The treadmill: Some people love it. Some people hate it. Other people abhor it. (They don’t call it the “dreadmill” for nothing.) But the treadmill could be your ticket to running success. Beyond being able to run indoors when the weather is dismal, running on the treadmill can also help you take your training to the next level.
For many runners, the sport is much more of a mental challenge than a physical one. The ability to push through a hard run takes mental toughness. When your legs feel heavy and your body is rebelling, your brain tells you to stop or ease up. Unlike on the treadmill, running outside provides distractions that help you push those tough moments
“When an athlete is experiencing emotional or mental stress, running outside can provide freedom from measurement and goal-based performance,” says Erin Carson, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Boulder, Colorado. “Adding in a beautiful park, quiet running trail or even a rainstorm can provide a mental break that can lead to a performance breakthrough.”
While sweating in nature can help you get away from your own thoughts, running outside also means that you might not be able to fully tune into your pace and any elevation gains or losses. Carson recommends a treadmill for those who are trying to closely measure their performance and accurately track progress. “Being mentally checked in while running on a treadmill can provide great feedback and a feeling of accomplishment when you hit all of your performance objectives,” she says.
DEALING WITH THE ELEMENTS
The key is to find a balance between running inside and outside. Too much of one or the other could actually set you back on your pace or mileage goals, especially if you’re hoping for steady progress.
“The problem with treadmill running is that the treadmill can do some of the work for you,” says Daniel Plews, PhD, a sports scientist and triathlon coach in Auckland, New Zealand. “The fact that the belt is bringing your leg back for you is changing the mechanics of your running. It can also increase injury risk because of more strain through the Achilles’ tendon.”
Carson agrees with the dangers of treadmill-heavy workout regimens, especially for those setting the speed faster than they should. “Treadmill running poses a risk when one overloads speed but doesn’t have the tissue resiliency to accommodate the landings,” she says. “We would see this most often in a high-intensity, short-duration interval where someone is fighting to keep up with the treadmill.”
Staying indoors can also protect you from the wind and changes in terrain that you could encounter running outdoors. While this may sound ideal for days with particularly bad weather, your typical treadmill workout won’t challenge you as much as the same run outside. “Nine miles per hour on the treadmill is much easier than an 9 miles per hour on the road,” Plews says. “In order to mimic outdoor conditions, treadmills should be set at a 1% gradient.”
Treadmill running, however, can be kinder to those with joint pain or who live in a concrete-heavy environment. According to Carson, treadmills have a consistent cushioning that’s not always present in the outdoors. Many modern treadmills offer variable surfaces that cater to certain physical and personal needs, like self-propelling tracks and even access to television or the internet.
Still, it’s important to prepare your body for wherever you’ll be racing or spending the majority of your runs. “If someone wants to do well in a concrete-heavy race, they need to have their tissue somewhat adapted to that surface,” Carson says. “Running on harder surfaces can make the body very resilient and powerful, if dosed with periods of easier landings.”
FINDING A BALANCE
As with most things in life, it seems that the right approach to where you run is a balanced one. Both Plews and Carson recommend the treadmill for speed and interval workouts, and outdoors for nearly everything else.
“If you’re just doing a steady aerobic run, outside is always best,” Plews says. “[The treadmill] is controlled and specific. It’s very easy to monitor training progression as the environment doesn’t really change.”
Carson, who personally splits her outside to treadmill time 60/40, says that while there’s a time and a place for both workouts, each approach needs to be catered to your personal goals and circumstances. Don’t overlook the treadmill when you’re looking to closely monitor your performance and do speed and interval work.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN