When it comes to running, the road is what it is. It’s flat, hard, stable. As a surface it’s uninteresting, although running on road is not necessarily boring – if the scenery is good or the pace is hard, or if it’s uphill, then road running can be just as engaging as any other type of surface, but because of where I live, road running is the standard. I like to vary the pace of my workouts, I mix in cross training and, more recently, I’ve been adding more variety into the surfaces that I’ve been running on as well.
The other surface I have closest access to is knotty ancient woodland trails. These woods also provide some decent hill training, undulating and chaotic as they are. Running here is a far more mentally and physically taxing experience, even at slower paces. In fact, it feels like a different sport altogether. Stride length falls shorter as I take faster, snappier steps, watching my feet as I take sharp turns, hopping over jutting tree roots, skidding around sloppy mud. Although my pace is naturally far slower than it is compared to my easy road pace, running in these woods feels fast because my whole body is moving, my actions are more explosive, and that feeling of flow seems to find me sooner in the peace of the woodland canopy. Beyond that, the environment is more therapeutic, and usually more interesting.
I’m liable to see hares, muntjacs, birds of all varieties, frogs, mice, and countless bugs that I could never name. This morning as I came up out of the woods onto the bridleway that leads to my preferred entrance/exit, three horses raced by uphill on the paddock which backs onto the trail. I followed rather limply behind, on the human side of the path, as they galloped upwards with their riders.
Outside of the woods I have challenged myself by heading out to the Norfolk coastal path again, which allows for plenty of opportunity to run on sand. When sand is wet and compact then it is a similar, though easier, experience to running on the woodland trails, particularly if the trail has seen some rain. When the sand is dry and loose however, it becomes a grueling challenge. Feet slip and slide in the grains, scrambling for purchase. It is so difficult that those first few steps on sand make you think that running on it is simply impossible. It is not. It just kinda sucks. There is a rhythm to be found though, and if you can find it then you can settle in and challenge your body in a unique way which, yet again, makes it feel as if you are competing at a completely different sport compared to road running.
Plus the softness of the sand reduces the chance of impact injuries. The flipside of that is that you have to work harder because of the constantly shifting surface. Take this snippet from a Runners World article on the subject of beach running:
‘[…]when you run on firm ground, less elastic energy, which is stored in your tendons, is absorbed, so you don’t have to work quite as hard. Sand doesn’t extend that courtesy. Instead, it absorbs that energy, meaning you have to generate more force with your muscles. Proof: A study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology found that running on sand actually requires 1.6 times as much energy expenditure as running on a firmer surface.’
So it’s good for you, great. But I’ll be honest with you, the reason I care about running on the sand is because it feels good to be by the sea, to have fresh air in my lungs, and to hopefully have the sun on my skin. And if I’ve got the sea right there, then there are few greater feelings in the world than sinking aching limbs into chilly seawater post-workout.
Variety is a key factor in my recent performance improvements, there’s no doubt about it, but I’m not really seeking it because of those benefits. I’m seeking it as a side-effect of being a bit more adventurous, of simply seeking some running freedom away from the pavement pounding of road running.