Grass. There appears to be not a more-forgiving training surface than running on a field of grass.
If this is true, than why have I stubbornly stayed on polyurethane or asphalt tracks for the longest time? I'm not certain, save for the fact that most grassy fields are used for other sporting purposes, and I'm (really) not into conflict. Soccer coaches are often very protective of their space; the coach of the women's team at the university where we trained for several years became so used to our presence - and the fact we stayed out of their way or shagged the occasional errant kick - we'd greet each other on Tuesday and Thursday evenings during season. I'd tell my folks to swing wide of their bench area on repeats and trot their recovery jogs on the back side of the goalposts.
At the beginning of the summer I saw a sign which gave me hope...of a sort. The university was closing the track until the beginning of August, in the hopes of resurfacing. I moved our Saturday workouts to an asphalt track located at a middle school just up the road from my home. Eight weeks, to me, was a short enough time to suffer through training on harder surfaces; adjust the effort levels accordingly and make certain nobody's wearing old shoes.
During the last week of July, Gil (the father of one of my younger athletes) mentions the track has been finished. I asked him how it looked. "Well," he said, "Alex took a couple of laps on it but couldn't really tell much; he's been a little beat from racing." I took a drive after the workout ended to look at the surface myself. To my horror I found the track was not resurfaced but merely recoated. We're talking the same type of coating companies use to re-do parking lots. I reached down to try and press the surface, which did not budge a bit. Thumping it with the knuckle of my index finger found it completely unyielding. In essence, the track is now asphalt with a polyurethane core. The "Tootsie Pop" of running tracks.
In the past ten years I've seen three tracks either torn up and redone in this way, or torn up and redone as narrow jogging loops...sure, you can use a jogging loop for speed work, but it just seems to violate the laws of god, man and nature. Why do schools take out perfectly-decent, well-worn but almost serviceable all-weather tracks and replace them with (unprintable) asphalt surfaces? And, to add insult to injury, these tracks end up fenced-off from the public? Tax dollars pay for this travesty, and the schools feel justified in locking the financial supporters out from the opportunity to at least TRY and use the surface? If your town doesn't have jogging paths or sidewalks, the motor vehicle operators can be complete jerks about using the shoulders of public roads (which, YES, are also paid for by the taxes of people who bicycle and jog on them)...what else is a runner to do?
Schools feel justified on many occasions to close off their tracks because the average exercise enthusiast FAILS TO READ THE GUIDELINES posted at the track. Most of the time the (common-sense) guidelines are posted for safety and courtesy reasons. Occasionally, especially when the track surface is all-weather, the guidance is intended to even the wear-and-tear on the surface.
Skates, skateboards, strollers, bicycles - most, if not all tracks, prohibit the use of these implements for a number of good reasons: First, they're often being operated by persons who lack situational awareness skills, and are being operated at speeds which are dangerous when placed in the context of confined areas. If you're a stock car racing aficionado, putting a couple of five-year-olds on bikes, skateboards or skates on a 400-meter track is the equivalent of a race at Bristol, Tennessee; the driver who wins is the one who avoids the most accidents. Strollers are the other end of the speed continuum, but the situational awareness deficit remains. Top that off with the fact the stroller users often occupy the inside lane of the track. Which leads me to...
Inside lanes for faster running, outside lanes for walking - using the inner-most three-to-four lanes for speed workouts and racing, with the outer lanes for easier running or walking has, what I believe, two good reasons. First, walkers and slower runners place greater pressure on a broader swath of the track surface, whereas faster runners contact the track with a smaller "footprint" and a longer distance between "footprints." If you're getting passed by more runners than you pass it might be a good idea to move a lane farther out than you're running. And if you're in between repeats, or laps, or miles, please don't stand and stretch on the inside lanes of the track, Especially if others are really hammering repeats. And if you hear the cry "track!" Look to the direction of where the runners are approaching, and get out of the way.
There are many persons (especially slower runners, walkers, and stroller users) who say "but I don't want to do more distance per lap of the track," and consider it as a justification to stay in the way of faster runners. If I rightly recall, the difference between lane 1 and lane 4 on a 400-meter track is pretty much the difference between a 400-meter track and a 440-yard track; four laps of a 400-meter track is 1,600 meters, about 31.06856 feet shy of a mile. Four laps of a 440-yard track is a mile.
Spike lengths - most PU track surfaces have a maximum spike depth of (I believe) 1/4-inch. How many times have I seen soccer players traveling across the track surface in their boots ("shoes" would be the American term) onto the pitch. On tp of this, driving their golf carts (refer back to the ground force reaction/"footprint" stuff when I was talking about inside/outside lanes), setting up their benches and Schwinn Air-Dyne stationary bikes on the track.
So when schools start to complain about the damage to their facilities from the general public, often they fail to see that what passes for convenience for one program can place irreparable damage or harm to another. And sometimes the only real victim of the conflict is the people who are eventually tapped to foot the bill for something they cannot enjoy.
So if you see a person engaging in an activity which violates basic track etiquette, let them know that it's not only a violation of common courtesy but could eventually lead to damage to your local track facility. Explain to them why their actions could place the entire running community in a world of hurt.
That is, unless you like running on the shoulder of the road.