We’re heading toward the shortest, coldest days of the year. Time to move your running indoors?
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Many if not most runners consider treadmill running a lesser substitute for running outdoors. Going nowhere on a machine is never their first choice. It is only done when outdoor running is impractical. Some runners even refuse to run on a treadmill—dismissing the activity as not “real” running. Other runners who view the treadmill for favorably. Self-described “treadmill junkie” Rick Morris wrote an entire book on treadmill training (Treadmill Training for Runners).
Even some elite runners embrace their treadmills. Both the male and female winners of the 2000 US Olympic Trials Marathons, Rod DeHaven and Christine Clark, were heavy treadmill users. In fact, Clark, an Alaskan, did almost all of her training on a treadmill in her basement in preparation for the Olympic Trials.
So it’s obvious that treadmill training can be as effective as running outdoors. But that doesn’t make it any less boring. So is treadmill running right for you? Read over the following lists of pros and cons and then decide for yourself.
Treadmills are convenient.
One of the great things about running is that you can do it almost anywhere, anytime, but there are situations in which outdoor running is impractical and treadmill running preferable. For example, if you often run before the sun comes up, a treadmill can spare you from having to run in the dark. If the sidewalks get icy in the winter in your area, a treadmill can spare you from a nasty fall.
Treadmills facilitate controlled and precise workouts.
Even when you can run outdoors, running on a treadmill may be preferable in certain circumstances. For example, if you want to practice running at your goal pace before an upcoming race, you can take advantage of your ability to dial in a precise pace on the treadmill and use it to get your body and mind accustomed to holding that pace steadily.
Treadmill running is effective.
Some treadmill haters argue that treadmill running is easier than running outdoors, hence not as effective. Research has shown that heart rate is slightly lower at any given pace on a treadmill than it is outdoors, but the difference is very slight, and you can counteract it by running at a 1 percent gradient on the treadmill.
Treadmills are boring.
There is no denying the fact that, except for those few treadmill junkies like Rick Morris, running on the treadmill simply is not as fun as running outside. One can argue that runners need to be willing to put up with a little boredom in their training once in a while, but there is evidence that the tedium of treadmill running could make it slightly less effective than outdoor running.
For example, in one study by researchers at the University of Stockholm, runners were allowed to set their own pace in an indoor treadmill run and an outdoor trail run. They ran significantly faster at the same perceived effort level outdoors. This finding suggests that it is easier to train harder outdoors than on a treadmill.
Treadmill running lacks physical variation.
Even for the most diehard treadmill junkie, treadmill running cannot wholly substitute for running outdoors. For example, the maximum speed of most treadmills is 12 mph, which is slower than sprint speed for most runners, making it impossible to perform sprints and very short, very fast intervals on a treadmill. Also, it is impossible to simulate downhill running on most treadmills, so one cannot use a treadmill to prepare for races with extensive downhill sections such as the Boston Marathon.
Buy or borrow?
Most runners who do some treadmill running use machines at the fitness clubs of which they are members or at the fitness centers in the apartment buildings they live in. Only a few use their own machines at home. The reason is basic: Treadmills are expensive! Products of comparable quality to those in fitness clubs cost around $3,000. But some runners consider the cost well worth the unparalleled convenience of being able to run at home anytime.
Obviously, the first factor you have to consider in deciding whether to buy a treadmill is your budget. Quite simply, can you afford to buy a treadmill or not? A second important factor to consider is how often you run or plan to run on a treadmill. The more often you are likely to use your treadmill, the more value you will get from the investment.
There are much less expensive treadmills available, but as with most other products, you get what you pay for. The costlier models are typically sturdier and more accurate, powerful, durable and reliable, and they have more features. Still, there are some very good treadmills to be found for less than $1,000. If you are considering buying a treadmill for home use, do your homework before committing. Check out Consumer Reports or other reviews and visit more than one store to test out competing models.
There are several other factors you will want to consider before making a purchase. What kind of warrantee is offered? How often does the machine need to be recalibrated? Who will service the machine if something goes wrong? How much noise does it make? (Be aware that noise from treadmills located above the first floor tends to bleed into the floor below.) How much space do you have at home? (If space is limited, consider buying a folding treadmill.)
If you choose to purchase a treadmill for home use, be sure to install it in a space with appropriate climate control. You generate a lot of heat when running and are likely to feel uncomfortably warm in the same room that is perfectly comfortable when you are sitting still. Whether it’s windows, air conditioning, or a fan, you need some means to keep from overheating while using your machine.
Also, for the sake of boredom prevention, you will probably want to set up your treadmill in a place that allows you to watch television while using it.
There are a few different ways to incorporate treadmill running into your training. Which way is best for you depends on your individual needs and circumstances. Here are the basic options:
As necessary – Some runners train on treadmills only when inclement weather keeps them from running outdoors. The treadmill can also be a good fallback option when you have certain minor injuries, as it allows you to crank up the gradient and go slow for a lower-impact workout.
Seasonally – Some runners in northern climates train primarily or exclusively on treadmills during the winter, when conditions make it difficult to run outdoors, and run primarily or exclusively outdoors in the warmer months. That was 2000 Olympic Trials Marathon winner Christine Clark’s routine in Alaska.
Habitually – Some runners do certain runs on the treadmill routinely. For example, Rod DeHaven used to do his easy morning runs on a treadmill in his basement and his afternoon runs—including all of his high-intensity and long runs—outdoors. Others like to use the treadmill to do particular key workouts that the treadmill accommodates well: for example, long, steady uphill runs, which are hard to do outdoors unless you have a mountain handy.
Exclusively – A few treadmill runners like Rick Morris run primarily or exclusively on treadmills by choice. If that’s your thing, go for it, but it is probably not the best way to train for optimal race performance.
Most of the workouts you do outdoors can also be done on a treadmill. But the treadmill is actually better suited than the outdoors to a few specific types of workouts. Here are three such sessions.
The Endless Hill
One of the favorite workouts of many Kenyan and Ethiopian runners is to run from the bottom to the top of a mountain and back down. This very effective workout is difficult to do if you do not live near a mountain, but you can do the climbing part of it on a treadmill. As a substitute for a regular weekend long run, hop on a treadmill and run for the same duration on an upward gradient. You can choose a steady gradient of 6-8 percent or make it more interesting by changing the gradient periodically, even going up to 10-15 percent for short periods.
Warm up with one mile of easy jogging and then run anywhere from four to 12 miles (depending on where you are in the training process) at your ideal marathon pace. Doing this workout on a treadmill enables you to lock right on to that pace and stay there.
The workout format that exercise physiologists commonly use to determine VO2max is also useful as a powerful (if painful!) fitness-boosting workout. Start by hopping on the treadmill and running easy for 5 to 10 minutes. Next, increase the belt speed by 0.5 mph and run for one minute at that speed. Now increase the belt speed by another 0.5 mph, hold the new speed for another minute, and continue in this fashion until you feel unable to run any faster. Reduce the belt speed and cool down. Note the maximum speed you attained and try to beat it when you repeat the workout in three or four weeks.