Treadmill Versus Outdoor Running

I was talking to a runner earlier today…and he mentioned a friend of his had recently claimed to run under 17 minute pace for the 5K only one month after starting running/training – primarily as conditioning for another sport. My friend (the real runner) seemed concerned that this “newbie” runner was able to achieve such a feat so quickly and without seemingly much work or experience. So how, you ask, is this newbie doing so well, so quickly? Well, I left out the most important clue…he was running on a treadmill.

Could a treadmill really make that much of a difference? Is treadmill running that much easier than traditional outdoor running? Are treadmill times not realistic? And is treadmill running adequate training for an outdoor road, cross country or track race?

According to the experts at Runners World and other resources I have researched, treadmill running and road running are definitely not the same. And therefore, the times achieved from one versus the other really should not be compared. All-in-all, it is agreed that running on a treadmill is easier than running outdoors, for a variety of reasons, including:

  • The treadmill belt assists leg turnover, making it easier to run faster. This is why most runners will find that their pace on the treadmill doesn’t correlate to their road pace. (Good point for my “real” running friend.)
  • Some of the soft tissue conditioning or “hardening” that occurs with road running does not occur with treadmill running because the plate or base on the treadmill “gives” more than road surfaces. (Meaning – it’s a better muscle workout outdoors.)
  • There are no weather conditions to deal with when running indoors (rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, etc.). (Meaning “real runners” run outside and face the elements – whatever they might be.)
  • The incline that just occurs with outdoor running (because in case you didn’t know – the world isn’t flat!) is also missing on the treadmill – unless you specifically increase the incline on the machine!

This is not to say that the treadmill can’t be a great training tool – for a variety of reasons. And I’ll be the first to say I like the treadmill – unlike many of my “real” runner friends who almost equate it to the elliptical machine! In fact, a number of years back (around 2006-2007) after returning from college, I started running primarily on the LA Fitness treadmills after work each day. It was easier for me because I could go right after work and see people I knew; it was also safer because the sun was going down pretty early at that time of year and running outside wasn’t a great option for a single female. After a few months of “treadmill training,” I ended up running some great 5K times in outdoor road races. I attribute it to the short but FAST workouts I would do on the treadmill – of course music blasting. For me, as an overly competitive person, running on a treadmill ensured that I would run fast because in my head I had to look like a “real” runner to the random people working out around me!

But I digress…Because treadmill running is easier, it’s a good ideas to use it for speed work (like I did). You can do this by speeding up the pace for short intervals and then slowing it down for recovery intervals (i.e. a Fart-Lek – I’ll define that in a later post). This is a very convenient way to get in some speed work or tempo runs in a controlled setting.

Here are a few more Treadmill Running Tips:

Use a slight incline.

  • Set the treadmill inclination to 1% to 2%. Since there’s no wind resistance indoors, a gentle uphill better simulates outdoor running. Of course, if you’re just getting started with running, it’s fine to leave the incline at 0% until you build up your fitness.
  • At the same time, don’t set the incline too steep (more than 7%) — this may lead to Achilles tendon or calf injuries. Also, don’t run at an incline of more than 2% for your entire run.

Don’t hold onto the handrail or console.

  • Some people assume that they need to hold onto the handrails when walking or running on a treadmill. The handrails are only there to help you safely get onto and off of the treadmill.
  • When running on the treadmill, practice proper upper body form by keeping your arms at a 90 degree angle, just as you would if you were running outside.

Don’t lean forward.

  • Make sure to keep your body upright. It’s not necessary to lean forward because the treadmill pulls your feet backward. You need to pull your feet from the belt before they are driven away by the belt.

Pay attention to your stride.

  • Keep your stride quick and short to help minimize the impact transferred to your legs. Try to maintain a mid-foot strike to make sure you’re not heel striking and sending shock to your knees. You may need to exaggerate the heel lift because the lack of forward momentum means your feet won’t be moving in a circular path.
  • The more steps you take per minute, the more efficiently you’ll run. Elite runners run about 180 steps per minute. Determine your stride count by counting how often one foot hits the belt in a minute and then doubling that number. Try to improve your stride count during your run by focusing on taking shorter, quicker strides and keeping your feet close to the belt. This exercise will help you deal with boredom on the treadmill and even improve your outdoor running.

Don’t look down.

  • It can be hard not to continually look to see how much time or distance you have left, but if you’re looking down, your running form will suffer.
  • Don’t stare at your feet either. You’re likely to run hunched over, which could lead to back and neck pain. Looking straight ahead is the safest way to run, whether you’re on the treadmill or running outside.

Looking to buy a treadmill? Check out these.

Wondering what the world records are for treadmill runners? Here they are!

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