The Benefits of Running on Varied Surfaces

I often see a real correlation in athletes who have had a successful cross country season, in that they go on to have a strong block of road running training and race performances.

For me there are a number of reasons for this, beyond the simple fact that cross-country training and racing is just good old-fashioned hard work!

Many top coaches and athletes swear by doing the majority of their training on soft surfaces. Alberto Salazar, coach to Mo Farah, Galen Rupp amongst other at Nike’s Oregon Project is a notable advocate of running the majority of an athlete’s milage on grass.

Aside from helping to reduce the attritional nature of running by training off-road, the variety that comes from running across mixed terrain, both in terms of gradient and surface type, can be incredibly stimulating for the neuromuscular system. This stimulation comes from the variety in movement patterns, helping to improve technique and reduce the repetitive nature of the unchanging pattern of road running.

I’ve previously written about hill running, and the ways in which it can help to improve technique, particularly through improving hip drive and posterior chain activation. In this article I want to explore what happens to running technique as we run over soft surfaces versus hard surfaces.

Tensioning the Spring

Stiffness is a term we often use colloquially as runners. We all know what we’re referring to… But what is stiffness?

“Stiffness” is how we define the ability of a tissue or mechanism to withstand an external force (such as the effect of gravity) without deformation.

Consider this, as we look at how the human leg and how the major joints loads upon contact with the ground when running. Grab a coffee and watch the video lecture below where Ian Griffiths describes how we can model the human leg as a spring-like mechanism…

As Ian describes in his video, the spring-like characteristics of the human leg mean that a runner will subconsciously alter the stiffness of the limb to optimise for the compliance (softness) of the landing surface. This process is controlled subconsciously by the Central Nervous System, and over time can become a training effect, just like any other.

Where we know that increased limb stiffness (to a point) can be linked to running efficiency, and decreased limb stiffness hypothetically a contributing factor to soft tissue injury in runners, we can use variations in landing surface to train changes in limb stiffness. Running regularly on softer surfaces usually results in a runner developing slightly increased joint stiffness.

Cadence is a variable which also affects limb stiffness. Running with too long of a stride and low cadence will decrease limb stiffness, while increasing cadence and reducing stride length will increase stiffness. Cadence is one of the areas we work on during the Online Running Technique Course (50% Discount – Click Here)

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