Choose Wisely

Considerations for Indoor Sports & Recreation Surfaces


Sports and fitness facilities are amazing places. The most complete have something for every type of need, even as those types of sports and exercises keep growing in number and evolving from the traditional.

The organizations that operate health clubs, whether commercial or municipal, have a daunting task: to provide not just the space for all the activities, but also the equipment required. And while not every user uses all the equipment in a weight room, or ever swims in the pool, or sets foot in the Pilates room or the aerobics studio, every user uses the building's floors. No matter the indoor activity, the surface on which equipment rests and on which people walk, run, dance, jump, skip rope, stretch, squat and push up from is used by all who enter.

Other than the roof, the flooring can arguably be considered the most important furnishing in a fitness facility. It cushions human joints and dropped weights, provides traction, displays pleasing colors and logos, and lines for sports' rules and boundaries, mutes loud sounds, and delivers the proper bounce for balls. There is a best surface for every activity, and operators and managers work with the many options manufacturers provide to balance activity needs with their budgets.


No matter the surface, it needs cleaning, repairing and replacing, and the first two need to be done correctly to avoid early and frequent occasions of the third. In short, operators need to tread lightly when making indoor surface decisions.

And it's not just health clubs. Fieldhouses once were seen as college facilities, but have caught on at the high school level and below, said Courtney Spicer, director of regional sales for a synthetic surface company based in Lindenhurst, Ill. "In the last five to 10 years we're seeing a lot of the K-12 market that is building these fieldhouses to accommodate all the multipurpose sports like indoor soccer and baseball, basketball, volleyball, pickleball, tennis," Spicer said. "These facilities are more common than people would see 15 to 20 years ago.

"It's tailored to however they set their hierarchy of needs and wants for the facility," he added. "You could essentially say every one of these facilities is a custom-built facility. We might offer up a different surface if someone says tennis is a priority in this facility and volleyball is fourth or fifth versus someone who says volleyball is No. 1 and we're not going to play tennis at all."


Sadat Khan is the senior associate director of facility planning and operations for the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Recreation and Wellbeing Department. Among other buildings, Khan oversees a rec center with 30,000 square feet of fitness space, including eight courts, five studios and an Olympic-size pool.

Khan said he approaches all flooring decisions with lessons from past experience and research on suppliers.

"Just knowing industry standards and knowing where different contractors had installed products and their references, and having some experience with certain products, we know where we want to go from the beginning," Khan said.

Regardless of what the surface will be used for, the unseen bottom of the floor is as important as the visible top. How well balls bounce, impact is transferred and noise suppressed depends on what's going on below. Khan said his flooring is wood for courts and studios, tile for locker rooms and pool decks, rubber for strength areas, and a combination of carpet and rubber in cardio spaces.


He said it's most common in his business to use more padding—eight to 12 millimeters—in rooms with weight equipment. Cardio equipment gets six to eight millimeters. The thickness is crucial, but so is the material that everything touches, and slides over, and is dropped on, and cleaned repeatedly.

"That's working with architects and engineers as well as vendors," Khan said. "It needs to be something that's resilient, not something that's going to rip up in the first couple months. We see over 6,000 people a day, so we can't have the space go down every couple months because of wear and tear, so having a proven industry record is really important to us when it comes to rubber."

Or, as Jake Angrisano, a sales rep for a modular flooring manufacturer based in Utica, N.Y., put it: "Our customers are looking for a durable, affordable and low-maintenance option that is customizable to match their brand or preferred color."

Tile that fits together in pieces is a popular choice because of the ease with which tiles can be installed and replaced, said Angrisano. He said part of the future of fitness flooring is an appeal to customers wanting to DIY—do it yourself—to save money. Modular flooring lends itself to that, he said.


Prospective clients should know the dimensions of the space they are looking to cover, said Angrisano, as well as what type of application they will be using the tiles for. They also should understand the necessity of a suitable base for the tiles to lay over.

The most recent innovation by Angrisano's company is tile shaped like planks of wood and with a faux maple wood finish. For customers who want real maple, Steve Hayes, a regional sales manager for a Peshtigo, Wis.-based company that deals mainly in wood flooring, said advancements have been made in subflooring to accommodate the rise of the use of wood floors for many purposes.

Hayes said the increase in lumber costs—specifically for plywood—during the pandemic drove a new look at how subflooring could be made differently yet still continue to address heavy loading that occurs in gym spaces. Examples of heavy loading would be portable goals, bleachers and rolling lifts for maintenance needs. Additionally, many gym spaces are also used as venues for events that require portable stages, he said.

"It's never been more important than now, with athletes training year round, that the wood floor provides performance values to the athletes playing on them, while also being designed in a way to avoid damage when subjected to heavy loading," Hayes said. "Resilient materials used in wood subfloors and their benefit to athletes is where we feel the market can be significantly advanced. Specifically, vibration reduction has been identified as an area for improvement."


In 2020, Hayes' company launched a material to address vibration that meets the specific needs of floor loading and sport-specific requirements, all while reducing the stress on athletes' bodies. Hayes' advice for those seeking wood flooring is to know what exactly the space will be used for and, if the new floor will be a replacement, what type of subflooring is present. Hayes also said that once a wood floor is installed, operators should not clean wood floors with water-based products.

"In my opinion the single most important determining factor is what type of activities are planned in the space," said Hayes. "Once that element has been defined, we can walk through the process of how best to address the flooring needs within a space."

Mike Warren agrees, but from a different perspective. Warren is the director of the division of recreation and wellness at Purdue University and, like Khan in Wisconsin, has overseen plenty of construction and renovation projects in the fitness space. It's simple, said Warren: You can't choose flooring until you know what will happen on top of it.

"It depends on the primary focus of the space," said Warren. "Fitness determines the flooring. It's nice to have multifunctional flooring but it can also be 'multi-useless' flooring. The purpose of the space should determine the flooring. If you don't have the resources or the space, you have to do what makes you as multi-functional as possible. Otherwise, we try to stick to the main purpose for it."

Warren said one challenge in recent years has been to adapt to changing fitness trends that have to be adopted to attract new members while keeping the existing base engaged. He said operators should try to remain as flexible as possible with space design, subflooring and materials choices.


"Think future focus," said Warren. "What could this space be in 10 years?"

One of the spaces Purdue is renovating is a multipurpose room with a maple floor. Because the room's new purpose will employ some heavier weights, the next surface will be rolled rubber flooring with some newly engineered subfloor materials so the maple floor can be protected. "If we ever change the room again it's still there, but we're going to use the rolled rubber because it's softer, it's easier to clean, and it will be easier to get down on the floor to do some different exercises," said Warren.

Because so many of today's exercises are done not with equipment but with body weight, like calisthenics, clean floors are essential for health, as well as maintenance of the surface. Khan said in addition to ease of cleaning as an essential factor in choosing surfaces, having a schedule and staff trained to clean properly is important.

"There's always a concern with custodial efforts and particularly if you're using a central campus custodial team," he said. "Typically they're really good with labs and classrooms, but we're a completely different space and their training doesn't go along with the types of needs we have.

"If you see salt in a classroom, it really doesn't affect anything, but salt on a rubber floor in a gym—you're trying to do a pushup and your hands are in salt and dirt and hair. You have to be able to maintain them to a completely different standard. There's maintenance on every floor product we have every day, but it changes. One day it might be a scrub, another day might be just wiping it down, another it might be sweeping. It rotates quite a bit."


Spicer said the pandemic highlighted sanitation in fitness facilities, not only for the health of staff and users, but to keep and attract users for whom cleanliness became much more important a standard in their facility choice. Spicer said surface choice matters in the context of cleaning. "I think (the pandemic) actually opened a lot of eyes to the importance of ensuring you're putting the right surface in there," he said. "There's been a lot of effort that has gone into putting sanitation stations around the facilities and potentially upgrading their HVAC systems and disinfecting equipment more than once a day. So why would you stop there and put in an inexpensive floor that would potentially harbor bacteria? Everything ends up landing on the floor one way or the other; that's where everything falls."

Spicer used weight rooms as an example. The flooring has to be able to take the pounding of dropped weights and a high volume of human activity, but also have traction and be made of material that doesn't collect dirt and fluids. "You're looking for something that has a good coefficient of friction so it's slip-resistant," Spicer said. "You want something that can be cleaned because weight rooms are inherently petri dishes. We typically recommend a non-porous version so that sweat, bacteria, potentially blood, potentially vomit, doesn't end up in the floor and live on the floor. (The right surface) can also help prevent staph infection."


Cleaning-friendliness was one of the main factors in Khan's choosing a new carpet-rubber hybrid for cardio areas. He said architects he has a relationship with had used the hybrid in a different setting, and sent him a sample to test. It needed to be cleanable and scrubbable, but not rubber, said Khan. "It's a surface you can mop down, but it won't hold moisture like a carpet would," he said. "You can vacuum it, you can run a scrubber over it, you can mop it, and it's far more economical than putting down rubber. It comes in squares, so you can replace it easier."

Another surface that comes in squares is tile for locker rooms—areas that need to be aesthetically pleasing, slip-resistant and non-absorbent. Khan said where foot traffic is high, smaller tiles are used so there's more grout for better traction. Further from high-traffic areas, larger tiles will suffice. The same tile and format can be used for pool decks, said Khan.

"The downside of tile is a lot more maintenance and upkeep," said Warren. "We have carpet here in Purdue and when I got here I said, 'Why do we have carpet?' But it's far enough away from some of the showers where normal scheduled maintenance has kept it functional."

Spicer said although the weight rooms and cardio areas and pools get a lot of attention and use, the track is one of the most critical pieces of a facility. The surface has to have good shock absorption as well as energy return, and it has to be durable.

"I've always likened the track to a piece of exercise equipment," he said. "Every once in a while you find a piece of equipment that just sits in the corner and collects dust because people don't like it—they don't want to use it because it's not comfortable.


"The track is the same way. You can't look at it as flooring; it's a piece of equipment, because you'll have people wanting to run on the track if it's a good track versus people not wanting to if it's not comfortable."

Spicer said flooring may not be the sexiest aspect of fitness facility choices, but the importance of the right flooring choices can't be overestimated. It's not a great place to cut corners, he said. "I was talking with a client who was a former hockey player. I asked him, 'Have you ever played on soft ice?' He said, 'Yeah, it was awful.' I said, 'The surface impacted the game.'

"That's no different than if you're looking at a track or a tennis court or a gym floor. You have to put an emphasis on those areas. It's not just a floor covering. If it was, you'd just put down carpet tiles in the whole facility and call it a day. The reason you're doing it is because you're trying to get the right surfaces for the activities you're trying to participate in. We can do a step down, but what is that really saving you over the next 20 years, and are people going to want to use that facility for that $15,000 you're trying to save over the next 20 years?" RM