Running on different types of surfaces

6. July 2018

We are spoilt in Switzerland. Nowhere else do running athletes have so many paths and roads available to train on. The number of signposted hiking trails alone is impressive: there are more than 65,000 kilometres of signposted hiking trails in Switzerland. In theory, we could run 15 kilometres a day for 12 years without having to take the same path twice. For the sake of comparison: overall, there are «only» 71,400 kilometres of road and 5,100 kilometres of railway tracks in Switzerland. If you were to join all the Swiss hiking trails together, you could run one and a half times around the world.

Runners are thus fortunately spoilt for choice here. What would you like to do today? Marathon training on tar? Jogging on forest paths? A tempo run on nature trails? A mountain run to the viewpoint? Interval training on the track? Orienteering training through the forest or a few laps on the Finnenbahn? 

Ambitious runners are quite specific when it comes to choosing the route or surface because each surface taxes the running muscles somewhat differently. Those planning a city marathon will also need to ensure their running training encompasses lots of kilometres on tar. And those preparing for a trail run will need to train their muscles by running uphill and downhill on bumpy and uneven small paths. 

But what are the differences between the individual running surfaces? When do we train which muscles? And which parts of the body tolerate the load? Here are the most common types of surfaces and their advantages and disadvantages at a glance.


Running on tar – according to popular opinion – damages the joints. This belief, however, is too sweeping and has not been proven. Running on tar is not a problem if you wear well-cushioned running shoes and have strong muscles. The actual load on the muscles and joints also heavily depends on the running speed. And the uniform load when running on tar also has positive aspects. There are no uncontrolled extreme loads, which can be beneficial if you had to take a break due to injury, for example. The muscles are evenly trained on flat ground, which reduces the risk of imbalances. Furthermore, there is less risk of tripping. Asphalt is thus excellent for tempo runs and interval training. However, because the load is eccentric, untrained muscles tend to get sore.

Good: If you are not particularly susceptible to injury (joints!) and are not a beginner. It is also favourable for those suffering from Achilles tendon complaints because the hard ground shortens the “travel” of the tendon.

Bad: If you have shin or knee problems or after fatigue fractures.

Shoes: Running shoes with good cushioning in the heel and forefoot. Advanced runners can possibly wear lighter road competition shoes.




Nature trails

Probably the ground on which the majority of runners most frequently run – in forests, between fields, along rivers, or in parks. In principle, the same muscles are used as on tar roads. However, the load is somewhat less monotonous, and the small stones have a cushioning effect because the shoe slides a little with each step. 

Good: If you are a “normal” runner, even if you are suffering or have suffered from knee problems.

Bad: If you have tendon and ligament problems, especially on the very uneven paths. The unevenness is an additional load, especially on the ankles. 

Shoes: Comfortable running shoes with a good heel grip and well profiled soles.





Turf is ideal for barefoot running and is not only excellent for strength training but also offers a tactile running experience. At most, the greatest hazard is the uneven ground. Well-kept football fields or athletic facilities are therefore best suited to barefoot running. 

Good: If you have knee complaints, otherwise simply ideal for running. Turf/grass minimises the impact forces without the ground springing back.

Bad: If you tend to suffer from plantar fasciitis (inflammation on the soles of the feet, usually in the heel area). Turf/grass intensifies pronation.

Shoes: (Barefoot) running shoes with less cushioning and support – or preferably barefoot.




Plastic running tracks

The strain on the muscles can be compared with that on roads. You can thus run well on plastic running tracks with your normal training shoes. Take note: when you run with spiked shoes (you are required to run on your forefeet), the lower leg muscles are heavily stressed. And those who always run in the same direction at high speed will place a high load on the foot muscles. Diligent track runners suffer relatively often from Achilles tendon problems and periostitis.

Good: If you are susceptible to ankle sprains and unstable ankle joints. The totally flat, slightly cushioned track is also ideal for overweight runners. 

Bad: If you suffer from Achilles tendon complaints. The springy track means more work for the tendons.

Shoes: Since the plastic running track has a cushioning effect, lighter competition shoes are also suitable. Those who want to run with spiked shoes need to gradually get used to the higher load placed on the forefoot. Even top runners only wear spiked shoes for fast units.




Single trails

In our forests and mountains, you will find many narrow and bumpy paths next to the nature trails. Many athletes and road runners avoid such trails because they make them «slow». Narrow and bumpy paths are in fact ill-suited to fast continuous runs or interval training. Single trails are best for doing relaxed continuous runs as well as coordination training. Narrow paths are a must for trail runners of all kinds. 

Good: Extremely diversified training for the running muscles and excellent for coordination training. Also uses the lateral leg muscles and core muscles.

Bad: If you lose your footing, your foot can bend inwards or outwards or even buckle. To prevent this from happening, you should slowly get your muscles used to the rough terrain.

Shoes: So-called trail shoes are suitable for running on bumpy, uneven ground. Modern trail models are slim and lightweight yet sturdy running shoes that sit snugly on the feet and have a thin, non-slip sole and robust upper material. Some models are also equipped with a Gore-Tex membrane to make them waterproof. 




Finnenbahn (natural running track)

The Finnenbahn is a special type of forest path. What makes it special is the particularly soft, roughly 10-cm-thick flooring made of sawdust, wood shavings, wood chips and the like, which are laid on a drainage layer of sand, gravel, or crushed stone. This creates a smooth surface that permits joint-friendly running. The load can be compared with that on forest paths. The challenge and strengthening effect is massively increased when you run barefoot.

Good: If you are suffering or have suffered from knee problems. 

Bad: If you have tendon and ligament problems, especially on the very soft Finnenbahns. The springy track means more work for the tendons.

Shoes: Both road and off-trail shoes are equally suitable for Finnenbahns. You can even do barefoot running training really well on a track with sawdust or extremely fine wood chips. Those afraid of sharp or pointed objects can run on the Finnenbahn wearing ordinary gymnastics pumps or soft neoprene shoes. The sole of the foot is thereby protected but the muscles still need to work.