What are the benefits of treadmill running versus outdoor running? Are we wasting our time when we jump on a treadmill and pound away at a workout?

Advantages to running on the treadmill

The main benefit is that on the treadmill we can avoid running in adverse weather conditions (extreme cold and strong cold winds). Treadmill running also provides a flat, cushioned surface that is easier on the ankle, knee and hip joints than running on the road. Thus the treadmill makes-at the very least-an excellent mode for running short, easy recovery running or jogging days. Runners returning from injury can use low impact treadmill running to pre-adjust their leg muscles to harder outdoor road surfaces. It also follows that heavier runners can run on the treadmill more frequently to ease the impact on their joints and muscles.

The flat treadmill surface also has no camber, so runners have much less chance of getting shinsplints, Achilles tendinitis and knee problems with repeated running on the treadmill.Running indoors also enables you to control your microclimate; you can use a fan or AC for cooling in extreme heat and humidity, reducing your potential for heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

With treadmills, you can design variable workouts by controlling the speed and elevation, and you can do uphill workouts without the muscle damage from downhill running.

Disadvantages to running on the treadmill

Outdoor running offers some very clear advantages over indoor treadmill running: Running outdoors gets the runner out in fresh air, changing scenery and offers different training route possibilities.

It’s difficult to simulate downhill running in outdoor triathlons and races on the treadmill, and we cannot simulate turning corners while running on the treadmill, placing runner at a disadvantage, especially in a race with lots of twists and turns like cross-country. But the main disadvantage to treadmill running is that, when we run outdoors, our body constantly moves over differing outdoor surfaces like wet or soft ground, uneven terrain, rough trails, stones, hard concrete, asphalt, etc. The neuromuscular and proprioceptive skills involved in mastering outdoor terrains cannot be learned on the treadmill. Thus the serious triathlete needs to become used to the uneven and changing density of outdoor surfaces. Additionally, the greater impact or ground reactive force that running outdoors presents is something to which distance runners must adapt their leg muscles, tendons, and ligaments, if they want to compete successfully.

Other disadvantages to indoor treadmill running include that running on the treadmill is not as challenging as outdoor running (although this myth will soon be dispelled when you try some of the treadmill workouts at the end of this article!). Finally, outdoor running helps the runner learn to handle changing weather conditions a lot better.

Indoors vs. Outdoors

Many triathletes believe that treadmills do not measure up when compared to outdoor running on natural or road surfaces. Research shows that:

  • There were no measureable differences in the oxygen costs of submaximal running on the track versus the treadmill.
  • Studies conclude that setting the treadmill elevation at 1 percentwill compensate for the energy loss due to lack of air resistance.
  • Research shows that some biomechanical differences exist between treadmill running and outdoor running. For experienced runners and triathletes, treadmill running causes an increase in the range of motion of the leg, thus stretching the hip flexors more than running outdoors at a comparable speed. Whether this represents any disadvantage remains to be seen, but it does point out the importance of the distance runner doing a large portion of his training outdoors for best running economy.
  • Interestingly, for novice runners, treadmill running elicits a shorter stride length and an increased number of strides per minute when switching from outdoor to treadmill running.
  • The treadmill surface is far more cushioned than road surfaces and most other outdoor terrain. This extra cushioning has been shown to causeup to 10% less energy expenditure. This is because the “rebound” or ground reactive force is softeron the treadmill than when running outdoors and our muscles don’t have to work as hard to spring us back after each footfall.

Conclusions

The treadmill remains an ideal exercise mode for people using the treadmill for general cardiovascular fitness or weight loss. It offers all of the advantages of outdoor running while providing a safer and more shock resistant environment (thus less chance for injury), and access to fluids to prevent dehydration. You can also easily gauge and control the number of calories you are burning on the treadmill.

Sidebar #1:

General advice for treadmill training

  • Use fan on hot days to keep air circulating
  • Warm up and cool down as for any training run
  • Set incline at 1 to 2 percent grade to compensate for lack of wind resistance
  • When first running on a treadmill, you might feel a little unbalanced, and you may feel like you are going to pitch forward or come sliding off the back. You are learning a new motor skill, and this can take a few workouts before you and the mill are one.
  • Do not do all of your running training on the treadmill. You need more outdoor workouts than indoor treadmill workouts, but running on the mill is so much easier on your legs that it is an ideal recovery run mode. i.e. for your slow, easy-paced jogs.

Sidebar #2

Some great treadmill workouts

Warm up before all workouts with a 10-minute jog. Do a cool down jog after each workout for 10-15 minutes, gradually powering down to a walk.

Hill workouts

If you live in a flat area where hills are hours away, a treadmill will help you adjust to uphill climbs.

1.      Run 2 minutes at 10K pace at 2 degrees, then 2 minutes easy at 1 degree. Then run 2 minutes at 3 degrees followed by 2 minutes at 1 degree. Work your way up to 6 or 7 degrees.

2.      Set grade to 10 percent. Run at your standard 5K race-pace for 1 to 2 minutes, concentrating on fast stride tempo and knee lift. Run two sets of 4 repeats.

3.      Set grade to 5 percent. Run at 10K pace for 1 mile. Run 3 or 4 repeats.

4.      Set grade at 3 percent. Run at 10K pace for 3 minutes, then 3 minutes recovery jog. Run 3 or 4 repeats. Progressively increase number of repeats up to 10.

5.      Set grade to 4 percent – run 5 minutes. Set grade to 5 percent -run for 10 minutes. Set grade to 6 percent -run for 10 minutes. Set grade to 7 percent -run for 10 minutes.

Tempo Running/Lactate Threshold workout

Note: To estimate your 10K pace, add 20 seconds per mile to your current best 5K race pace. To estimate your 5K pace, subtract 20 seconds per mile from your current best 10K race pace.

1.      Run 4 to 6 x 1 mile at Lactate Threshold pace with 1 to 3 minute recovery jog between.

2.      Run 5 minutes at current best 10K race pace. Jog 5 minutes slow recovery jog, then 5 minutes at 10K pace, followed by 5 minutes slow recovery jog.

3.      Set treadmill speed at 20 seconds per mile faster than your recent best 5K-pace. Do 3 repeats of 3 minutes, with 3 minutes very slow jogging between each burst.

4.      6 x 5 minutes with 1 min rests

5.      4 x 3 minute with 2-min rest

Interval Training

1.      6 x 2 min with 1 minute rest between each burst

2.      6 x 60 sec with 2 to 4 minute rest between each burst

3.      10 x 60 sec with 2 to 4 minute rest between each burst

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