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Feet On The Ground

Feet On The Ground

Feet On The Ground

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As spring approaches and the snow recedes, runners find they have a greater number of options when it comes to choosing the surface upon which to train. Short of donning snowshoes, the (outdoor) winter runner has little choice but to trot exclusively on city and country roads. For many, this is not a satisfactory option, as the hard surface underfoot is considered a prime reason for injury. Softer, more forgiving venues are thought by many to be safer, as well as more comfortable.

Whether harder surfaces actually contribute to the incidence of running injuries is debatable. The thinking behind this common assumption is reasonable, but there really is no solid evidence to support this claim. While it may be logical to assume that concrete sidewalks and asphalt roads are less forgiving (i.e., less shock absorbing) than, say, a cinder track, this does not automatically translate to injury production, especially given the state-of-the-art shock absorbing running shoes now available.

Nevertheless, the assumption that this is the case persuades many to seek out the softest surface possible once it becomes available in the spring. Often, this turns out to be the grassy, rolling terrain of a golf course. What could be bad about this? A nice soft surface, gradually changing elevation, usually beautiful scenery – what could go wrong?

Well, actually… a lot!

Running injuries are more often caused by improper foot movements – particularly medial/lateral (in/out) – than by hard surfaces. Grassy surfaces such as golf courses or playing fields are notoriously uneven, both in actual terrain and surface consistency. The result is an increase in side-to-side movements of the foot and ankle, which places substantially increased strain on the muscles that control those movements, as well as an increase in the rotational movements throughout the lower limb, from foot to knee to hip. As we have seen in past articles, abnormal rotational movements can cause a host of problems, such as kneecap pain, ITB syndrome, hip bursitis, etc.

Trails, such as those found at Green Lakes State Park, may be more consistent in terms of firmness, while still providing a more forgiving and comfortable surface, but there are those roots and ruts to contend with. The risk for falls and ankle sprains is considerable if one is not used to running on such terrain.

Does this mean I am saying you should not run on grass or trails? Absolutely not! What I am saying is that you should approach these changes the same way you would any new exercise routine – very conservatively. Just as you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) start a weight-lifting or swimming program full bore, you should not assume that just because you are in good shape you can handle anything. Start out nice and easy, a few miles at first, with regular road running on alternate days. Increase the mileage and pace gradually so that your muscles and ligaments have a chance to adapt to what is essentially a new stress on them.

Don’t get carried away by the nice change in scenery to the extent that you overdo it and suffer an injury that prevents a full season worth of softer surfaces.