Athletic Facility Flooring: What's Available?

It would appear that specifying flooring for an athletic facility would be a snap: hardwood floor for the gymnasium, resilient for the entryway and hallways, rubber for the exercise rooms. Well, appearances can be deceiving. The truth is, there are a lot of factors to consider when choosing flooring for athletic facilities.

Those factors start with, as already mentioned, the intended use of each space within the facility. “This includes not only the type of sport,” said Christopher R. Haupt, AIA, senior vice president and principal of the Pittsburgh office of L. Robert Kimball & Associates, “but the level of play expected, from simple recreation to formal competition.

“Within each of those categories, the comfort level, shock absorption, life-cycle costs, and first costs have to be considered,” continued Haupt, who heads up Kimball’s Sports Architecture Group. Before each of these factors can be delineated, there must be a large-picture understanding of four different flooring options for athletic facilities.

What Are the Options?
The first flooring option is traditional wood floors. Maple is a popular choice, and wood is well received because it looks good, provides natural shock absorption, and stands up to demanding sporting events.

The second is synthetic or resilient floors. Rubber is a popular choice in this category because of its recycled rubber content. In addition, said Kate Lowry, product manager with Lancaster, PA-based Ecore International, rubber flooring comes in standard or custom colors, and can be water-jet cut for custom designs.

The third is fluid systems. This includes everything from straight polyurethane poured on concrete all the way up to mats. According to, this flooring is popular for its affordability and durability — it’s durable enough to handle non-sport related events.

The final flooring option is composite systems, which Haupt said might be a combination of all of the above.

With this understanding, the four flooring options can be categorized by comfort level, shock absorption, life-cycle cost, and first cost.

Comfort level relates to how hard the floor feels underfoot, but does not relate to impact. Here, the options are rated from greatest comfort level to least: composite systems, with a synthetic surface and/or layers of padding underneath; urethane, usually a poured rubber liquid on concrete; interlocking tiles; VCT; and wood.

Shock absorption refers to impact when landing from running or jumping. From greatest shock absorption to least, the options are: composite, wood, rubber, urethane, and VCT. Haupt explained that composite flooring usually has a foam pad or pads and then either a natural or synthetic wood or rubber tile with a urethane finish on top. “The multiple layers distribute the load more effectively and reduce impact to limbs,” he said.

Life-cycle cost is an important factor to consider when choosing flooring for athletic facilities. Here is how Haupt ranks them, from lowest cost to highest, and based on 30 years of maintenance: composite; urethane, which requires re-coating through time; VCT, which requires a lot of cleaning, buffing, and re-coating; rubber; and wood flooring, which requires sanding, painting or staining, and finishing to keep it looking nice through the years.

A comparison of flooring wouldn’t be complete without a look at first cost. Haupt ranks the options from lowest first cost to highest in this manner: VCT, urethane, rubber, composite, and wood.

For Example

Haupt cites two athletic facility examples to demonstrate the relevance of intended use to floor choice. The first is a fitness center at Pennsylvania State University. In weight rooms with free weights, rubber tile with a urethane coating was used. In the dead lift areas, a wood composite system or dense rubber mat on top of a rubber floor was used. In the aerobic fitness area, vinyl was used because, in this case, the floor isn’t taking such a pounding as people are using stationary equipment.

In aerobic studios it’s a synthetic flooring system that really handles shock absorption. Consider interlocking tiles or strips. “Sometimes they’re removable, and sometimes they’re not,” said Haupt. “And they usually float in the space with a sleeper system on top of a rubber backing.”

In another example, Haupt worked on a 5,000-seat arena for a Division 2 college. “They wanted a urethane floor on top of the concrete floor for practice,” he explained. “Then, when they’re in competition, they bring in a portable, composite natural wood maple flooring. This gives them durability for practice without damaging the competition floor during practice.”

Likewise, Haupt continued, if the space would ever be used for a non-athletic even, like a banquet or trade show, another floor covering would need to be used because high heels will damage a poured urethane floor.

Advice From the Pros
When you’re ready to specify flooring for your athletic facility, follow this sage advice from the experts who’ve been there, done that.

First, understand that there is a big difference between an athletic floor and a dance floor. “As a point of clarification,” said Claire Londress, marketing manager for Moorestown, NJ-based American Harlequin Corp., “an athletic floor has to have adequate energy return for ball bounce. A dance floor has to have adequate energy return plus shock absorption.” She explained that this is because athletes wear shoes to provide shock absorption and dancers don’t.

One option to provide dance flooring in an athletic facility is to choose a touring floor, which is rollout vinyl that easily rolls up and stores between uses. “It’s light and thin, and it packs up easily,” said Londress.

Second, in areas where there’s close physical contact, like wrestling rooms, consider using flooring with antibacterial coatings to reduce the likelihood of spreading MRSA bacteria.

If you’re aiming for LEED certification, you’ll obviously be looking for floor options that garner LEED points. But, even if you’re not going for certification, consider choosing green flooring. “It is possible to specify flooring that contains recycled content and is durable,” said Lowry.

Finally, Haupt recommends consulting an expert in sports design who can help you choose the best floor for aesthetics, performance, and affordability. “If you haven’t specified these systems before, you can get into trouble,” he cautioned.

No doubt, there’s a lot to think about when choosing athletic flooring. Choices are often made depending on the level of competition and first cost. “For example,” said Haupt, “in high schools and colleges, we see composite and natural wood in gymnasium-type environments. When you get into multiple-sport use, the composite floors are most versatile for high schools and colleges. You have to be versatile because it gives you the best comfort and shock absorption for multiple sports even though there’s a higher first cost.”