Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Soft is Better Than Hard

I love the New York Times. Let me just put that out there. But today, we're having a bit of a lover's quarrel over this article: For Runners, Soft Ground Can Be Hard on the Body

I encourage you to read the article. Seriously, please read it, then come back... I'll wait.

Did you read it? The whole thing? Really? Yeah, that's what I thought... go back and finish it.

There, that wasn't so hard, was it.

Now, flush it all out of your head.

I mean it. It's pure rubbish.

The premise is that you might as well run on street and sidewalks, as opposed to trails or other "soft ground" because you are just as likely to get injured. Supposedly the body will somehow magically adapt to harder surfaces, negating the presumably higher impact forces of pavement. Further, it's supposed that soft ground is uneven, making if more likely you will turn your ankle.


Ok, the first example, the guy recovering from knee surgery, yes he should've probably stayed off of the trails. But hell, he shouldn't have been running either. You just inured your knee! Walk for crying out loud.

Thing is, you can get hurt just as easily on pavement. Trust me, I know. Who here's never tripped on an uneven crack in a sidewalk?  Cracks, curbs, gutters, uneven lumps in the road, they can trip you up just as easily as a root.

And as for turning an ankle, I, myself, your humble blogger, turned the bajeebas out of my ankle in 1999 while on down a hill cool-down jog, on the street. I turned it the the point of snapping a bone in my foot.

The presumed smooth, even, danger free reputation of streets and sidewalks lull the unsuspecting runner into a false sense of security. It let's your mind wander to things other than running, and that's when those nice even surfaces reach out and grab a toe.

If you're out on a "soft" surface... I hate that term... it's a negative spin term... let's call them "natural" surfaces.

If you're out on a natural surface, you need to stay present. They are indeed uneven and littered with obstacles. If you let your mind wander too far for too long, if you take your attention away from the task at hand, yes, you will probably misstep. But that's the beauty of a natural surface run. It's both meditation and cardio in one.

But that's not all, running on natural, uneven surfaces, making lots of turns, being in a state of constant change and adaptation, works lots of muscles, and makes you a stronger runner. And a stronger runner is a less injured runner.

Robotic repetition of the exact same motion, using the exact same muscles, will leave you vulnerable to anything outside of that narrow, consistent circumstance.

Besides, if you do fall, and you will, it's much better to fall on "soft" ground than pavement. This is coming from someone who's fallen on lots of surfaces, lots of times.

At the end of the article, Gina Kolata does include the idea that people should run where they want. And that I completely agree with. Better to run on pavement than not at all. And in fact, I think a mix of pavement and natural surfaces is best. But the article comes off to me like someone trying to use specific personal examples and opinions that aren't backed up by any science to support their personal preference for running on roads.

I hope people aren't dissuaded from trying out some trails because of an article based on such strong statements like...
“It is models, so God knows whether it is true...”
Trails are fantastic for running. They'll make you feel alive. You'll get dirty. You'll probably go slower. But after the run, you'll have a connection with the natural world that you can't get on any road.

Good running,