Safe Running Surface Selection And A Brief Conversation With Gina Kolata Of The New York Times

Hi folks,

I love to run trails. This is the Bolin Creek trail, near my home, where I sustained several severe ankle injuries due to landing on rocks hidden by leaves. Photo taken with my new iPad 2. Remarkable device.

Running on trails can be wonderful, especially in cool weather or on a rainy day, but it does come with some risks.

The other day, a hot day, I was sitting IMPATIENTLY in a sports store waiting for Nick (13-year old) to ‘please’ select the shoes he wanted so I could get back to work on my blog/e-business. I had a bit of writer’s block. I was wondering where the next post idea was coming from. This happens from time to time, and it makes me agitated. As usual, while I waited, I sat on the floor and did some stretching. Then I noticed a pile of  abandoned newspapers on a low shelf, under some clothes, and apparently forgotten. I picked up one issue entitled ‘Community Sports News, August 2011, Volume 26, #338’ and thumbed through it in a disinterested kind of way. Then something caught my eye: “Soft Ground Hard On Runners.

Photo from the article by Gina Kolata, New York Times, showing impending heel strike. From:

This brief paragraph turned out to be an extract of an article by Gina Kolata in the Health section of the New York Times entitled, “For Runners, Soft Ground Can Be Hard On The Body.” I was intrigued, because every coach, article, and book on running that I have ever dealt with recommended running on soft trails. But all my running injuries, bar one, have occurred on soft trails. The majority of these problems were induced by landing on loose rocks hidden under leaves (in the fall).

I read the extracted article, to find this statement, “…runners are more likely to get injured on soft surfaces, which often are irregular, than on smooth, hard ones…” This makes total sense. I have run on asphalt roads under all sorts of conditions, and my Ironman races are always on asphalt, but I have never injured myself due to this surface. Sore hot feet, yes! Injuries, no! I have hurt myself by changing shoe type too quickly, but not due to the asphalt under foot. In contrast, I have had many minor strains and a major foot injury whilst running on trails. Each time it was due to my landing hard on leaves covering loose rocks. As an older athlete, for whom recovery from workouts and injuries just takes longer due to age, such accidents represent a training disaster.

UNC CH running track provides the perfect surface for safe running, and you learn a lot by watching other runners. From:

So where can we run safely? Trails are fine if you are an experienced runner, watch your step, don’t trust leaves and wear trail shoes. If you are less experienced, do not have strong ankles and feet, and don’t want to take any chances as you get back into good running form, the very best place is the local university running track. We are fortunate in that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a track that is open to the public in the evenings after 5:30, and the surface is a soft, springy cork-like material. Haven’t injured myself there as yet. If you don’t have such a track available, most high schools have a decent asphalt track.

Finally, before you do all this, make sure you have the right shoes, which in and of itself is a long journey of exploration.

I love running trails, and I plan to continue doing so, but not on trails with loose rocks, and especially not in the fall when they are covered with leaves.

You never know where the next blog post idea is coming from, so thanks for taking your time, Nick. He is very happy with his new shoes, by the way.

Happy Running!

-k Your Medical Mind

Addendum: I wrote an e-mail to Gina Kolata, of the New York Times article referred to above, requesting permission to use her material. I received a prompt reply, with some interesting comments. As these comments included valuable insights into running, I asked Gina for permission to publish our brief e-conversation, which I have pared down for brevity:

Gina: “Send me the post and I will take a look at it. I’ve written columns that address things like whether it matters if you are a heel or forefoot striker and why we slow down with age. As you undoubtedly noticed, though, exercise research tends to be pretty pitiful and there often are no good answers for some of the questions that most interest us.

Kevin: “Thanks, Gina. I have attached the post. All input would be much appreciated.”

Gina: “Very nice. But, skeptic that I am, I would be concerned about recommending a track. After all, the turns put stress on your joints and the soft surface may not be good if you are used to running on asphalt. I’d want to see good evidence that a track is better than a road. My article said that people seem to adjust to the surface they are running on. You land differently on a soft surface than on a hard one, but the adjustments you make seem to ensure that the forces on your feet and legs are the same no matter which surface you run on. So soft surfaces per se are no better and no worse than hard ones. For what it’s worth, my coach, a former world ranked distance runner, never suggests tracks. He says to run on roads.”

Kevin: “I have wondered about the turns, and those stresses, as I do about the camber on the roads.

Gina: “The review I linked to in my article found no effect of camber on injury rates — something that surprised me. Maybe we adjust to that too.


A final note from Kevin: I guess you will have to decide for yourselves what to do. If I have a running injury  and it is ready for me to run again, my rehab proceeds through water running, to treadmill, to the UNC track, to asphalt, to trails, in that order. Any further comments or input would be much appreciated, as are the helpful insights from Gina. Thanks again!



  1. Matthew Morgan says

    Trail running is by far the most enjoyable type of running though!

    • Hi Matthew,

      I agree, though a 20 mile run at the track comes a close second if you change direction every three miles for a change of scenery (which irritates the other runners!).

      How’s Australia?

      -k @FitOldDog

  2. Pauline Watson says

    One of my favourite topics! I love trails, and have also fallen on them.; we plan to paint the major rocks on our trail yellow some day. The track near my home is also soft; I used to do birthday laps on it – the last one was 56 laps – changing direction every mile -no injury resulted. The only time I have hurt myself on the track was a set of 75s 400s with a sore achilles (years ago). It was the speed that hurt me. But the best is cross country running! A nice soggy golf course with spikes – this really makes you work your foot muscles! I’m doing one Sunday. Soft surface running beats the roads any day, in my opinion.

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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.