When Dr. Christine Clark emerged as the upset winner of the Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Columbia, S.C., a couple of years ago, she gained recognition as an unlikely champion. The 37-year-old pathologist and mother from Anchorage, Alaska, trained by logging 70 miles a week on a treadmill because the roads were too icy. Although her 2:33:31 achievement is a testament to treadmill workouts, do these motorized mini-walkways offer the same advantages as an outdoor run or walk?
If you consider the intensity of the workout alone, research indicates that running or walking outdoors provides a slightly better workout than doing it on a treadmill. But that doesn’t mean you should trash your treadmill. With a little ingenuity, you can even the score.
One factor that makes outdoor running a better workout is wind resistance. A second reason has to do with biomechanics, says author Greg McMillan. Outdoor running requires pushing off against the ground, while treadmill running is a more air-borne activity, with the ground moving beneath the runner. But according to McMillan, it’s easy to compensate for these discrepancies. In an article published last year in Peak Running Performance, a bi-monthly newsletter for runners published by Road Runner Sports, McMillan suggested that runners use proper, upright form and raise the elevation of the treadmill to one-percent to compensate for the lack of wind and ground resistance.
Monitoring your heart rate can also provide valuable information about how to compensate for the differences between the surfaces, says Dr. Edmund Burke, Director of Exercise Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and editor of Burke’s Complete Home Fitness Handbook (Human Kinetics; 1996). “Notice your heart rate [during outdoor and treadmill workouts]. If there’s a difference, you can make up for the loss. Increase the speed or elevation [on the treadmill],” he says.
Treadmills do offer one technological training advantage that nature can’t match. Interval training, a method that runners rely upon to increase their speed, may be more challenging on a treadmill than on the pavement, according to Len Sherman, contributor to The Precor Treadmill Training and Workout Guide (by Alberto Salazar, Hatherleigh Press; 2000).
During interval training, Sherman says, “every quarter or eighth of a mile, you increase your speed by a tenth of a mile. On a treadmill, that’s easier to do than anywhere else,” says Sherman. It’s difficult for runners to accurately monitor such tiny increments on a stopwatch, Sherman explains, but a treadmill computer can do it precisely.
Of course, outdoor running and treadmill running both offer distinct secondary benefits
Of course, outdoor running and treadmill running both offer distinct secondary benefits that the other can’t match. Outdoor running, for instance, offers the refreshing treat of an outdoor breeze after a long day at the office.
Treadmills, on the other hand, can help keep you motivated when refreshing breezes aren’t your type of thing. If you tend to peter out on a lone outdoor jog or stroll, an indoor treadmill, combined with the charged atmosphere of a gym, can provide the motivation you need to log the miles you’re striving for.
“People run in the mirror and look at themselves. It can help you work a special pace,” says Susan Kalish, the executive director of the American Running Association . Kalish isn’t a big fan of the treadmill, but she recognizes its benefits. “There are a ton of things that you can do on it.”
Whatever surface you choose, the most important thing you can do for your fitness program is avoid injury. “We encourage people to pick their surfaces carefully, as well as walking and running shoes,” says Dr. Kevin Stone, an orthopedic surgeon at the Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis Research, both based in San Francisco.
Stone recommends wearing relatively new running or walking shoes with shock absorbing soles. He cautions against wearing sneakers with hard inserts. “It increases the force in people’s knee joints,” he says. Choosing a proper surface can also help minimize stress on the joints. Stone recommends soft outdoor surfaces such as grass, instead of concrete or asphalt.
The hardness of the running surface is even important when picking a treadmill. “You want enough give so that you’re not shocking the joints,” says Tracy Morgan, education and training manager for Cybex International, the Medway, Mass.-based exercise equipment company. “But you also want hardness so that you have enough surface to push off on.”
Most runners and walkers who use a treadmill agree: They’d prefer to run outside, but the treadmill can be useful if the weather turns ugly or if you simply prefer an indoor workout. By making a few small adjustments to your treadmill workout, it can offer the same fitness benefits as the great outdoors.