What's Under Foot?

Making Smart Sports & Fitness Flooring Choices

The choices you make when it comes to floor surfaces in recreational facilities are dependent on factors such as use, proximity to residential areas or offices, user health, flexibility of space usage, and climate.


Trends undoubtedly dictate what programs are offered and how space is allocated, and while surface companies and their clients agree that the move in recent years toward multipurpose areas has driven many decisions, specific-use surfaces are still very much a consideration.

Chad Johnson, national account manager of Northwest sales for a global surface manufacturer with U.S. headquarters in Pennsylvania, said one example, functional fitness, has changed the fitness industry and the flooring industry for the good, highlighting how many factors mesh in the process of selection of surfaces.

"The notion of 'functional' has placed a greater emphasis on the importance of learning lifting mechanisms with the proper techniques or 'mechanisms' of movement," said Johnson.

"Training regimens such as CrossFit, bootcamps, F45, Orange Theory, etc., have moved away from traditional 'bulky' pieces of equipment to a 'less is more' mentality. More workouts are taking place on the floor than ever before, and this switch has been quite encouraging as injury prevention has become such an important part of the exercise culture."

Fitness and recreation are constantly changing, keeping surface manufacturers and facility managers on their toes. Cross training, high impact interval training (HIIT), functional fitness, heavy weights, indoor rock climbing, dance and yoga classes—all can be addressed with either unique or general flooring.

"In order to stay relevant, it is important for companies to be able to grow and adapt to the current business environment," said John Gleason, general manager at a Utica, N.Y.-based surface manufacturer. "We cannot do the same things year after year and expect better results. We need to be able to identify trends and adapt our business model to meet the demands of our customers."


Even choices in one of the most stable spaces in recreation—the basketball/volleyball area—have changed in the 21st century. Tami Savage, international sales manager with a surface manufacturer in Salt Lake City, said options to replace traditional surfaces are designed to be flexible.

"Synthetic surfaces, specifically modular, have become more widely accepted as alternatives to expensive traditional hardwood floors," said Savage. "This greater acceptance has opened the possibilities for facilities to operate on a lower budget than they would have otherwise previously had."

Facility managers have many variables to weigh when changing flooring or overseeing choices for new construction. For activities, energy restitution and force reduction top the calculations, but where in the building the activities take place is an important factor as well.

If there are dwellings, either temporary or permanent, or offices adjacent to activity rooms, the sound of music or instructors or the clang and thump of free weights and exercise machines has to be muted. Acoustic characteristics of surfaces keep all building users happy, said David Sides, West Coast sales director for a flooring manufacturer in Lancaster, Pa.

"Behavioral health or finance departments don't want to hear the vibrations from the weights being dropped," Sides said. "We have to manage the energy created when the weights are dropped. A lot of these (facilities) can't build out because of real estate challenges, so they build up. How do acoustics play a role in these centers?"

Sides helped the University of Southern California (USC) with two projects, a new construction that doubled as a rec center and student housing and a refurbishing of a rec center. The acoustic consideration was a priority in the former, he said.


"Rec center open 'til midnight and kids upstairs trying to study and sleep," he said. "Mitigating vibration is a big concern."

The new building reflected two trends: the recruiting and retention power of recreational facilities on college campuses and the variety of fitness activities preferred by a younger generation. There's 30,000 feet of space for Olympic lifting, general fitness, cardio, sled and turf for pushing and sprints, Group X classroom, apparatuses for functional fitness activities, yoga, and dance. Safety of the users is a top priority, Sides said.

"Fitness is booming because it's becoming fun," he said. "With all that repetitive work comes injury. If they aren't doing the functions the right way, they're getting knee or back or hip injuries from doing the repetitive motions on the wrong surface. How much energy is that floor absorbing when you have a 200-pound athlete coming off a box? If they're doing that every day that's going to wear and tear on the body.

"We have to come up with surfaces that are going to help minimize the stress on the joints. It's going to allow them to train more often and longer."

The refurbishing project at USC had different challenges: moisture damaged flooring in fitness areas, surfaces that were hazardous in locker room and shower areas, and the conversion of part of a hardwood basketball court to a functional fitness space.

The latter work is becoming common as facilities either can't afford to build a new space, don't have the room to add, or simply want to re-purpose an underused space. Racquetball courts are targeted for such changes, for instance.


For the conversion, Sides' company used tiles designed for repetitive movement without adhesive, to protect the hardwood. Tiles with the school logo also replaced the moisture-damaged flooring in the weight and fitness rooms below. The safety flooring installed in the locker room is meant to not only reduce slips and falls but cushion any falls that do happen.

Sides said today's shifting fitness landscape is the reason all his company's performance flooring is six years old or less, designed to react to trends. Still, two factors are always balanced in fitness surfaces: energy restitution and force reduction.

Where exercise and weight machines dominate, surfaces with a lower force reduction is called for; where people do repetitive movements, in circuit training or functional fitness areas, higher force reduction and energy restitution are more important.

"People started out jumping on a floor and then wanted a softer floor," said Sides. "The density and thickness of the backing gives you the energy restitution and force reduction values."

Randy Randjelovic, technical advisor at a Wisconsin-based manufacturer, said what users don't see when they look at a fitness floor is crucial to the surface's performance and safety.

"Evaluating floor systems against athletic performance standards has resulted in a large variety of subfloor systems," he said. "Floors in the past 20 years have been designed with much greater flexibility than in the past. This has resulted in alterations to subfloor constructions that have been used for many years as well as completely new subfloor designs. Resilient pads used below athletic subfloors have seen significantly more designs and material options advancements."

Safety is also an issue with the material of rubber flooring, said Johnson. Recycled rubber surfaces were meant to lower cost but Johnson said his company's vulcanized rubber material prioritizes safety from both injury and illness.

Once rubber has been vulcanized with a heating process, it becomes sealed and is no longer porous or susceptible to bacterial and/or viral infestation.

"According to the EPA, benzene, mercury, styrene-butadiene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and arsenic, among several other chemicals, heavy metals and carcinogens, have been found in tires," said Johnson.


"Many recycled rubber flooring manufacturers often found in traditional gyms and health clubs source their rubber from tires, which is very concerning for gym owners and their members' safety. Studies have found that crumb rubber can emit gases that can be inhaled, which is also the 'gym' smell that you notice immediately as you walk into a 'typical' gym."

Johnson said that with more workouts now taking place on the ground instead of machines, there is a greater need for a clean and protective floor.

"When you are doing pushups and bringing your face within centimeters of the gym floor surface, how close do you really want to get?" he said. "What are you being exposed to if the gym floor is porous and filled with bacteria that is invisible to the naked eye? Protecting members from things like Staph and MRSA has become a top priority and more important than ever before."

From a facility manager's point of view, flooring needs to be safe, attractive, flexible, and maintenance friendly. Amber Long, executive director of wellness and recreation services at the Lola & Rob Salazar Student Wellness Center on the campus of the University of Colorado-Denver, said the most important lesson she's learned about surfaces is to customize them to users and uses.

"It is important to understand that different types of surfaces are available for different types of activities," she said. "Make sure to understand what your population wants to primarily use the space for, but also look for that space to change over time. The floor must be able to withstand different configurations and uses."

Long's facility is 85,000 square feet she said, and is "part fitness/rec center, part events center, part community center, part study hall."

"We want a surface that can accommodate different types of sporting or fitness activities as well as special events, where people might wear high heels or have food," she said. "The need to evolve and remain versatile is at an all-time high."


Long said the center also needs surfaces that help maximize its square footage through the differences in appearance and feel, meaning the surfaces drive behavior, such as where weight lifting takes place, or where folks use fitness equipment.

"Our facility has lots of lounge space, and specific areas for wellness," said Long. "We need to be able to distinguish the areas where dynamic and loud activity takes place and the areas where quiet activity takes place."

Finally, the surfaces must be easy to clean.

"Cleaning sports surfaces is always challenging," she said. "Some surfaces look dirty again moments after scrubbing. We look for surfaces that maintain the aesthetic of our facility and allow us to perform deep cleaning and disinfecting on a regular basis."

Bill Callender, associate director of recreation services for Oregon State University, also stresses maintenance and cleanliness when discussing surfaces. Among the three facilities he oversees that use sports surfacing are tennis courts, a gym, a fieldhouse, indoor and outdoor synthetic turf, indoor and outdoor tracks, cardio equipment rooms, spaces for high impact interval training and functional fitness and cycling, and multipurpose rooms.

Callender keeps all his surfacing needs under control with what he calls the Total Cost of Ownership.

"Once you have identified the obvious components of activity appropriateness and safety, the concept of Total Cost of Ownership should be the driving force," he said. "This is when you consider the direct cost and indirect costs that occur over the life of the material.

"It appears most effort is put into selecting the appropriate product for the space but not as much understanding or support is directed to the day-to-day operations, cleaning and maintenance of the surface. The organization needs to have appropriate staff, equipment, training and finances for support. A renewal and replacement plan is also crucial in helping reinforce how assets are depreciating and when we need to maintain and fund appropriately."

Callender said there are a few keys to surfacing success in roles such as his. Networking through organizations like the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association tops the list, he said, because it can create access and straighten the learning curve. He also said managers need to clearly define and understand the space use, and engage stakeholders and have clearly defined roles of how they are involved in the process.

"The most overlooked stakeholders are typically the custodial or building services team that maintain the spaces," said Callender. RM