowHER's terms of service and privacy policy

We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.