Running Surfaces and the Road Less Traveled
by Doug McIntosh, June 25, 2016
"Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." 
The Road Not Taken by 
Robert Frost, 1916

I have been running and now jogging on a regular basis since the age of 18. There's nothing like running a half-marathon with 5000 people to witness the physicality of human bodies. We're all made differently, some are hares who lightly bounce as they seem to glide naturally on their feet. And many, are tortoises like me, clopping along like the sound of a Clydesdale on an old English cobblestone street. I'm built fairly square and at 5'9" tall stopped growing around 16. However, as I grew older and enjoyed my love of food and drink, I did continue to grow, just sideways.

One thing that we all do share is the passing of time. Talk of adventures during our youth morphs into talk of aches, pains and various surgeries we've had as we get older. When I was young (and stupid), I thought my body was built to last, I would be some Achilles without the heel. Then came my 40's. Until then, I had run on concrete and asphalt as my surfaces of choice. I could just walk outside and start to run, for free.

That convenience contributed into first, lower left back pain, proceeded by left knee meniscus surgery and then plantar fasciitis surgery on my left foot (after living with it for 10 years). During a dance at my step-daughter's wedding, I tore the major tendons from my left calf to ankle and dragged my luggage, left leg and pride through the Seattle Airport on the trip home. My Achilles heel now was the entire left side of my body!

Okay, so I've been called a "hard runner" by a 23 year old Shoe Assistant at Road Runner Sports and I'm the first to call myself, "a Clydesdale with orthotics." Well, My 40's body began talking to me and telling me to, "stop." My 40's mind said, "stop running, NEVER!" Friends told me to start riding a bike. I did that and it was boring, unfulfilling and as for street riding in southern California, a disaster waiting to happen with some non-attentive person behind the wheel of a car. I then came back to a question I have asked myself a few times, Why is running so important? Well,

  • it helps me stay in shape,
  • it helps as part of a weight control strategy, 
  • but most importantly, I'm on my own to think, be creative or problem solve my day. 
Running is simple liberation for both my mind and body. 

I just needed to get smarter about this if I wanted to be a life-long runner. During this time, I had read an article about running surfaces. The gist was -

  • concrete although a smooth surface was the hardest surface to run on, duh. 
  • asphalt was around 10% softer than concrete,
  • dirt 10% or so softer than asphalt, and
  • grass being at least 10% softer than dirt.
So, I began to transition from concrete and asphalt running to dirt and grass running. It made a big difference! My body said, "thanks, what took so long?" I began to run on dirt at Mission Trails Park and grass at Mission Bay in San Diego.

In my 40's and 50's I continued to train and run in half marathons, but at 55 was encouraged to give up road runs too. My Physical Therapist, also a runner, told me something very important. She said, "People need to walk everyday and if you run or jog, you just need to do that about 45-60 minutes, 3-4 times a week. And, do your running on softer surfaces." My Chiropractor concurred, as I'll always need that left side alignment tune up, but now with less pounding and wear and tear on the ol' body. I found my dirt.

I'm 61 now and have my standard routine (unless presented a better option). I jog for 60 minutes at least 3 times a week on a run that starts with stretching and then a warm-up walk to my starting point. I start on a busy street (see above at the pic I took this morning) several blocks from my house. It has a concrete sidewalk with 3-10 ft. of spongy grass parkway on both sides of the sidewalk. I run on the grass down to a greenbelt trail about a 1/4 mile away that gets me off road to a dirt trail, my sanctuary. I loop the trail and come back to finish on the long inclined grass parkway. 

My plan is to jog as long as I can. If I have to stop, I will walk everyday as long as I can. I'm actually inspired by a slightly older couple than me. I see them almost every time on my trail run. I know they faithfully walk everyday and at about a clip of 3 miles per hour. My heroes!  

So my humble advice for people of all ages running or jogging on concrete sidewalks and/or asphalt streets, is to follow a grassy path or a dirt road less traveled.
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