The road or the treadmill? It’s a question that has long divided the running community. Is the treadmill just as effective when compared to pounding the pavements? Or should we be ditching the gym and keeping our running outdoors? Here’s the low-down on one of running’s most heated debates.
First things first – the truth is that running on the treadmill is easier in terms of energy expenditure than running on the road. This is thanks to the treadmill belt which assists leg turnover, meaning a lot of treadmill runners find their indoor pace doesn’t correlate to their pace on the road. Outside, our legs have to propel us forward, resulting in wind resistance – which is absent on the treadmill. That means we see a bigger expenditure of energy when we run outside.
The good news for treadmill fans is that this effect can be mitigated. Research conducted by the University of Exeter found that setting the treadmill to a gradient of 1% (or 2% for elite runners) was sufficient to accurately mimic the energetic cost of outdoor running. Later studies have also found no change of V02 Max on this basis and no change in biological footstrike patterns, providing a further evidence that running on the treadmill can be as effective as the road.
Running on the treadmill is easier on our legs than pounding a concrete pavement which causes stress to our joints. This is good news for runners in injury rehab, especially with impact related injuries, who can use the softened surface and lower impact of a treadmill workout to build strength.
There’s a reason some runners call it the “dreadmill.” Psychologically, running on the treadmill can be harder. Outdoors, we have the added stimulation of sights, sounds, different routes, ups and downs and twists and turns to distract us from a harder run. Indoors, we have the hamster wheel effect – running hard but going nowhere. This can be mentally tough, especially when we’re tired.
Ever struggled to find a nice flat spot for speedwork? The treadmill can be a great tool for faster workouts, allowing you to work on your intervals in a controlled environment without having to avoid hills and hazards. The treadmill makes it easier to segment and control your pace as well as focusing on your timings and providing a lower impact speed-based workout. That said, a number of studies have shown that our perception of speed on the treadmill tends to be higher than our actual pace – make sure to watch out for this.
When you work out on the treadmill you’re working very specific muscle groups. Out on the roads and trail where we naturally encounter up and down hills, turns and obstacles, we’re also conditioning ancillary muscle groups which in turn provides wider conditioning and better overall performance and endurance. There is also a school of thought that suggests that because of its “give” the treadmill lacks some of the soft tissue conditioning associated with road running.
If you’ve ever tried running through a bitter headwind, taking away that exposure to the weather sounds pretty appealing. The treadmill can also be a great option when it’s icy outside and there are issues with footing – the treadmill can allow us to train when conditions outside would otherwise prevent or make it potentially dangerous to do so.
However, there’s a “but.” Running through that headwind and natural resistance makes you work harder, resulting in a better, more effective workout. Likewise, training in the heat can improve our endurance in colder weather. The upshot? Training outdoors in inclement weather conditions can enhance the overall training effect of our running in a way running on the treadmill can’t. If you do plan on running in poor weather conditions, be sure to check out our selection of Running Jackets & Gilets to protect you from the elements.
While all exercise boosts our feel-good endorphins, this effect is heightened when we exercise outdoors. The evidence shows that exercising outdoors or engaging in “green exercise” simply makes us happier, promoting a calmer, more tranquil state of mind and blitzing everyday stress. That’s a pretty good incentive to hit the roads and trails, especially at times when we’re feeling stressed and pressured.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons to both using the treadmill and running outdoors, and your personal preference will come down to you and your goals as a runner. If you’re prepping for a race, it makes sense to train in outdoor conditions that will mimic race-day conditions. Likewise, if you’re in injury rehab, it can help to train on the more forgiving surface of the treadmill. For the best of both worlds we’d recommend integrating both into your training, for example by taking your speed session onto the treadmill every often, or using the treadmill when the conditions outside don’t lend themselves to running.
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