Its common runners ask me if treadmill running is the same as running outdoors. Most frequently this question comes from patients who are runners and undergoing physical therapy during injury recovery, the ‘gym runner’ using the treadmill for fitness and cardio exercise, or the recreational and fitness runner who is less than desiring to run in the elements of a typical Oregon winter. Ironically, I’m writing this during Portland’s early January snow and ice storm.
Treadmill running can test ones fortitude. A mile can seem like ten. It’s too easy to stare at the seconds ticking down while no scenery is going by.
Most elite and professional runner’s I’ve worked with over the years cringe at the thought of treadmill running. A select few enjoy it. Hence, opinions on the benefits – or lack thereof – of treadmill running are as varied as is each runner and purely anecdotal. Scientific research confirms that treadmill running is not that dissimilar to outdoor running and benefits are equal.
Research (Clinical Biomechanics 2001, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2008, Journal of Athletic Training 2010) reveals no to only minor differences in treadmill running versus outdoor running with regard to biomechanics, muscle activation and cardiovascular output.
One common practice that run coaches and personal trainers teach is to treadmill run at a 1% grade, simulating equivalent effort as outdoor flat running. However, this strategy only applies if running at or faster than a 7:09 minute per mile pace, which equates to 8 miles per hour or faster (Journal of Sports Science 1996).
Treadmill running can test ones fortitude. A mile can seem like ten. It’s too easy to stare at the seconds ticking down while no scenery is going by. You can only listen to so many blogs, watch so much TV or stare at a blank wall for so long. And please leave the phone out of reach. Also, most treadmills don’t decline, so if you’re training for a specific racecourse that involves descents, this will hinder specificity of training and your body’s adaption to imposed demands. Learning pace is also a challenge on a treadmill as you can ‘set it and forget it’; not requiring you to learn instinctual pacing skills.
In summary, treadmill running is a safe and effective alternative and complement to outdoor running. I recommend not solely relying on treadmill running if you are planning an outdoor fun run or competitive run. Varying the incline – and decline if the treadmill affords it – simulates outdoor running mechanics, efforts and endurance. Speed tends to be the most inconsistent variable, i.e. a given pace you’re used to outdoor running tends to feel faster on a treadmill. Go by feel! And when the weather is poor and surface safety is compromised, stay warm and dry and effectively turn the wheels indoors.