Feature Article - May/June 2003
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Tread Lightly

A complete guide to selecting the right sports surface

By Margaret Ahrweiler


On track
Lawrenceville High School in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Outside, running tracks have traveled light years from the days of cinder ash or asphalt and now generally feature synthetic vulcanized rubber made of granules bound with polyurethane, or extruded vulcanized rubber. Like indoor surfaces, both poured-in-place and sheet-good systems are available. Sheet goods, which cost more, are easier to install and repair but run the risk of water entrapment at the seams between the rolls. Cast-in-place track systems provide a greater range of textures and eliminate the seam issues but warrant a very demanding, complex installation, according to Johnston.

These methods include a structural spray system, the least expensive, where the top layer is sprayed, with the bottom layer placed with paving equipment on asphalt; a sandwich system, more durable, where the top and lower layers are poured one after the other; and a full polyurethane system, the most expensive and most durable, since the product is essentially one solid, cast piece.

With any outdoor synthetic, "water and urethane are mortal enemies," Johnston says, and keeping the track properly drained and free of debris is essential. Likewise, cars and trucks need to stay off the surfaces, since oil products cause synthetics to break down.

And while cold per se does not affect the surface, freeze/thaw cycles in cold climates can wreak havoc with poorly installed or drained systems. Outdoor tracks can last anywhere from seven to 16 years, depending on construction and maintenance, Mahoney says.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Many Web sites offer a wealth of information to improve your sports-surface learning curve.

The U. S. Tennis Court and Track Builders Association provides handy information on tennis surfaces, with brochures and guidelines for different styles and surface types. More information is available at www.ustctba.com.

The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) provides plenty of helpful information, including a list of certified products, at www.ipema.org.

The U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, www.cpsc.gov, publishes playground surface standards and other safety guidelines.

The Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association, www.maplefloor.org, provides a library of frequently asked questions, along with maintenance guidelines and other information.

FIFA, the International Soccer Federation, provides background information on synthetic turf and their standards and testing through the group's Quality Concept program. Visit www.fifa.com/qualityconcept.

Tennis surfaces, anyone?

Outdoors and in, tennis surfaces offer a wide range of choices, with dozens of different categories and subcategories for different levels and types of the sport that could fill their own magazine. In general, tennis courts are split into two categories. Traditional, soft-court exterior surfaces include clay and grass, along with artificial turf that emulates grass. Hard-court surfaces, which comprise about 70 percent of all courts in the Unites States, include concrete and asphalt overlaid with a color coating. This coating generally is composed of textured latex, rubber or other synthetic materials. In an increasingly popular option, courts may contain a resilient layer of cushioning 6 mm to 13 mm thick between the asphalt or concrete and color coating. Finally, interlocking polypropylene tiles and sheet goods are two other systems being used increasingly for tennis.

La Quinta Resort and Club in La Quinta, Calif.

The surface chosen depends on several factors, including the type of tennis is being played—a faster, athletic game or a slower, more strategic game—and the skill level of the players, among other things.

According to the U. S. Tennis Court and Track Builders Association, tennis surfaces can be fast or slow. This "pace" of the surface, and the ability of the ball to spin, depends on the size and quantity of sand or rubber particles mixed in with the color coating on hard courts. What's more, playing styles have a great impact on the type of surface players prefer. Athletic and competitive players, with strong serving skills, usually prefer a serve-and-volley type game and opt for a medium-fast to fast surface. Recreational or social players, on the other hand, look for longer rallies and a shot-placement emphasis. For this type of play, the USTCTBA recommends a medium to slow surface.

Geography matters when choosing a tennis surface too. In the Northeast and Midwest, planners need to take into account freeze/thaw cycles, along with heat and humidity in the summer. In the West, sun and heat can dry clay courts and bleach the color from hard courts. In the Southeast, algae or mildew can be issues. Wet climates need to consider drainage issues.

Surface choices can also affect injury rates, according to Cannon Johnston's Bob Johnston. He cites research by the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary showing that in tennis, the percentage of players with pain varies according to surface type, with surfaces providing a greater controlled horizontal slide creating fewer injuries. Clay surfaces ranked the lowest for injuries, according to Johnston, with synthetic/sand base and synthetic surfaces next.