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General Running • February 1, 2016

Choosing the Best Workout Surface

Through the winter months, I get a number of questions from my athletes about the best surface for their runs and workouts. Should I run outside if it’s snowing? What about if it’s dark? Or windy? How do I know when to hit the track, when to run on the road, and when to opt for the treadmill? Here is a quick reference guide for choosing surface or venue for your next run, whether it’s easy, hard, short, or long.

When to Choose the Track

The major benefit of the track is that it is precise and consistent. I recommend the track for workouts that have shorter repeats (anything under about 800 meters). Unless you have a measuring wheel, you’ll like be relying on GPS for intervals off the track, and the margin of error that is inherent with GPS might lead to inconsistent measurement from rep to rep. The track is never off, unless you are changing lanes all over the place. Also, since the track is consistent, it is a great place to work on pacing yourself consistently by feel. Longer repeats or tempo runs can be done on the track so that you can teach yourself how to run an even pace for an extended period of time.

Bottom Line: The track is best for short repeats or longer pacing segments where the goal is even pacing by feel.

When to Choose the Road/Greenway

If you don’t have access to a track, running repeats on a local running path or on a safe stretch of road may be your best option. There are also good reasons to choose road over track in certain circumstances. Unless you are training for races on the track, running speedy workouts on the road provides more specific training for your race (turns, hills, surface feel, etc.). The road also provides greater variation of impact forces than the track, which helps prevent repetitive use injuries. For these reasons, I recommend quality workouts on the road or greenway for sustained workouts (long repeats, tempo runs, fartlek runs, race-specific long runs when training for a road race). It’s also a matter of convenience that many easy miles will be run on the road, which is a good thing when training for road races on the pavement.

Bottom Line: Pavement is best for long repeats and other sustained workouts if training for a road race.

When to Choose Soft Surfaces

As a general rule, runners benefit from varying training surfaces. If available, it’s very beneficial to run on trails or gravel roads. Not only does it provide a break from consistent hard-surface running on the road/track, but it also leads to stronger feet, ankles, and lower legs because the softer surfaces require more stabilization work near the ground with each step. That strength and stability translates to power when racing on harder surfaces. Most people understand these benefits, and as such they will seek out soft surfaces for easy runs. I also recommend soft surfaces for speedier workouts where the goal is to run by effort, not pace. This way, you build speed and mental toughness at the same time. Workouts that are particularly well-suited to the dirt include fartleks, long runs with effort-based surges, time-based tempo runs, hill workouts, and moderate/assertive runs by feel.

Bottom Line: Soft surfaces are best for anything effort-based, from easy runs to fartlek runs to long runs with or without speed.

When to Choose the Treadmill

Some people love the treadmill, some people hate it. From my perspective, there are times when the treadmill is a perfect training tool. I don’t like when it becomes a catch-all for runs, but it does offer some specific benefits. The biggest benefits of the treadmill are safety and climate acclimation. From a safety perspective, I recommend the treadmill for runs of all types (easy or fast, flat or hilly, short or long) when the conditions outside aren’t safe for completing the planned run (e.g. icy, thunderstorm, dark, unsafe/unfamiliar area while traveling). I recently completed my final “big” long run in a marathon cycle on a treadmill, running 22 miles with over half at goal marathon pace, because we had just received a foot of snow. It was the only option to complete the workout safely and effectively. The treadmill can also offer a climate that is more similar to expected race-day conditions when training through the winter. Particularly for runners who suffer through hard winters, a spring race can be a challenge because the race-day weather is much warmer than training conditions. As race day approaches, the treadmill can be a place to run in warmer air so that the body is better acclimated.

Bottom Line: The treadmill is best when safety is an issue, or when training needs to happen in warmer air to prepare for a warm-weather race.

Remember, variation is good for runners. Take advantage of all surfaces and venues depending on what your goal is for the run on that day. And if you get stuck, here is a summary for you:

– Short-and-fast or speed-with-consistency: Track

– Long, sustained, race-specific: Road

– Effort-based: Trail

– Safety concerns or heat training: Treadmill

Get your speed on, Coach Caleb


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