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Your walking surface matters – How to avoid joint pain and injury!

Woman walking on an urban walking track

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The right walking surface can make your walks even lower impact on your joints, while the wrong surface can add stress and contribute to injuries. Softer surfaces are usually easier on your joints, but many soft surfaces can get slippery or don’t give even footing. While you often don’t have much of a choice of what surface to walk on, you can usually find grass, dirt, or asphalt rather than extremely hard concrete to walk on. Making walking easier on your joints means you can walk longer, take more steps and finally hit that 10,000 step goal!

Learn more about these 10 walking surfaces in 6 categories, including which are easier on your joints and which may have other hidden dangers.

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Does your walking surface matter?

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Walking is a lower-impact exercise than running, but your walking surface still does make a difference – especially if you’re dealing with pain in your knees or other areas. Softer surfaces are generally easier on your knees and joints, while harder surfaces are more common, especially in urban areas, however. Note that some softer surfaces, like sand or dirt trails, are not completely level and can increase your risk of ankle or other injuries!

You can’t always pick your walking surface, but walking on better surfaces when you can means you’ll probably have less pain and you’ll be able to walk longer at any time.

Concrete and asphalt

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Most people spend most of their time walking on concrete, asphalt, or a hard indoor walking surface like marble or wood flooring. These can be tough on your knees, as they’re all hard surfaces that don’t give much when your feet strike them. Interestingly hard surfaces are easier on some areas of the body, such as the achilles tendon.

Concrete is what most sidewalks are made out of, and it’s the hardest outdoor walking surface that you’ll likely find. It doesn’t give much, and it’s the toughest on your joints to walk on. The good points of walking on concrete is that most concrete surfaces are flat, level, and free of obstructions. It generally has good grip when wet as well. In many places, you don’t have much of a choice but to walk on a concrete sidewalk. If you’re dealing with joint injuries, see if you can find a walking track or perhaps a park with a softer surface to get some of your steps.

Asphalt is black, tarry substance that makes up most roads. It’s still a hard surface, but it’s actually much softer than concrete. If you’re walking (as opposed to running), you may not feel much difference between asphalt and concrete. It’s also not possible to walk in the middle of the road most places, and if you did it would be dangerous anyway. While asphalt is harder on your joints than a walking track or a dirt path, if you can find a road that’s closed to traffic then walking on the asphalt surface is usually better than the concrete sidewalk.

Indoor surfaces

There are too many indoor surfaces to list, and they vary from very hard (like marble) to softer (carpet over wood). Walking on marble or stone with dress shoes can be really hard on your feet and knees, so doing laps in the lobby of an office building isn’t always easy on your joints. Carpeted surfaces give you grip (which is great in case someone spills a drink), and cushion your foot strike which is easier on your joints. Wood flooring falls somewhere in the middle.

You typically don’t have much choice in terms of indoor walking surfaces – your apartment, office or mall is set up the way it is. Do be aware that many malls and stores have very hard floors, which can be slippery due to the carelessness of other people. Walk carefully!

Grass and dirt

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Grass or dirt surfaces are much softer than concrete or asphalt, and thus are much easier on your knees, back, and joints. Because your feet can partially sink into soft surfaces, it can actually put stress on ligaments (like your achilles). A flat patch of (dry) grass should be very comfortable to walk on and easy on your joints, even for long periods of time. It’s also often nice to get out and enjoy nature, rather than walk in a fully concrete environment. Grass in particular can be very slippery when wet, however, which can make it dangerous to walk on. Morning dew or sprinklers can make grass a hazard even on a normally dry day. Grass is also not always fully level, and you risk stepping in a hole or tripping over a root.

Dirt surfaces are generally less slippery than grass, but still soft and easy on your knees. You generally find dirt trails in a park or in nature, so you may have to go out of your way to find one or go hiking. Dirt trails are forgiving on joints, and give you a chance to walk through nature comfortably. They can get muddy when wet, however. This can make them slippery, or get mud all over your shoes. Since many dirt tracks are not paved or maintained, you’re at risk of tripping over a root or stepping in a depression and injuring your ankle. It’s best to find a dirt track that you like and walk it carefully at first, looking for hidden obstacles that can trip you up if you’re not careful.

Walking or running tracks

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A running track (or a walking path made of similar material) is typically a softer, synthetic material that’s grippy enough to prevent slipping but soft enough to be easier on your knees and joints. Since many tracks are designed for races or running practice, they’re built to help people put a pounding on their knees and keep going. Track walking is much easier on your knees, lower back and other areas than concrete.

Track walking can get repetitive, especially if you’re walking on an oval running track. Listening to podcasts or audiobooks can help, but you’re not able to do free walking or exploring like you can on other surfaces. Oval tracks do mean you’re turning fairly frequently for long portions of your walk, so it can help to change direction periodically so you’re not always leaning to one side.

If you can find a walking trail – perhaps in a nearby park – with a rubberized surface, you get the best of both worlds. It’s an ideal walking surface that’s easy on your joints, but you can walk freely and don’t need to continually walk the same loop.

Treadmills

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Treadmills can be much easier on your knees than concrete or asphalt, but it partially depends on the type of treadmill that you’re using and how you’re walking on it. Rubber treadmills have more of a give to them than a hard surface, although they’re less soft than dirt or grass. You won’t have to worry about slipping or uneven terrain, however, making treadmills a safe and effective option. Some treadmills have more give than others, so if you have knee, hip or back problems look for a treadmill with a soft surface. Walking a treadmill on an incline will add more intensity and burn more calories, but will be harder on your knees.

An elliptical machine is another option for step-like motion. Your feet never leave the pads on an elliptical, so there’s less stress on your knees and joints from repeatedly hitting the ground. Many elliptical machines offer an upper body workout component, plus you can go backwards to work different muscles. Step tracking doesn’t always register correctly on an elliptical, and some people simply don’t enjoy the motion. It’s something to try if you have one available.

Sand or snow

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Sand and snow are soft surfaces, but they’re so soft that they can give way and lead to uneven footing. Walking or running in sand forces your body to work harder, which may burn additional calories. Because of the give, walking on surfaces like sand can relieve impact on your knees and hips, but at an increased risk of sprained ankles and other injuries. Because the ground is constantly shifting under your feet, the stabilizing muscles in your legs need to constantly work so you don’t fall down. Especially if you’re older or have leg injuries, you’ll want to walk much slower on sand to avoid slipping or overusing those small, supporting muscles.

Snow is somewhat similar, except it can be more slippery and hide underlying ice. That’s clearly a safety hazard when walking in winter weather. Loose snow can actually provide better footing than icy concrete or asphalt, but you still can’t necessarily see what’s underneath and you don’t know if the snow will crunch and give you good footing or if you’ll step on an ice ball that will tweak your ankle. You’re better off walking indoors when possible, or finding a paved route with better footing.

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