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Winter Running... Treadmill Drudgery vs Outdoor Running?

Is running on a treadmill the same as running outside? There are pros and cons to both outdoor running and treadmill running- we will take a scientific approach at comparing the two and what is best for maintaining your fitness through the tough winter months.

  • Specificity of training

  • While running on a treadmill is without a doubt boring, it is an excellent tool for speed specificity. One of the best predicting factors for determining running race performance is the pace at which you complete your workouts. Interval work completed at goal race pace helps your body get accustomed to running at that specific speed. The closer this speed is to your race pace, the more comfortable this pace should theoretically be once you get in a race situation. For example, completing 800 meter repeats at your 5k race pace is a great way to physiologically prepare for this speed come race day. This type of workout is easy to replicate on a treadmill. Trying to hit this same particular pace while drudging through snow and ice may be nearly impossible.

  • In relation to training specificity, we also know that running a 7:00 mile on a treadmill is metabolically easier than running a 7:00 mile outside for a few reasons. First, even flat, fast running courses will have small amounts of incline and declines unless you are racing on a track. Even minor changes in terrain cause an increase in energy output when running outside. Secondly, when running on a treadmill, wind is a non-issue. Even on a still day while running outside, you must propel your body forward, resulting in a wind resistance equivocal to speed at which you are moving. When running on a treadmill, you do not propel your body forward, you stay in the same location, which equates to running with a tailwind equal to however fast you are moving (if you are running 7 mph on a treadmill, this is equal to a 7 mph tailwind outside).

  • To counterbalance the differences in terrain and wind resistance eliminated while running on a treadmill, complete all workouts with a grade of 1%. Research shows treadmill running with a grade of 1% is metabolically equal to outdoor running.

  • Pacing

  • One both advantage and disadvantage to treadmill running is the pace aspect. You can set your speed at your target pace during workouts, allowing you to complete workouts at whatever your desired speed may be. The disadvantage to this is that you don’t learn pace, which may hurt you in a race situation. Developing a sense of pacing is essential in any type endurance running race.

  • Biomechanics

  • Turns out, treadmill running biomechanics are essentially the same as outdoor running biomechanics, so long as you don’t have to leap snow piles and icy spots. Also, don’t hold on to the rails while running on the treadmill, this may decrease workload by 28%!

  • Psychological factors

  • Many researchers have found that time spent outside, especially in green spaces or parks, offers a variety of psychological benefits, including improved mood, improved energy levels, and better sleep. While these benefits are surely received with any mode of continuous exercise, it is unclear as to whether these benefits are as significant while running on a treadmill when compared to outdoor running.

  • Summary

  • While there are certainly pros and cons of using both modes of running, it may be smart to use a combination of the two during winter months. If the weather seems too dangerous, such as icy and extremely cold conditions, the treadmill may be a great option. Tempo or interval runs during the winter may be best completed on a treadmill in order to maintain pace specificity if conditions are bad. For easy runs, choosing the great outdoors is the best option! The treadmill can be monotonous and boring, and we also know that being outdoors can provide us with some needed psychological lifts during the dreary winter months! Happy running!!

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