Select Your Surface

Sports & Fitness Flooring Fundamentals for Your Facility

By Rick Dandes

When setting up a new fitness facility, or renovating an existing space, it's crucial that you select the most suitable flooring for your sports and fitness purposes. After all, your clients' health and safety will be greatly affected by the surface on which they perform. But choosing the right flooring system for your athletics facility can sometimes feel like a daunting task.

There are many things to consider when making flooring selections for different sports and fitness applications. "The first thing to do," said John Gleason, marketing manager of a Utica, N.Y., sports flooring manufacturer, "is to clearly identify what fitness applications, as well as non-fitness applications the room is going to be used for. There are many surfaces available that will be suitable for multiple applications, but you want to be sure that the surface you choose will be conducive for all of the applications."

The flooring industry is changing. "Now, we're really trying to think about the users," said Bo Barker, vice president of sales of an athletic flooring manufacturer in Lancaster, Pa. "When you start to think about a fitness application, you really have to think about what people are doing in the space. Then choose the flooring that is appropriate for the people who are going to be using that space."

Once you know what fitness applications the area is going to be used for, you can identify which surfaces are suitable by reviewing industry publications and articles.

"This will likely provide you with a broad list that must now be narrowed down by the budget you have in place to fund your investment," Gleason said. "Once you know which products are within your budget, there are also many other things to consider. One thing to think about is if you are purchasing the surface to be installed permanently in a facility that you own or if it is going to be installed in a rented space. If you are in a rented space, you may want to consider flooring options that will be portable."

A portable surface will give you the flexibility to take the surface with you should you ever have to move and not have to leave your investment in your previous facility, Gleason explained.

Some permanently installed surfaces have specific temperature and humidity conditions that must be maintained, so you must ensure that your facility's HVAC system can accommodate those requirements. You must also be mindful of the maintenance requirements of the surface that you choose so that you can be sure to account for that in your annual budget to keep your surface performing the way it was intended.

In gyms, Gleason said, "you will also want to be aware of the equipment used and the impact that will have on the surface. The weight load of portable basketball goals and bleachers can be something that influences what surface you can ultimately choose. You will want to carefully examine the surface warranties and make sure that your facility will be able to comply with those requirements."

There are many surfaces available that will be suitable for multiple applications, but you want to be sure that the surface you choose will be conducive for all of the applications.

Once you find the type of surface that is most suitable for the applications and environment, you should make sure to choose a qualified installer. Manufacturers of quality sports surfacing should be able to provide you with a way for your surface to be installed professionally to ensure that it will comply with any warranty requirements.

The big thing to realize, Gleason said, "is that the surface you choose for your facility can leave a lasting impact on the people who use it. You want to make sure that the surface you choose will provide your clients with the best possible experience that will bring them back to your facility. You don't necessarily have to pay for the highest-grade surface to achieve this, but you do need to make sure that the expectations of those people who use your facility are met and they are not left disappointed with your choice of surface."

Tami Savage, international sales manager for a Salt Lake City-based manufacturer and supplier of modular sports flooring, said, "To help the customer select the best solution for their gym or fitness area we ask several questions to narrow down the best options for them to consider, such as:

  • What are the primary sports the gym will be used for?
  • What non-sport activities will take place on the court?
  • If the project is to retrofit an existing area, what is currently in place, and what is the condition of this floor?
  • Will the surfacing be installed permanently, semi-permanently or on a temporary basis as needed?
  • What level of performance does the facility need? Will they host championship tournaments? Do they need a product that has a lot of cushion and shock absorption? Or are they simply looking for an entry-level surface option?

Options in Fitness Spaces

A fitness room is such a broad term, noted William Thornton, North American technical manager for a sports flooring company in Calhoun, Ga. "You really have to look at the activities in the space. Are users going to be doing free weights? And if so, what kind of free weights? Are they using treadmills, stair steps? Fixed or portable equipment? Is the space going to be dedicated to a purpose, or are they also going to expand that space and use it for aerobics?"

When you talk about flooring in exercise spaces or fitness areas, explained Steve Hayes, sales manager for a Peshtigo, Wis.-based flooring manufacturer, "you really have several options. You have a synthetic option, which could be recycled rubber, urethane or prefabricated rubber. There are a lot of different products that comprise the group of synthetics. Vinyl is used more on the courts than it would be in a fitness space. The marketplace is trending toward rubber as the product in areas that contain weight equipment—either recycled or virgin rubber. I'm not seeing a whole lot of urethane flooring in weight rooms."

On the other side of the fitness spectrum, Hayes said, you'd have a space for aerobics, yoga and spin. Studios usually have a wood floor. "They might have an individual mat that they utilize for a yoga class. What manufacturers can do with a wood floor in a fitness studio is make it with high levels of shock absorption and resiliency. That's not to say we don't do that when involved in a court activity area. It's just that we look at different performance levels we want to achieve in a fitness studio versus in a court space."

Meanwhile, Thornton said, from time to time you also run into one big room where you have weights in one area and another area for floor exercise. "In that situation, you want a floor made of synthetics. The two biggest things you would use would be either cushioned vinyl or some type or rubber. Rubber is good for longevity, appearance and maintenance. In today's design, everybody loves the wood look, like maple or oak, and you can get that look with vinyl. Rubber tends to be more expensive, but it just depends upon the type of rubber you are looking for."

There are two different types of rubber flooring, he said. Rubber that has a high amount of recycled content and then vulcanized rubber, where the surface is more solid in color. Both are popular options.

Years ago, Thornton said, you'd see a lot of more black rubber flooring in fitness spaces and recreational facilities. But in today's world the science of rubber surfaces has grown by leaps and bounds. "There was a time, 10 or 20 years ago, when recycled rubber did not have a lot of color content without being overly expensive, but there are new processes today where you can have a lot of color and it's not breaking your bank. We're seeing more and more color in the recycled rubber market. Which is fun. It's a lot more fun to design when you have more color options."

Vulcanized rubber surfaces are easy to maintain and last a long time, Thornton explained. There are good color options, but they are more limited than recycled rubbers because recycled rubbers are using colored chips and you can mix and match custom colors. "What you can do with recycled rubbers," he explained, "is increase the thickness of the surface and gain quite a bit in cushion. Traditionally, vulcanized rubber tiles are pretty hard, extremely durable and about 10.5 millimeters thick. Recycled rubbers will start at about 8 millimeters in thickness, but then you can go all the way up to 22 millimeters in thickness.

"What does this all mean to the customer?" Thornton asked. "As you gain thickness you are gaining performance enhancements. Not only do you increase in cushion (and cushion equates to comfort), but also as you get that thick surface it can take quite a bit of abuse, from big weights, for example. We see this surface in university and pro athlete weight rooms with big barbells. Those thick recycled rubbers can be used for indoor walking tracks as well."

Functional and Group Fitness

"When we do a fitness studio," Hayes said, "we suggest focusing on shock absorption. As a facility you want that floor to flex because we want the end user to have an enjoyable experience, where they are not beating their body up because the floor is hard."

As for material in that environment, you might opt for some kind of vinyl product with a polyurethane wear layer, which is easy to clean, and does not need aggressive maintenance, suggested Bo Barker. "These surfaces are also non-porous, and tend to be easy to clean up and keep clean. What happens in group fitness is we are moving to a lot more women as participants, and they want a clean environment. They want to feel like they can interact with the floor and not feel like they are picking up all the germs and sweat from whomever was there the session before.


"We've moved away from that Gold Gym's image of a bunch of guys lifting weights," Barker continued, "but even so, we're having to create floors that are still very durable, very robust and handle all the challenges of a fitness or strength environment."

Cushioned vinyls are a good option in fitness spaces, Thornton noted, "because they are the easiest to maintain. You can have a wood grain look and several color options with vinyls. There are backing systems that are now used, where you get more force reduction per millimeter of thickness with a cushioned vinyl than you do with any other synthetics."

Thornton also noted that there are blended surfaces gaining in popularity. "This is an option in a fitness room where you might have specific activities in one part of the fitness area and other activities going on in another section of the fitness area. You can blend the two, having both rubbers and vinyls, where weight equipment would be on the rubber side and aerobics would be on the vinyl side."

Court Sense

With indoor court applications, you still want to know what people are going to do in that space, Barker said. In many cases, people are using a court as a multi-activity court. Sometimes the space is needed to handle a group fitness class or maybe an event like a high school assembly where chairs are rolled out. Court spaces are often flex space for a facility.

"In such instances," he said, "you need a flooring that can handle the abuse, such as a rubber or vinyl floor that gives a visual aesthetic of a wood grain. And yet you are getting all the benefits of a rubberized surface. If you drag something across a hardwood court, you will damage it. If you have a floor that is a little bit more durable and forgiving to those point loads and rolling loads, it will stand the abuse."

When considering different court surfaces, there are different grade options. "What that really refers to," Barker said, "is the amount of force reduction that a court has. A 'Class 1' sports court will have lower amounts of force reduction. That means it is a firmer floor. Think always about levels of firmness. In most court applications you need a Class 1 for multipurpose, which has to handle a lot of abuse; a Class 2 floor won't withstand heavy rolling loads or abuse."

Wood courts, Thornton said, "will always be dedicated to competitive game play. In high school, college and the pros, you will always see wood for basketball, and that will never change. However, the propensity for the use of synthetics has grown dramatically in the past 20 years as gyms have become available for multiple uses. That's where synthetics really shine. They are multipurpose."

For multipurpose non-court activities, synthetics are absolutely the way to go, Thornton said. "What is rapidly growing in the market and has been for the past 20 years are cushion vinyls. They will have a factory applied polyurethane finish on them, so you are not going to have refinishing. It's a great way to save on maintenance. With cushion vinyls you can get the wood grain look, which is attractive. You can do a lot with vinyls."

On a basketball court with a wooden floor, you want shock absorption, but you don't want it to be like a trampoline either, Hayes said. "We don't want the floor going into motion because when we have court activities such as basketball and volleyball, you have several people in a concentrated space on the floor. What you want in a court space is to control the movement of that floor in such a way that it still provides benefits to the users, but has no negative effects to that user. This is one of the industry goals in developing floors: how to get the floor to perform at its optimal level for each person in their space and time in any given area on that court."



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