Although similar rates of injury have been reported on both synthetic and grass surfaces in elite soccer, researchers from York University in Toronto reveal a different story when it comes to athletes' perceptions.

Pro soccer players perceive synthetic surfaces mean higher risk of injury

Artificial turf is the cilantro of the sports world, polarizing people into passionate camps of detractors and advocates. Now, a first of its kind Canadian study brings that debate to a boil.

Although similar rates of injury have been reported on both synthetic and grass surfaces in elite soccer, researchers from York University in Toronto reveal a different story when it comes to athletes’ perceptions. To wit, fully 94 per cent of Major League Soccer players in their study – just published in the journal BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation – associate turf with increased risk of non-contact injuries, while a similarly high share of respondents blame it for greater muscle and joint pain, as well as longer recovery times.

“A lot of the research that’s looked at this issue has used injury reports … But experiencing more soreness isn’t picked up in those traditional reports because even though a player is more fatigued, they’re still able to participate,” said Constantine Poulos, the study’s principal investigator.

“If a resounding amount of these players say they experience these issues after playing on artificial turf, I don’t think that’s to be ignored.”

The study draws on 99 players from six teams competing in MLS – North America’s highest level of pro soccer – during the 2011 season. Questionnaires were used to assess perceptions of arena surfaces, with a focus on natural grass versus third-generation and fourth-generation artificial turf.

Even as 70 per cent of pro players in York’s study felt that risk of contact injuries was comparable on both grass and turf, 80 per cent said the risk of non-contact injuries was higher on synthetic surfaces. Overall, 94 per cent cited turf as being the likelier surface of the two to increase the chances of getting hurt.

“They said it was too hard, too stiff, too unforgiving. They felt as though there was more friction – if their foot got caught, it wouldn’t dig itself up like it would in grass – and that it caused them to expend too much energy, as if they were running on sand,” said Poulos, an assistant strength and conditioning coach at York, who conducted the study as part of his graduate thesis in kinesiology.

Artificial turf is widely used at the youth level, as it allows lower-cost year-round play in a greater number of locations. It’s also present in four of the MLS markets (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and New England), despite loud protestations from those who grew up with grass-stained knees.

In the York study, for example, around 97 per cent of players linked turf with greater muscle and joint soreness, while 90 per cent believed it led to longer recovery times. And when asked about the type of surface they believed responsible for more chronic injuries in a season, 89 per cent named turf.

The problem is disentangling authentic mechanical issues with past experiences that have subsequently coloured athletes’ views.

“Turf has been around for some time, but the technology has changed,” said Poulos. “Players could be referencing experiences they’ve had on turf that wasn’t up to the same standards.”

MLS players sound off on turf

“All my three biggest injuries have happened on turf matches, hence why I believe natural grass is still much safer.”

“Feet stick when wet, and the ball moves too fast and your joints are put under more stress because there is no give in turf surface.”

“Personally, coming off back-to-back ACL tears in my left Knee – both happened on turf – I feel mentally scared to play on turf. Even prior to the ACLs I was hesitant to play full-out.”

“Football Turf doesn’t give like grass. If a foot gets caught in, it is more dangerous because the turf can’t dig up to release the foot.”

“It’s just proven, in my experience of playing, that more injuries occur on turf. To avoid this, the quality of the turf has to be very high.”

“I have always played a little cautious on turf for fear of having a cleat stick in the turf.”

“The first time I played on the new type of field turf, I broke my fifth metatarsal in a non-contact plant.”

“Turf can feel like running on sand.”