The type of surface you’re running on shouldn’t matter when it comes to protecting your joints.
These are questions we hear all the time. Is it better for my knees/back/feet to run on sand or grass instead of running on concrete? Will this help me to protect the longevity of my joints? The answer is that if your body, hip mechanics and reflexive trunk stability are functioning properly, there is nothing less healthy or protective about running on very hard concrete compared to running on sand or grass. It’s all about how efficiently you absorb the stress of ground impact. Your hips (glutes) and midsection, as a unit, are your most capable shock absorbing system, and if it’s not working, you’ll have problems no matter what type of surface you’re on. If you move well, you can run on concrete until you are 110 and your joints won’t be damaged because of it.
When we initially think about it, it makes perfect sense that it would be less stress on joints to run on a softer surface. But let’s talk about how the body works as a shock absorber. Imagine that a high school athlete is holding a glass of water that is two inches away from being full to the brim. That person could run around the block holding that glass of water and likely none of it would spill. If you gave that same glass of water to a 60 year old, it is more likely that they would not be able to keep all the water in the glass during their run around the block. The difference is that as we age, it is more likely that we develop problems with motor control and stability, and the fluid functional strength and movement that virtually everyone has when they are a child slowly erodes as we age due to changes in lifestyle, leftover compensations from old injuries, and many other reasons. That is not to say that teenagers can’t have movement issues because they do and we see it all the time, it’s just that the likelihood of dysfunctional movement increases gradually with age. That is also not to say that there aren’t many 70 year olds who could run miles pain free while correctly absorbing ground impact forces into their muscular system rather than their skeletal system.
When our stability, core strength, and hip strength are adequate, and all of these body segments are working together in a coordinated way, every time we land during running, we reflexively absorb the force from the ground into our musculoskeletal system, meaning our muscles absorb the shock of that impact, leaving our joints stress free. When this system is not working properly, we absorb too much of the stress into our skeletal system and joints. It is impossible to say what joint(s) exactly will become irritated. It could be a knee, shin splints, ankle, foot, lower back, neck or shoulders – the point is, the cause is the dysfunction of the ability to absorb impact into the muscular system. So the solution is to fix this, not to find a softer surface. Without the ability to stabilize the trunk and hips during movement, there is no surface soft enough to avoid issues. And since this essential type of stability is reflexive, it is not something that you can improve by concentrating on it or thinking about it, it is just happening on autopilot in the background. It’s either happening correctly every stride or it’s not.
The solution to any of these issues occurring while running or walking on a hard surface should not be to find a softer surface to run or walk on, it should be to fix the functional movement problems that are causing the issue by measuring and correcting movement competency. It is important to check all levels below standing (crawling and kneeling for example), and then work on pelvic and trunk stability in single leg stance, so that the hips and core know how to stabilize the body when we ask it to walk or run. Everyone should be able to walk and run on concrete throughout the lifespan and if they can’t, there are ways to get back to that place of fluid movement no matter how old you are or how long you have had problems. Many people think you have to walk or run to get fit, and really you need to reach a certain level of fitness before you can walk or run without any issues. Contact us for more info and if you are not in our area we still know the best people to put you in touch with.