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Finding the right surface to run on is important, but tricky! Grass is a common choice, but is it actually harder to run on than concrete or dirt? Are there may be some benefits or drawbacks of running on grass?
Runners on grass spend about 5% more energy than running on asphalt or concrete. It is harder to run on grass because you have to use more muscles and tendons to maintain form on an uneven surface. Your feet are also are constantly brushing against untrimmed grass that creates additional friction.
While running on grass is harder to run on than some other surfaces, it provides way more benefits than drawbacks. I’d recommend making the switch if you want to reduce the chances of impact injuries, improve your form, improve strength and balance, or just have a much better experience while running.
Why Is Running On Grass Harder?
It takes more energy to run on a soft surface than a hard one. Grass is much softer than concrete.
Think about running sand or mud–it’s very taxing on your muscles because the sand or mud is not pushing against your feet in response to your running. Instead of pushing off of your body, soft surfaces absorb your footfalls.
In technical terms, concrete has a higher elastic modulus (as measured by Young’s Modulus) than grass or dirt surfaces. Concrete will push harder back on the runner thus taking less energy to propel the runner forward.
Our bodies rely on this elasticity force to move.
(source for info on elasticity force for sports)
Why Running On Grass Is Better For You
Running on grass:
- Has a Lower Impact Force (better for your knees)
- Develops Muscles
- Develops Balance
- Improves Mood
Read each section to understand how.
Grass Is Lower Impact
The first and most crucial advantage of running on grass is that it provides a softer surface for your feet to land on than concrete or asphalt. As a low-impact surface, grass can put anywhere between 9.3 and 16.6% less pressure on your feet in comparison to asphalt. (source and another source) As a result, knee injuries, shin splints, and stress fractures are less common.
Grass Works Your Muscles More
As discussed above, the softer the ground, the more our bodies have to work to move. Running on grass strengthens your muscles and joints because the softer impact creates less elastic force than harder, flatter surfaces. The relatively less elastic force will require you to put more power into every stride you take and therefore help with strengthening the muscles and joints in your legs over time.
This is an advantage if the goal of your running is to improve strength.
Running on Grass For Balance
In addition to this, running on a more uneven surface will improve your balance and because you’re inclined to be more considerate about your form. In contrast, you run on grass, and it will help you develop good form and make running more effortless for you in general, even if you return to the sidewalks, treadmill, or track.
These advantages are why many runners also choose to run on grass at the beginning of their training cycle. It’s an excellent way for you to build strength and mileage before running season gets underway.
Running On Grass For Mental Health
There are also many mental health benefits associated with running on grass. More exposure to nature (if you’re running through parks, for example) is conducive to improving your mood, reducing stress, and giving you time to live in the present, free of the distractions that come with running on the road or sidewalk.
I made an extensive article about how hiking leads to happiness, and many of the same principles apply from running outdoors. If you want more details of how outdoor activity can lead to happiness, check out my article, here.
Disadvantages of Running On Grass
However, there are also some disadvantages to running on grass as well. For example, while running on grass is low-impact, it can also lead to injuries due to potholes or simply landing awkwardly on uneven ground.
Running on grass will tire you out more because you are exerting your body more. According to this study, our bodies have to work 5% more than running on concrete or asphalt. This won’t impact your sprinting speed, but it could impact your speed over long distances (such as if you’re training for a marathon).
Furthermore, if you have allergies, running on grass may not even work for you, especially if flowers and other pollen-producing plants surround the grass.
finding enough grass to run on is also a barrier–depending on where you live, that might not even be a possibility. I’m thinking of Arizona–where much of the parks and the developed country uses xeriscape instead of grass (for good reason).
You may also have to invest in a new pair of running shoes if your current ones aren’t suitable for grass running (you may also need to invest in studs if you’re running on wet grass).
Lastly, sometimes running on grass can be bad for the environment–if you’re not running on established trails or in a park then you are potentially damaging miniature ecosystems. Some grass expects human traffic (like a park) and it’s better to run there than in wild grass.
If running on grass doesn’t work for you (everyone has different needs), there are a couple of alternatives to grass that provide advantages and benefits.
You can run on woodland trails–the most scenic running option (my personal favorite). However, they can get muddy, and tree roots, rocks, and various debris always offer a potential hazard if you don’t see them.
If you’re interested in getting into trail running, there’s a lot to know because there are a lot of differences. Make sure and check out our article on trail running if you want to learn the basics of what you need to know.
Artificial Grass is enticing because you don’t have to worry about mud or environmental concerns–and it turns out that the experience of running on artificial grass doesn’t impact how hard running is in comparison to natural grass (source)
Dirt roads, while they can also get really muddy, provide a reasonably soft, flat surface but can be less accessible, depending on whether you’re living in urban or rural areas. Lower impact reduces the risk of injury to your calves and Achilles tendons.
Running on synthetic tracks is fantastic for those who want to measure their running performance, closely. Turning in one direction does put additional stress on your ankles, knees, and hips–so you have to be careful there. It’s also repetitive and tedious. I ran on a track often in my freshman year of college and it really is hard to run, mentally. Perhaps a small step up from a treadmill.
Treadmills offer a bit of a mixed bag, depending on what machine you’re using. Hardness changes from treadmill to treadmill, but they typically provide a soft, flat surface. It’s perfect for indoor running where you don’t have a lot of space and weather conditions don’t get in your way–but, treadmill running can get tedious and repetitive.
Running on sand is something that I don’t like, I won’t lie. It gives your calves and quads the workout of their life and is very low-impact. So, for strength-building, it’s ideal. However, it’s so exhausting that it’s almost demoralizing. If you are on the beach you can run on the shoreline where the sand is wet for an easier time of it.
Asphalt and concrete are, by far, my least favorite surfaces to run on. The high impact puts you at risk of picking up many injuries to muscles, joints, and tendons. However, some people enjoy the more elastic force and flatness that makes asphalt and concrete “easier” to run on.
You’ll probably find that you’ll see a significant drop-off in your running times when you run on grass. In addition, you may struggle with endurance and with landing on lumps or untrimmed patches of grass. You may be struggling with form as well because your gait and running form is much less consistent when running on grass. Here are a few tips and tricks you can use to run faster on grass.
If you’re new to running on grass and want to make the transition from road running, don’t go all in. Instead, start reducing the distance you run on the road and run on grass for the last 15-20 minutes of your run for a while until you’re familiar with the change in terrain before you make a move to grass full-time or mostly full-time.
Thick, untrimmed grass creates unnecessary friction for your feet when you are running through the grass. It may not seem like a lot of additional effort, but when you aggregate the total friction created from each stride you take, it adds up.
So try to find thinner, well-trimmed grass to run on. Golf courses provide the ideal grass to run on, and some courses are totally okay with runners during the beginning or end of the day (make sure to ask first). Well-trimmed parks are a close second.
This is especially important for injury prevention. Even though you may be tempted to look into the distance while running on grass, you need to be looking about five feet ahead of yourself and scanning the ground for any holes in the grass or uneven lumps created by molehills. One wrong step can lead to a sprained ankle or ligaments.
Because the surface is soft and uneven, you need your muscles to be pushing you in the right direction with maximum efficiency, so lift your feet higher, breath deep into your chest, keep your back straight and bring your feet up to your backside – you know the drill. Running with better form will make you faster, reduce the risk of injury, and ultimately help you get the most out of your runs.
As you know, wearing the right shoes can make a massive difference to your running technique and plays a significant role in optimizing your results. So if you’re making the move from road running to grass, it’s possible you’re going to need a new pair of shoes. In addition, you’re going to need a pair that provides support for your Achilles tendons but doesn’t necessarily require features for impact reduction, which most road running shoes will not be designed for.