Running track surfaces come in a variety of man-made and natural materials. The surfaces also vary in durability, maintenance requirements and cost. Though many impressive records have been set on gritty cinder tracks throughout history, these days most tracks are made with high-tech materials and are designed to elicit fast running times. It is rare to see anyone compete on grass, clay or cinder tracks, but these surfaces need not be avoided as they are easier on the body than the popular synthetic surfaces By varying the surfaces you run on, you can reduce your risk of injury.
Before the 1960s, outdoor tracks were made mostly of clay, cinder, dirt, sand or grass. While these surfaces aren't known for helping runners produce their fastest times, the soft materials are easier on runner's bodies than more modern materials. The problem with natural track surfaces, in addition to producing slower running times in athletes, is that they are hard to maintain. They are easily affected by the weather, and new material must be brought in when rain or wind erodes the surface. When this happens, the track must also be leveled and the lanes remarked. If natural tracks are not maintained well, the surface becomes uneven, which can be dangerous for runners.
Asphalt is often used as the foundation for running tracks, but it is also used as a surface material. Most asphalt tracks are mixed with rubber or other materials. A drawback of asphalt tracks is that they don't tolerate spikes well, so most runners will opt to wear a cross-country shoe with rubber studs on the bottom when running on asphalt. Another problem with asphalt is that is gets harder over time and can develop cracks as it ages. Overall, asphalt is considered a good surface material for tracks since it lasts long with little maintenance and is hard enough to allow athletes to run fast.
All-weather tracks are made of latex or rubber surfaces that are usually covering concrete or asphalt. These surfaces are often more expensive than other types of materials used to build running tracks. One of many advantages of all-weather tracks is that they are spike resistant, allowing runners, especially sprinters, to wear longer spikes. These surfaces are usually made of rubber, tartan or Mondo -- a non-slip, carpet-like material often used for indoor tracks. As the name implies, all-weather tracks are durable and not easily affected by the weather, even hot temperatures or rain.
Polyurethane is considered the longest-lasting track surface material available. It generally costs more to install than other track surfaces, but once installed, it requires little upkeep or repair. It is designed to optimize fast running while decreasing the risk for running-related injuries such as stress fractures and pulled muscles. The more expensive polyurethane material is often used for elite and Olympic track events. Some polyurethane tracks are even environmentally friendly, using recycled materials.
Running in the same direction on any track puts more stress on one side of your body, so when possible, switch directions. Aim to run an equal amount of time in each direction. For beginner runners, limit your training on all tracks to no more than once or twice a week to keep injury risk to a minimum. When you are training for a race, keep in mind that different running surfaces work different muscles. Be sure to do the bulk of your training on a similar surface as your race, but add a dose of variety to keep your running interesting, exciting and fresh.
Lize Brittin lives in Boulder, Colo. A writer since 2001, she is the author of the book "Training on Empty." Brittin has also written for publications such as Competitor, Active Cities, Boulder Magazine and Thrill. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University Of Colorado.