Choices in Indoor Sports Surfaces

By Sue Marquette Poremba


efore opening the Smoky Mountain Sports Complex in Elizabethton, Tenn., owner Fred Gause recognized the need for a large-scale, professionally equipped and operated basketball facility in the region.

Gause inspected other facilities before making his decision. He knew he wasn't looking for a wood floor, so he headed to Greenville, Tenn., to see a recreation center there. "[The floor there has] been in existence for nine years and looks like it was put in yesterday," he said.

When choosing a surface for indoor sports and recreation, the experts are united in one piece of advice: Choose the surface that best fits your needs.

That's what Angel Devarez from Saint Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., discovered. When the college was building a second gym, Devarez considered how the facility would be used when making his decision on the type of flooring to be used.

"The floor would be used for other events, not just athletics," Devarez explained. "We'll use it for volleyball, but we'll also use it for commencement. We considered a wooden floor, but that was out of the question because it was too difficult to use for the parties we'd be holding there."

The floor he chose was picked because it not only would be durable enough for all kinds of activities and street shoes, but also because care of the floor was simple. "We use soapy water to mop it," Devarez said.

The school's main gym is a wooden floor that is only used for basketball games, and that was taken into consideration when the school built the second gym. The new floor's main purpose is as a gym floor. "Itís used for basketball practices, volleyball and student sports activities," Devarez said.

The floor, he added, actually looks more like a ceramic tile floor than a gym floor, but it is actually a resilient vinyl synthetic surface. It was installed five years ago, and despite the variety of activities and the frequent use, Devarez has been pleased with the way the floor has held up.


"The different surfaces available for indoor facilities are numerous," said Robin Traum, a spokesperson for a flooring company. "For every type of activity, you can find one or more specialized flooring solutions on the market."

There are a number of different synthetic options, for example, and even wood flooring requires a choice. Maple flooring is probably the most widely specified wood floor for sports use, but there are other wood floor products available.

The biggest difficulty in choosing a floor, however, comes from the fact that it is rarely used for just one purpose, as Devarez has seen.

"Locker rooms may be the exception to that rule," Traum said, "but even equipping them means considering a wide array of flooring types: resilient sheet vinyl, rubber, plastic and inter-locking tile, poured epoxy, concrete, ceramic, marble and slate tile, and carpeting. You need to compare their characteristics in terms of safety for secure walking and prevention of bacteria growth, cost, upkeep, comfort, appearance and longevity."

Traum suggested using the following points to help determine which type of surface is best for your facility:

  • Planned activities
  • Expected frequency and duration of the programs
  • Age and skill level of participating members
  • Necessary equipment or accessories
  • Durability and maintenance expectations

"The best plan involves writing down all your expectations and then seriously considering whether the list is realistic," Traum said. "Then you must prioritize in terms of time or importance to your center. The programming that winds up with the most scheduling frequency and receiving the highest number of hours determines what type of flooring you should research."

In addition to multiple uses for a single surface, most sports facilities are multi-functional in that there are different rooms for different types of activities. While an elementary school may want to resurface the floor of a room that is used for physical education classes, school assemblies and community activities, the local YMCA will be looking at flooring for a basketball court, a weight room, an aerobics room and maybe a pool deck.

"The exact same type of floor will not work in every room in a fitness facility, but similar surfaces can be used," Traum said. "Group exercise or aerobics rooms with members sitting or stretching draw more participants if they feel the floor's cushioning and shock absorption. That same amount of thickness is not necessary for weight rooms or cycling studios. They need floors that can bear the weight of heavy equipment. Locker rooms require floors that can be walked on barefoot and minimize the chance of slipping. Even though the thickness of these floors and some of their characteristics can vary, their surface layer can be the same material. The floors can look different with wood grains, single sheets, textures, tiles and different solid colors, patterns and the addition of game lines and logos."

One type of surface that has gone out of style, however, is carpeting. While it allows for multiple functions, it is difficult to keep clean and doesn't lend itself to good athletic performance. The fabric of the carpet doesn't allow for easy movements. Students in a kickboxing class, for example, may try to pivot on a kick move, only to find that their sneakers stick and their ankles twist.

Synthetic rubber products, on the other hand, are becoming increasing popular, said Tom Mitchell, spokesman for a manufacturer of floor systems.

"There are two kinds," he said. "There are the traditional sheet goods or roll goods that are made totally in a factory, shipped to the site and glued down. The other type is a seamless floor, which is assembled on-site. The ingredients are shipped to the job site and the crew assembles them."

The biggest difference between the two types of floors is the seams, or lack thereof. Seamless floors have a nice aesthetic quality and avoid the problem of the seams separating or dirt getting between the seams.


Budget considerations also can play a large role in the decision-making. Wood flooring may be ideal for a gym floor meant only for basketball, but wood flooring can be expensive.

"Choosing between a wood and synthetic floor is often a budget issue," says Daniel Heney of the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association (MFMA). "Some non-wood materials are less expensive, but in the long run maple flooring can be a less expensive product than most people think."

Mitchell agreed that wood is a pricier option. "When you ask what the difference is between the wood and synthetic floors, there is an economical advantage," he said. "Someone might want a wood floor, but the budget isn't quite strong enough for it."

There are times when a wood floor should be the first consideration, however. Wood floors follow performance standards, depending on the sports they will be used for, and these performance standards are important. You want good shock absorption, good vertical deflection, and good ball bounce on a floor that will be used for multiple sports, as most gym floors are. However, if the use is for basketball only, you'd want something that has excellent shock absorption and excellent ball bounce. For a volleyball floor, on the other hand, you will want good area and vertical deflection, but you don't really care as much about ball bounce.

"There are subtle differences in the types of flooring that would be used for things like a basketball court, a racquetball court or a dance studio," Heney explains. "It all comes down to what is important for what activity. There are not too many cases where a floor is designed strictly for one particular sport. Basketball and volleyball share the wood floor, for example."

Aesthetics are another consideration in using a wood surface. "There are three different grades of maple," Heney said. "Performance-wise, the different grades are about the same. The main difference is in the look of the wood."

A facility on a tight budget, then, might want to consider the lower grade and less expensive wood. Another option is to picture frame the floor, with, for example, a grade-one athletic surface with grade-three sidelines.

"The results can be stunning," Heney said.

Installing a wood floor usually takes several weeks. "The gym floor guys are the last ones in, and they are always under the crunch to get the floor down," Heney said. The floor installers first sand the floor, lay it out and then wait for it to acclimatize, which takes about a week. During that time, the installers will lay the subfloor. "The maple then gets installed over two to three days and sanding takes another couple of days." When the flooring is down, the finishing is applied. "Water-based is a quicker drying finish than oil-based, but you are still looking at a week until the floor is ready for use."


So how do you make your decision between wood and synthetic surfaces?

"If it is a space relegated just for sneaker functions and you have a strong budget, you'd probably want to go with wood," Mitchell said. But any time you are thinking of multiple uses for the floor, that it is the time to strongly consider synthetic. "You don't need to be as finicky with a synthetic all-purpose floor. The beauty with a synthetic is that you don't have to be as careful with it as you would a wood floor."

For the up-and-down sports like basketball, you want a floor that is easy on the knees, and you want a floor that won't leave you sore after a workout.

"For a gym floor, good cushioning and a good slide factor are essential, while for a weight room, you want something that can take a lot of punishment," Mitchell said.

"A weight area needs a more solid product that is stronger than other floors."

The cushioning of a wood floor is done with rubber pads. Every 16 inches along the width of the gym you have sleepers, which are rubber strips with little pads fashioned to the bottom. This gives the floor some flexibility because the pads give it a cushioning. With synthetic flooring, the cushioning is built right in. A prefabricated rubber mat is glued directly to the original floor base.

Cushioning is most important in a dance or aerobic area, where the flooring takes on different types of considerations than elsewhere in a sports facility.

"For a dance floor, shock absorption is the most important aspect," Heney said. "These floors need to be softer and have more resiliency. Sometimes the difference between them is simply the rubber pad used, with softer pads used in dance situations."

When setting up a dance floor, Traum added, the facility's owner needs to decide between a wood floor—and then choose between a hardwood or a softwood—or a resilient vinyl floor. "Another decision is the purchase of either a permanent or temporary installation," she said. "Each type of flooring offers different features, which must be weighed in terms of what the actual use of the room will be. Just remember to analyze all the variables because a floor that is inexpensive to purchase can wind up being costly in the long run, if it is not adapted to the types of activities taking place."


Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum is the flooring used in the weight room or in rooms with cardio-fitness machines. Instead of providing a good bounce for a basketball, these floors need to withstand 200-pound free weights being dropped repeatedly.

This is why, when Leigh LaFargue was charged with replacing the floors for the Baton Rouge Recreation Centers—Webb Park and North Sherwood Forest Fitness Centers—she turned to a rubber flooring manufacturer for the weight and cardio areas. She had to cover 2,200 square feet of space.

The flooring is black rubber, 0.375 inches thick. LaFargue said she chose this type of sports flooring because it was the most economical and because the floor stands up well to heavy equipment.

"We have a lot of people who lift weights in these centers, and this floor doesn't leave indentations," she said. "Even when you have something on the floor for a long period of time, the floor just pops back into place. It's also easy to clean."

She knows the value of a good quality floor, too, having had to deal with floors in the past that ripped easily or left marks from the equipment.

"The thickness and the bounce of these floors provide support for standing," she said. "It's more appropriate than having a wood floor or a carpeted floor. After all, people tend to drop weights, and this floor has a good bounce for that."

LaFargue added that the ease of cleaning the surface is a plus, as well. "We're a public parks department, and we serve a lot of people in our facilities and see all types of behavior." The surface's resistance to dirt and overall low-maintenance is a definite plus in that environment.

Similar material can be used around indoor pool decks, as well. Rubber pool decking is ideal for use in water play applications as it provides a permeable, porous, non-slip surface that is functional as an application that provides cushion-like comfort to walk on, while providing an unconventional pallet of color combination possibilities.


Renewable is becoming a buzz word in every facet of life these days, and it is no different when it comes to recreational facilities. The trend is toward "green" buildings, and that includes the type of flooring used.

"The sustainable characteristics of sports and multipurpose flooring start with the production process and its efficiency in reducing the use of natural resources and energy," Traum said. "Floors that do not add to the waste stream and contain recycled material draw an increasing amount of interest."

How the floor is installed is also important when focusing on sustainability. Facility managers may want to consider using low-VOC paints for any logos or markings put on the floor. Floor treatments used should emit less toxic fumes, as well.

Recycled rubber products have become a popular green flooring. These floors are most popular in weight and fitness areas, where strength and durability are crucial.

The floor itself isn't the only consideration when greening your facility. Consider your heating and cooling systems as well. Wood floors may need more specific HVAC controls than a synthetic floor. If temperature and humidity settings are not consistent enough, the floor can buckle or warp or the planks might separate.

"Resilient vinyl floors allow for systems that can be shut off or placed at lowered settings when the facility isn't in use," Traum explained, "and that can save money on energy costs."


When deciding on the type of flooring you want, you must also think about its durability and maintenance issues, Traum said.

"How many of the lower-ranked activities could be added without risking damage to the floor or requiring the additional purchase of a floor cover? How extensive are the maintenance requirements? Can the floor be kept in optimal condition without time-consuming procedures?" are some of the questions Traum said an owner should ask before making the final decision.

"Proper maintenance is essential for great-looking floors and retaining their original traction, shock absorption, ball bounce accuracy and other characteristics," Heney said, adding that wood flooring simply needs a daily sweeping, an annual recoating and every seven to 10 years depending on the use of the floor, a total resurfacing to keep it good as new. Depending on the type of synthetic floor, most of them can be cared for with regular sweeping and mopping.

If you are still unsure about which flooring type to choose, Heney suggested that the best thing to do is talk to the different manufacturers and the MFMA to get definitive answers to your questions. "We can answer questions on whether the concrete is dry enough to put down a floor or other issues with the installation," he said. "We're a resource for the end user and the architect to seek assistance or bounce ideas off of."

"No simple answer exists for the right type of indoor sports flooring," Traum said. "Each space is unique and knowing the planned uses, researching the different types of flooring and visiting similar facilities provides the best guide for making the right choice."

Mitchell agreed. "The scope of the activities needs to be the main determinant, so you get a floor that fits your needs, not just a floor you can afford."

But for Angel Devarez, the bottom line on his decision on his flooring is much more simple. "This floor does its job," he said. "It's comfortable. It's easy to maintain. And I would use it again for another facility floor."

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