There’s no getting around it: Road running is hard on the body. It just is. Especially since the two predominant surfaces are either concrete or asphalt (macadam). Or a combination of the two. Both are hard, unforgiving surfaces and, given a choice, many newbies wonder which one is best for running.
A better question might be which one is worst? The answer is quite simple: Concrete is just about the worst possible surface to run on. (Cobblestone streets are actually worse’ fortunately it’s a rarely encountered road surface in Texas.)
Let is be said in no uncertain terms: Concrete roads and sidewalks should be avoided at all costs. Why? Concrete is much, much harder than even the firmest asphalt.
Asphalt might seem hard too, but if you want to see the difference between the two, pick up a hammer and smash it onto a concrete road, driveway or neighborhood sidewalk. If you do, you’ll notice how the energy reverberates from the hammer up your hand and arm. Doesn’t feel good, huh?
Then, try the hammer on asphalt. You will feel some reverberation on the asphalt too, but it won’t be nearly as pronounced as concrete. And check what the hammer did to the surface. It probably put a small dent into the asphalt, but there won’t be any mark on the concrete because it’s so darn hard.
In point of fact, it’s rock hard.
Studies have shown that concrete is anywhere from eight to 10 times harder than asphalt. That’s a huge difference in how your body will feel after running on concrete (somewhat like your arm felt) as opposed to asphalt..
When you run, your feet will contact the road with a force up to six times your body weight all concentrated in a small landing surface (your heel or the forefoot for those who land on their toes). You do that enough times in a mile and the impact forces can have a detrimental effect.
The only “good” thing about running on concrete is it’s a faster surface. Since there’s almost no give, it returns energy better than asphalt which absorbs some. But this is hardly a positive in the long run.
Running a single short workout on a concrete road or sidewalk (such as the San Antonio Riverwalk) usually won’t bother you too much, but continual running on concrete can lead to injuries as the leg muscles, joints and bones get pulverized by the hardness of the surface.
Again, if at all possible, avoid concrete roads and sidewalks. If you must run on such a surface, only do so occasionally.
Clearly, the best surface to run on is dirt trails. Dirt trails aren’t quite as readily accessible as roads, but in Austin and San Antonio there are plenty of good dirt trails. Even a dirt road which is firmly packed, isn’t nearly as hard on your body as an asphalt road or concrete road or sidewalk.
Another alternative is grass. Grass is the gentlest surface and even though there aren’t any entirely grass trails that extend far in any direction, some runs around soccer or football fields or in parks are easier on the body.
At least occasionally, seek out soft trails or grassy parks for gentle, easy runs to allow your body a break from the pounding it takes from the roads. If not, try to choose asphalt roads for the bulk of your training.
Just stay off sidewalks.