Hedge Your Bets: Switch up Those Running Surfaces!

I like to hedge snowy road runs like this with treadmill and trail runs.

I don’t know about you, but it’s been crazy cold and snowing like the dickens where I live this week. I don’t much mind it as I’m currently banished to the basement treadmill during the week with the whole new babyย thing. ย I remember minding it quite a bit the year I trained for a spring marathon. At that time, while I was able to do tempos and fartleks on the treadmills at the gym a floor below my office, I didn’t have the luxury of a homeย treadmill and had to do all my long runs outside. Sure enough it seemed like every weekend was blizzardy, complete with sub-zero wind chills. After lots of cursing on the treadmill and slipping and sliding on the hard cambered roads, I made it through training, but suffered through several minor injuries that could have been prevented if I did one simple thing:

Switch up those running surfaces!

It started after a few too many snowy runs in a row with a flare-up of IT band syndrome, an injury that nagged me often in the early days of my running career. After that I strained my popliteus muscle, a little muscle at the tippy-top of the calf behind the knee. And then there was the dawn of the strained piriformis era, which I am still living in to this day. Although I switched between the treadmill and outside running, my mood or convenience dictated what surface I ran on rather than any kind of systematic plan. This is not an optimal way to decide what surface to run on.

Too many runs on the same exact surface works the same muscles over and over and increases the likelihood you will experience an overuse injury. Conversely, going from running on dry roads all the time to many runs in a row on a treadmill or in the snow will overload muscles not used to working hard and increase the likelihood you’ll strain one of them (hello, popliteus!) Plus, having a running surface switch-up plan in advance will protect against being stuck running on a surface we’re not used to. For instance, if you don’t have a plan and do all your training on dry roads, as soon as it snows you’ll be forced to do all your running on unfamiliar surfaces, snowy roads, treadmills, etc.

The best thing to do is to develop a plan to systematically switch up your running surfacea so you can work all your muscles without unduly straining any particular one. Systematically switching up your winter running surface is like hedging the snowy roads against the treadmill!

Here are some tips for creating a surface switch-up plan for your winter training:

Inventory the Available Surfaces

First, list the surfaces readily available to you. Do you have a home treadmill, a gym treadmill, an indoor track, trails, snowy roads, cleared roads, etc.? List ALL surfaces available. If you have two treadmills you can run on, list them both. I sometimes head to the gym and run on treadmills there, so my basement treadmill and the gym treadmill would be separate surfaces. Same with indoor tracks.

Inventory the Types of Runs in Your Plan

Next, we need to know what kind of running we’ll be doing to best make our plan. Will you be doing distance or timed based intervals? Tempos? Hill repeats? Long runs? Obviously, some of these workouts work with some surfaces better than others. For instance, I highly recommend against doing speed work on snowy or slippery surfaces. When we run at higher intensities we don’t pay as much attention to what we’re running on as usual and we are also working our muscles much harder and are even more likely to strain one of those little ancillary muscles that are only worked on slippery surfaces.

Watch the Weather

If you live in a snowy climate like I do, you will most likely have to run in the snow or slush at some point. Some days you should actually aim to run in the snow and others aim to avoid it, so knowing the weather will help.

Plan your Week

Taking a week to week approach for switching up your surfaces will allow you to use the weather to optimize your plan. After you check the weather you can then assign each days run to one of your available surfaces. Over the course of a training cycle, it would be optimal to assign different surfaces to the same type of run: e.g. do week 1’s tempo on the gym treadmill and week 2’s tempos on the roads and week 3’s tempos on the home treadmill, etc. Here’s an example of what I would do with my available surfaces: home treadmill, gym treadmill, trails and roads.


Week 1 Week 2
Mon: easy run on gym treadmill Mon: easy run on snowy roads
Tue: fartlek on dry roads Tue: intervals on home treadmill
Wed: easy run on home treadmill Wed: easy run on snowy roads
Thu: tempo on dry roads Thu: tempo on gym treadmill
Fri: easy run on home treadmill Fri: easy run on snowy roads
Sat: medium run on snowy trails Sat: medium run on home treadmill
Sun: long run on gym treadmill Sun: long run on snowy trails


I wrote this with the following forecasts in mind. Week 1: Cold and dry until snow on Saturday. Week 2: Lots of snow accumulating and sticking around all week.

In week 2, the snowy week, I switched up the surfaces for every type of run and was careful not to do two snowy runs in a row. If at all possible avoid snowy or slippery surfaces when doing hard runs like intervals or tempos. Also try to avoid doing two runs in a row on the same surface or two types of runs in back-to-back weeks on the same surface. Obviously, it’s not always possible to choose your surface, but if you can, it is always best to switch it up!


What surfaces do you have available to you? Do you switch them up using a plan?

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Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I have many surfaces available to me. Sidewalk, street, valley path, trail, and treadmill. I will run on all of the above except the treadmill. I cannot stand the dreadmill. I despise it. Yes, I am one of those “crazy” runner types that will go outside in below zero wind chills. I did twice this week already. And, I survived! I dressed appropriately, layered, covered my face, etc., and ended up getting two good runs in. I have some hill work on the docket today, so I will most likely drive to the valley, run on the path, and do some repeats in the street where there is a good size hill.

    1. I love being a crazy blizzard runner and I also love the treadmill. I find that if I’m running outside a lot that the treadmill starts seeming really unpleasant, but if I keep it part of my mix I really enjoy it. I think it’s an acquired taste ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I try to switch up the surface between road, dirt and trails as much as possible. I definitely agree that it makes you a much stronger runner when you have to adapt to different surfaces

  3. Great advice! I think it’s important to switch it up because you never know where you may have to run, like if you’re on vacation, on lunch hour, etc. It also gives the legs some variety!

  4. Great post! I am a treadmill-only-as-last-resort runner (it’s hot and I’m slightly afraid of falling off), but one surface I’d add to your list is the indoor track. In fact, I think it’s time for me to re-join the gym so I have a backup plan and can hit the track on snowy days!

  5. You’re a brave girl, Salty, I am just happy that I can run at home on my treadmill. I am to scared to walk in public due to safety issues. However, I have learn’t to do some interval training, by increasing the treadmill speed at appropriate times. Aren’t I a clever girl? Does that count as an extra running surface?
    Thanks for helping to keep us all fit and well