Is Running On Bitumen Bad For You?

August 29, 2019

I recently saw the hashtag #bitumenisboring on Instagram and scrolled through some stunning photos of people running in all sorts of beautiful places and being a nature lover myself I had to agree that running on trails, for me, is always such a pleasant experience.  The problem I have is that trails are not that accessible for every run for me and so I do most of my training on roads and paths.  The natural question though is whether bitumen is better or worse for you?  What are the differences and are there any risks associated with running on bitumen.

Let’s have a look into the benefits, risks, and some tips and techniques of running on bitumen.

Benefits of Road Running:

  • Bitumen is often the most accessible running surface. It often means you can start running from out the front of your house.
  • Road running makes measuring your running distance easy and allows you to find and keep up a steady rhythm.
  • Road surfaces are flatter, more stable and predictable in comparison with soft and uneven surfaces. Grass and trails have a higher risk of rolling an ankle or tripping.
  • Often roads have street lights for night time running and help is never far away if something goes wrong.


Risks of Road Running

All running has risks whether on flat sealed surface or a steep trail of rocks and stairs. The most obvious risk of road running compared to off road running is traffic.  More subtle risks are potholes and glass.

Running on bitumen is harder on your body than grass or trail running.  The body takes a greater shock when striking a hard surface as compared to a soft surface. But the great news is that your body is very good at adapting to harder surfaces and therefore can absorb more shock through these adaptations. There is no strong evidence to say that running on bitumen leads to injury any more than running on soft surfaces.  That doesn’t mean you won’t get injured just that surface type is not a factor. The key is to have your body adapt to road running slowly so that injury is avoided.

The common injury risks of running on hard surfaces like bitumen are:

  • Patellofemoral pain (pain near front of knee)
  • IT band syndrome (pain down the outside of the leg)
  • Shin Splints (pain in the front of your lower leg)
  • Plantar fasciitis (pain under your heel)


Most of these injuries are caused by the shock of striking a hard surface and repetitive movement in an unadapted body.

Tips and Techniques for bitumen

  • Buy a pair of good shoes. A pair that have been prescribed to you by someone who has assessed your feet and understands your goals.  If you are road running, then buy a pair of shoes that have extra cushioning specific to road running.  Your podiatrist will be able to conduct an assessment of your running style, measure your muscle strength and joint range of motion, assess your current running footwear and running load (current training that you are doing) and make shoe recommendations if needed. Additionally we can assess your past and present injury history and conduct an injury risk assessment to highlight possible weakness and how to address that weakness.  At a minimum you can go to a sporting goods shop or sport shoe shop where they will assess your feet and recommend the right shoe for you.  Just because Usain Bolt wears Puma shoes does not mean that they are right for you so make sure you get shoes to suit your foot type.
  • If you are a beginner on bitumen, running too much and too far is not good for your body. In other words, this can increase the risk of joint and muscle injuries because of overuse, repetition and stress. Give your muscles and joints time to adapt to the pounding on bitumen. Perhaps start by doing a mixture of jogging and walking until your body gets used to running on a harder surface and then build up to running only.
  • Gradually increase volume. Start with shorter distances and increase the distance by no more than 10 percent per week.  This gives your body time to adapt.
  • Bitumen roads are crowned to allow drainage. The centre of a road is usually higher than at the edges. So, when running on asphalt, one leg will often be higher than the other. Make sure you vary the course that you run and ensure that you run with the crown on both sides of your body to stop injury from running with one leg compensating for the gradient change.
  • Do a good warm up and cool down before and after your workout. A good warm up dilates your blood vessels, ensuring that your muscles are well supplied with oxygen before you give them a vigorous workout. It also raises the temperature of your muscles for optimal flexibility and efficiency. By slowly raising your heart rate, the warm up also helps minimize stress on your heart when you start your run.  The cool-down keeps the blood flowing throughout the body. Stopping suddenly can cause light-headedness because your heart rate and blood pressure might drop rapidly. Winding down slowly allows them to fall gradually.
  • Wearing bright clothing and shoes that have reflective feature to make you visible, especially in the dark.
  • On a hot, sunny day the bitumen absorbs heat and radiates it back onto your poor wilting body. Try and run in the cooler parts of the day, seek out shaded routes and don’t forget to use sunscreen on all your runs to protect your skin. Always be prepared for it to be hotter than you anticipated and hydrate well, before and after all runs and during for longer runs.
  • Running on a variety of surfaces is better than sticking with one consistently but if you are training for an event then most of your running should be on the surface type that the event will be on.

If you experience pain whilst you are running then stop the activity immediately. If stopping makes all the pain stop then make sure you do your cool down but only if it does not cause any further pain. Treat any pain seriously by resting, supporting and using anti-inflammatory treatments where necessary. If you feel the pain was transient and not permanent, then be sure to gradually test out the area before returning to the same level of activity. If this is not possible as the pain is persistent or it is too painful then see a health professional as soon as possible. It is normal for you to get normal muscle soreness and tiredness as you increase load, but pain is never normal and should not be ignored.

So running on bitumen really all comes down to exercise load, a good pair of shoes and how slowly you increase your run distance.  Our bodies thrive on adapting to manageable loads, but our bodies do struggle to adapt and will fail if the load is excessive.

When it comes to injury, researchers currently believe no single surface is better than another. Bitumen running is an enjoyable, free and a great way to get and stay fit.

I guess the point is that the body is an all-terrain vehicle and is perfectly suited to running on all types of surfaces. Bitumen or trail?  Pick freely!