Change Your (Workout) Surface, Change Your Body
To fast-track your results, switch up the ground beneath your feet.
Here, how the ground beneath you impacts your fitness routine — and how to best spend your time on each.
Cross-train in water
Traditionally, aquatic exercise has been thought of as a rehabilitation tool, however, more and more you are seeing water-based training as a cross training tool that can add variety without the impact and pounding of land based training,” says Michael J. Ryan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Fairmont State University.
Water is 800 times thicker than air, he says. “That thickness provides continuous three-dimensional resistance, requiring additional muscle activation.” Additionally, the buoyancy of water reduces your body weight — reducing, too, the likelihood of injuries.
Build strength and stability on sand
Sand can give you a great workout while lessening the blow of impact. “Running on soft sand strengthens the arches in your foot, increases ankle stability, and strengthens the muscles of the lower leg and hip stabilizers,” Ryan says. That’s because the ever-changing, uneven surface forces the neuromuscular system to constantly adjust — which means greater activation of muscles, increased force production, and a more significant arm drive, he explains.
Just remember: Sand can put stress on the calf and foot muscles, so start slow with a few sprints or short runs, Ryan suggests.
Gain speed on pavement
This hard, flat surface means a solid and predicable platform to push off of. “This allows you to run faster because less energy is absorbed by the surface,” says Ryan. “The predictability also makes it easier to keep a fast, steady pace.” And it’s not as much pounding as you may think: “Running on pavement puts less stress on the Achilles tendon when compared to softer surfaces.”
Just avoid high impact movements such as plyometrics, says Ryan. “Because less energy in absorbed by the pavement, those forces are transferred back to your body increasing the stress put on bones, muscle, and joints."
Do plyometrics on grass
Beyond the physiological benefits — a change in scenery or the lack of pressure to PR — soft grass absorbs much of the impact forces of your exercise, says Ryan. Thus, it’s easier on your body when it comes to plyometrics. Grassy surfaces are also less stable, which fires up stabilizer muscles in the foot, lower legs, and core, he says.
As for your run? “After training on grass, many runners say they feel stronger when they return to the roads,” Ryan says. How come? “There is a greater cardiovascular cost running on grass compared to running the exact same speed on pavement,” he says. “If you can maintain the same pace, you will get a better workout. Most people slow down a bit on grass.”
Recover on trails
Trail running can be tough: Some trails are technical, peppered with rocks, logs, or tree roots — and many force you to slow down and pay attention to where you step, says Ryan. But this is exactly why a weekly trail run can benefit you. “Trail running often forces you to take shorter strides, which may lead to more efficient running mechanics when you return even surfaces,” says Ryan.
“Well-maintained dirt trails, cinder paths, and wood chip trails are some of the best places to run. They usually provide an even surface that is soft enough to reduce impact forces while still allowing you to maintain a fairly fast pace."