Indoor Gymnasium Surfaces

By Randy Gaddo

If you could step into a time machine and go back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece, you might see Greeks in gymnasiums, working out with weights or practicing military or athletic skills.

While the gymnasium in Plato and Aristotle’s time may be somewhat similar to modern gyms, one important difference would be the floor surfacing. When Greek citizens slammed their heavy weights down or body-slammed an opponent, it was probably onto good, old Mother Earth.

However, one common comparison of a modern gym to an ancient one is the purpose for training.  Eric Chaline, author of The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, notes that the similarities are more about the motivation for training.

The Greeks, Chaline writes, trained for sports and to improve their military skills, but they also trained to attain and maintain an idealised body shape, what we today would call aesthetic training or training for the body beautiful.

It may have been acceptable for users to train on a dirt or stone floor then, but users in a modern indoor gym—or more appropriately, multi-purpose facility—have more sophisticated needs.

Today’s recreational gymnasium must be everything, to everybody, every day. One day a facility may host a recreational-basketball league championship, and the next it may be the site for a community yard sale. Then the local high school gymnastics team might need a facility for an overflow practice area in order to qualify to host a state meet.

With the array of possibilities provided by today’s recreational programmers, a facility must truly be multi-purpose in every aspect of the term, and especially regarding the flooring.

Which Flooring Is Best?
In response to those needs, a multitude of floor surfacing systems have been developed; while this is a good thing for facility managers, it can also be perplexing when it comes to choosing the right floor for multi-purpose use and long-term maintenance. The number of manufacturers and the vast selection of products can overwhelm an owner in either upgrading an existing floor or purchasing exactly the right flooring surface for a new facility.

A parks and rec staff needs to ask several key questions when deciding on the appropriate type of flooring:

·         What will the facility be used for? 

·         Will the flooring be safe for participants in all uses?

·         What aesthetic look is expected? 

·         How difficult will it be to retrofit existing flooring or to construct a new surfacing? 

·         What is the expected lifespan of the product? 

·         What kind of daily, monthly, annual, or long-term maintenance is required? 

·         What will be the initial installation, as well as long-term operations and maintenance, costs?

Another challenge facing a parks and rec staff will be sorting out the needs and perspectives of all the parties involved in the process. These may include financing bodies (city council, recreation boards, etc.), engineers and planners, architects, contractors, end-users, and coaches. Each of these stakeholders sees the issue from a different angle, and none of them is wrong.

Learn The Lingo
It is a wise parks and rec practitioner who learns the language of indoor-facility flooring before reaching out to architects or engineers to find the best solution. It’s best to know what a “point-elastic surface” is compared to an “area-elastic surface.” It’s good to know what a floor’s “resilience” is, or what “moisture content” means.  Sleeper systems, panel systems, anchored systems—they all have specific meanings that will impact the final system, so it is incumbent upon the buyer to learn the lingo.

Joe Covington is the chairman of the Indoor Division of the American Sports Builders Association. He has been in the sports-flooring business since 1971 and is president of Covington Flooring Company in Birmingham, Ala. He knows his floors, from those used by professional sports teams to those of local parks and rec teams.

Covington divides the multitude of choices into three basic categories:

1.       Hardwood systems
2.       Pad-and-pour urethane systems
3.       Wood-grain vinyl.

There are variations of these, but most fall into one of these categories.

Hardwood Systems
“If it’s a pay-to-play facility or a parks and rec facility, it’s still going to be, for the most part, a hardwood floor, probably maple, an anchored, resilient system,” says Covington, who estimates that maple is the choice about 70 percent of the time.  “Anchored resilient means it is anchored down, but it still floats and gives good shock absorption and ball bounce.”

Maple is the flooring of choice, but other hardwoods can be used as well. Wood floors are generally put down over a concrete pad. There are one or more sublayers of plywood, called the “sleeper system,” that are installed under the hardwood, which is what makes the floor an “area-elastic surface” that yields gradually to pressure and can return energy to the feet and legs of users. This, in turn, can help reduce injuries and optimize athletic performance.

The Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association (MFMA) website ( has a wealth of information about wood flooring, as well as general information. For a nominal fee, a video, “Your Next Sports Floor: Things You Should Know,” which is targeted at owners and end-users who are interested in such a system, is available. (The video is under the “For Architects” dropdown menu on the website’s home page, in the “Floor System Maintenance” tab.)

Pad-And-Pour Urethane Systems
The second primary system used today, in Covington’s opinion, is the pad-and-pour urethane system.  “This is essentially a pad made from recycled tires that are rolled out, and liquid urethane is applied on top,” he says.  This system consists of several other layers, including a polyurethane “wear layer” and a top coat of pigmented UV- and abrasion-resistant polyurethane. Game lines are chemically bonded into the surface. When it is complete, the flooring constitutes a “monolithic” system, or one that is continuous and seamless.

Wood-Grain Vinyl
The third system is a wood grain-appearance vinyl. “This is a heat-welded system that looks like wood, but it’s actually vinyl,” says Covington. “If you expect to get flooded, you’re probably going with vinyl. … We’ve put a lot of them in Louisiana since Katrina, for example.”

Examining Costs And Maintenance
While costs will vary depending on size and other variables, Covington estimates that installation costs for wood floors is between $8.50 and $10.50 per square foot, and between $6.50 and $8.50 per square foot for pad-and-pour, as well as vinyl.

Care, cleaning, and maintenance requirements vary significantly with the three systems, as do the expected life spans.

A wood floor can have a 40- to 50-year life span if it is properly cleaned and maintained, and if it is sanded and refinished as it should be. A wood floor must be cleaned and mopped frequently to keep dirt and grit from abrading the surface. Covington stresses that wood should be re-coated annually at an approximate cost of 50 cents per square foot, and it should be completely sanded and refinished every 10 to 15 years at a cost of about $3.75 to $4.75 per square foot.

Pad-and-pour maintenance consists of “Scrub, scrub, scrub,” says Covington. “Normally, people use scrubbing machines. About every 10 to 15 years it will need to be re-surfaced at a cost of about $3.75 to $4.75 per square foot.”

Vinyl is arguably the easiest to maintain. “Just use a scrubbing machine and maybe a low-suds detergent,” he says.  “Vinyl can last for a long time if properly cleaned and cared for, but you can’t refurbish it. It needs total replacement when the time comes.”

Proper and constant cleaning of all three types of surfaces is a key element in making them last their full life-span.  If grit, dirt, or sand is left on the surface, it grinds into the top layer as users run, jump, roll, fall, or crawl on it. Over time, this will wear the floor down, like sandpaper. So frequent deep cleaning is essential.

Another common element to prolong the life of any surface material is to avoid dragging metal or other abrasive objects across the floor. “All chairs and tables should definitely have slides on their legs or feet to ensure that the top layer is not being cut or scratched as they are being moved across them,” Covington cautions. “This will help no matter what sort of surface you have.”

He also notes that there are many different types of portable, temporary coverings that can be rolled or unfolded over any flooring for special events, but it is especially important with wood.

Do Your Homework
Variety is the spice of life, and in some cases, can be a life-saver in a facility. Covington says that he has seen facilities where two or more of the systems are used in the same building. “If there is a ground floor that is prone to occasional flooding or water damage, vinyl will be used, while upper floors where flooding is not so likely may use wood or pad-and-pour,” he explains, adding that he has been involved in many such projects.

There is a plethora of information on the web about all of the options available; however, for those who would like more detailed information in book form, the MFMA website offers Indoor Sports Surfaces: An Installation and Maintenance Manual (2014) ($44.95).

Socrates stated, “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training.”  In the same light, it is incumbent on buyers to be aware and professional in choosing the right flooring so their multi-purpose facility users can be at their best, whether in a tiny tots exercise class or in a championship game.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or