Which is better for joints: Running on road, treadmill, trail or concrete?
Running is one of the most straightforward forms of exercise many of us turn to when we need a workout. But it can be a relatively high impact sport that may cause joint, knee, tendon and other running-related injuries. Most of us believe that running on a softer surface is better to reduce the impact of constantly striking the ground. But that may not always be the best solution. We speak to Dr Lim Kay Kiat, an orthopaedic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, to find out if there is a perfect surface we should be running on.
What affects the impact on your legs?
When you run, your muscles and tendons work like a spring. Upon impact, it will absorb the shock and release the stored energy later. The ability of your legs to absorb shock is known as leg stiffness, and it is regulated by your body based on the hardness of the surface and speed you are running at. The lower the leg stiffness, the lower the force of impact on your joints.
According to Dr Lim, leg stiffness is reduced when running on hard surfaces and increases on soft, compliant surfaces. Therefore, the impact on your joints will remain relatively constant no matter what surface you are running on.
Turns out that all these while, we have been looking at the wrong factors when it comes to choosing the best surface to run on. Dr Lim discusses how we can choose the best running surface for ourselves.
You may not be aware of this but the roads you have been running on could be doing some damage to your legs. To facilitate the drainage of water, the middle of the road is usually slightly higher than the side of the road. While it is not obvious to you, one of your feet would always be landing on a higher level than the other. This could potentially lead to muscle imbalances. If you want to run on the road, Dr Lim recommends running an out-and-back run on the same side of the road to balance out the demands on your body.
When you are running on the treadmill, every step you take is identical to the next. This potentially increases your risk of injuries like iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome and plantar fasciitis – all results of repetitive motion. Furthermore, according to a study by researchers from East Carolina University in the US, treadmill running resulted in greater Achilles tendon impact when compared to running outdoors. So it may not be a good idea to run on a treadmill if you are prone to Achilles injuries.
Running on a trail mitigates the issues of repetitive motion, but it poses other dangers like ankle sprains and falls due to the uneven terrains. Trail running will be suitable for individuals who suffer from muscle and joint injuries as it will help strengthen different muscle groups and improve balance.
Contrary to popular belief, running on concrete does not make you more liable to impact-related injuries. According to Dr Lim, individuals with tendon injuries, especially of the Achilles tendon, are encouraged to run on flat, regular surfaces like concrete.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear winner. Choosing a surface to run on is highly dependent on whether you have or are more prone to certain injuries. It is a good idea to run on a mixture of terrains and surfaces to stay away from injury, says Dr Lim.