Coach Mike Mead

Get a Grip on Running Surfaces - June 2007

I got to thinking recently about the need in metro-Atlanta for more running (and biking) trails that are runner-friendly. No, not the asphalt-paved kind which can wreck havoc on your body! Rather trails that use natural, softer kinds of materials. Many government municipalities are pretty much forced to use asphalt or concrete because of issues with the Americans with Disabilities Act in providing access to all citizens. However, in helping a few individuals have access, many more end up risking injuries by prolonged pounding of pavement.

We runners need to be pushing for more alternatives to pavement. I’m definitely no spring chicken and it’s only a matter of time that my body will let me know. I try to hit dirt trails now and then, but most of us have few options. When I first came to Georgia in 1978, a runner could find a hearty dirt road to run on. But anyone living within the expanded metro-Atlanta area these days knows that dirt roads are a thing of the past.

I’m fortunate to live a mile from Reynolds Nature Preserve in Morrow, Ga. which has a couple of miles of dirt and chipped trails. But it gets old rather quickly when you try to go for mileage over six or seven miles. Reynolds is great for relief from the pavement, or getting in some serious hill training, but serious distance folks will find the mile and a half loop a little loopy if you’re trying to get in 10 miles or more.

While attending the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track & Field Championships just before Memorial Day, I was lucky to find a gem of a running area (Anne Springs Close Greenway) near Fort Mill, S.C. A local family had the foresight to set aside 2,000 acres of land for greenway space and conservation. I hit the trails on two consecutive days (Note: I ran on two different trails for at least 50 minutes each time) and just loved getting out in the woods running on trails that ranged from dirt, crushed stone and sand. Some sections of the trails were very narrow and winding. After the second day of running these trails, I realized that my knees and ankles felt much better, despite some stretches of loopy trails. I really think my ankles benefited from these twists and turns on the trails since running straight on pavement doesn’t help much with flexibility.

A trip last month to the north Georgia Mountains gave me hope for an alternative to asphalt trails. While visiting Amicalola Falls State Park, I found a quarter mile section of a trail that was completely “paved” using recycled tires. The surface was firm enough for someone in a wheelchair to use but springy for runners to enjoy a surface that was soft and free from roots and ruts. If area trails were paved with this recycled tire product, I could see such a surface being beneficial for runners and walkers.

I still prefer dirt or chipped trails to any kind of pavement. Those who design and build trails need to think bigger than half mile or mile loops that they construct and get more serious with trails that run for 10’s of miles. Runners do not want to bother with these short loops unless they’re looking for an alternative for interval workouts on a track. Roadways are becoming more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Some communities do not have sidewalks adding to the danger to all on two feet.

If you have been experiencing knick-knack injuries lately, perhaps you need to find softer surfaces, like dirt trails, to run on to give your body a break. Take advantage of grassy areas when available, too, which will make you a better runner in the long run.

If you have trouble finding non-paved trails to run on, go to your local parks and recreation department to provide them with input. It’s time to think outside the box and be more proactive in safe – and soft – areas for runners to run. There are an adequate number of ball fields and basketball and tennis courts, but limited areas for running and biking. It’s time for change!