Exactly How Treadmill and Road Running Are Different (and Why Both Are Good)

Exactly How Treadmill and Road Running Are Different (and Why Both Are Good)

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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Exactly How Treadmill and Road Running Are Different (and Why Both Are Good)

In running, your loyalty does not have to lie with a specific terrain. Roadtrail and the track have their positives — as does the (dreaded) treadmill. No matter your preference, you don’t have to choose one running surface; in fact, you shouldn’t.

Your running benefits from running on both the treadmill and roads. Here’s what to keep in mind as you switch terrain:

WHY YOU SHOULD RUN ON BOTH THE TREADMILL AND ROAD

It has become widely recognized that varying surfaces during training is one way to avoid injuries. Studies back this up, especially when it comes to running repeatedly on a concrete surface only. Because of this, Chelsea Ley, director of programming at tread HAPPY in Virginia, recommends varying up your running surfaces to include the roads and treadmill, but also trails and grass, in order to avoid injuries from repetitive biomechanical movements and impact.

“Running on harder surfaces is actually important; the repetitive pounding or running can strengthen bones and prepare runners’ muscles and soft tissue for further pounding in a future race or effort,” explains Ley. “The treadmill, though, can serve as a valuable respite for runners who complete their workouts predominantly on hard asphalt or concrete. Treadmill runs, similar to other ‘softer’ surfaces like grass, can not only help prevent overuse aches and pains, but they can also help runners recover more quickly while also maintaining or improving their cardiovascular fitness.”

In addition, varying your surfaces can also further your mental training. There is a reason the treadmill has earned a reputation as a “dreadmill,” many consider it more psychologically challenging to run on a treadmill. Though there are no concrete studies that have determined which surface is, in fact, easier from a mental perspective, just as muscle memory is affected when switching between the two, there is a definite mental shift as well. From this perspective, whether one or the other is easier actually depends on the preference of the runner.

“Running outside usually allows for a runner to be more immersed in the present moment and more tuned into their bodily state,” admits Ryan Bolton, owner and founder of Bolton Endurance Sports Training. “However, when running on the treadmill, there are no interruptions and you can nail specific workout parameters easily by adjusting paces, etc. as necessary. This, too, for some people can put them into that running ‘zone.’”

WHAT TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN MAKING THE SWITCH

While it may not be clear as to whether or not the treadmill or roads are mentally easier, studies have shown adjustments need to be made to treadmill running to make it live up to road running. Not only is perception of speed different — one study found treadmill runners undershot their pace when trying to match what they would run outdoors — but the energy expended is different, too. This is why it has long been recommended to add a 1% incline when running on the treadmill to reflect the energy cost of running outdoors.

“The longstanding advice to set the treadmill at 1% to simulate outdoor running is even in question now that very recent research has found that the addition of some incline may only be beneficial for certain types of treadmill workouts,” shares Ley. “Our take on the issue: Add a slight amount of incline as an added challenge. Even if the change in grade doesn’t necessarily help as previously thought, it definitely can’t hurt!”

Ley also points out VO2 max — or cardiovascular fitness — has been reported to be similar when running on a track and the treadmill, and biomechanical patterns vary negligibly. The key difference Bolton wants runners to be mindful of is the belt itself and how it, inevitably, pulls the foot backward.

“This alters form slightly and can make running at a comparable pace slightly easier,” he adds. “This compensation can increase over time as the runner will make micro-adjustments that allow for the foot to be pulled back by the treadmill. Initially this is very trivial, but over time can make a runner ‘lazy.’”

Even while pointing this out, Bolton doesn’t think runners should avoid the treadmill (nor should they run on it 100% of the time). The differences between the treadmill and road running are what make them ideal training partners; it absolutely doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t be — one or the other.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There is a time and place for running on the treadmill and running on the roads. If the only thing holding you back from the treadmill is a gut feeling you’ll get bored, try a treadmill class to make it more of a social event. Ley vows the combination of programming, coaching and music will help change your perception, while challenging you more than a 3-mile jog where you catch up on whatever news is being broadcast over the gym televisions.

Understanding when and how to use each training method is what is going to ultimately help you maximize your training. Of course running on the treadmill isn’t going to be exactly the same as running on the roads. This is just as true of running on the roads versus tackling trail running. While you can’t have the exact same running experience from day-to-day, you can use this variance to your advantage.

“A balance of road and treadmill running can be beneficial for runners that want to use both for training,” concludes Bolton. “Running on the road is obviously best to replicate real running conditions; being that races are on roads and trails, replicating those surfaces while training is best. Foot strikestride length and the ability to self pace is enhanced when running outside. However, I do suggest supplementing treadmill runs for recovery runs, some specific speed work to work on turnover or pacing and for runners coming off injuries.”

About the Author

Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta

Ashley is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the assistant editor at LAVA and her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journal, Women’s Running and more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.

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