The ABCs—and Misconceptions—of Non-Running Surfaces
A.) Begin by finding a non-paved surface which is relatively even. While technical rocky and root-filled trails are utilized by more experienced trail runners, those new to soft surface running should seek out venues with more stable footing.
A great way to start is by finding a soccer complex or golf course (stay off the greens) on which you can execute 1-2 runs each week. Even if it means driving to a quality venue or simply running a mid-to-late run portion of your run off the hard stuff, a few miles each week is all it takes to begin making yourself more athletic.
B.) Footwear should not and need not be changed with typical non-paved running. A common misconception within the running community is that all non-paved running must be executed with trail running shoes. Such footwear generally involves a much less flexible outsole and, on occasion, an impact pad for rocks and roots. Surfaces such as even dirt roads, cinder trails and grass rarely, if ever, demand an actual technical trail shoe. To the contrary, a lighter weight, more flexible shoe—another method of natural foot strengthening—is recommended for softer surface runs.
C.) Myth buster: The running community has assumed (yours truly included) for more than a generation that softer surface running was inextricably linked to lower rates of injury. Recent research has challenged this long and widely held notion. We now know leg "stiffness" and the absorption of shock actually changes based on the surface on which we are running, with tissue varying in its rigidity based on firmness. With data now pouring in for the first time, it appears runners who implement low-to-moderate volume (5-35 miles weekly) are no more likely to be injured on pavement than softer dirt or grass.
The power of the "non-paved" falls more within its ability to improve stability and coordination than simply the rigidity of the surface. However, utilizing a variety of non-paved surfaces such as grass and dirt, along with typical paved surfaces—known as the "combination plan"—is now emerging as the most widely used formula, and most effective for maintaining and improving overall strength and balance.