A friend recently commented on her indoor runs as being on the “dreadmill”. Usually, runners are out in droves by this time of year, soaking up the “just right” running weather—still cool and no longer cold. But this year with the weather being colder, longer and the streets being slushy and sometimes icy, running outside can be unsafe, as well as downright uncomfortable. Same goes for the oppressive heat of the dog days summer. Sure, there are plenty of runners willing to run the elements, but the weather plays a part in runner safety. Can you get a decent run in on a treadmill? Is it better to brave the elements? Or is a treadmill run something to dread? Here are some common questions and responses to this pondering question.

 

Treadmill versus Outdoor Running

Q: Is treadmill running easier than running at the same speed outdoors?

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Treadmill running may feel more taxing, but physiologically it’s actually a bit easier than running outdoors. Running on the treadmill, you don’t have to overcome the effects of wind resistance and you also have that assistance of a moving belt doing part of the work for you. To more closely simulate road running, set your treadmill’s incline at one or two percent.

Q: Can I train on a treadmill for a road race?

Short answer: If you must.

Longer answer: You can train for a road race mostly on a treadmill, but you need to make a few adjustments. Be sure to increase the incline and run “hills” on the treadmill once or twice a week. And because treadmill belts offer a relatively soft landing, take steps to prepare your body for racing on asphalt:

  • Strength-train at least twice a week (lunges, squats, hip extensions, planks, push-ups).
  • Do at least one short outdoor run each week during the last four weeks of training.
  • During your race, you may want to walk a minute at every mile marker or aid station. This will ease the overall impact on your body and give you a chance to hydrate.
  • Finally, on race day, run by effort–not by pace or time goals. You’ll be on unfamiliar ground, literally.

Q: Are treadmills “easier” on your body than running outdoors?

Short answer: Yes and no.

Longer answer: In general, running on a treadmill is less stressful on the body than running outdoors. The treadmill absorbs a significant amount of impact, but it doesn’t condition the shock-absorbing musculature of the lower extremities like road running does.

 

Over the long term, heavy treadmill use may actually leave you more prone to injuries like stress fractures because of the repetitive motion.

Q: Can I wear my running shoes on a treadmill or should I consider new footwear?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: Runners can wear the same shoes whether running inside or out. However, you may want to opt for a lighter pair with less cushioning when running on a treadmill.  With a treadmill being softer than outside surfaces, you can save your more cushioned shoes for outside. However, if you wear a shoe with any motion-control features, choose something similar for the treadmill to be sure you have the proper support.

 

Also, wearing a different shoe for outside versus inside will keep your treadmill clear of outside dirt that may cause additional wear and tear on the belt.

 

 

Maximizing Your Treadmill Workout

Q:  I prefer a treadmill because I can easily track my effort. Just how accurate are those “calories burned” numbers?

Short answer: Not terribly.

Longer answer: Treadmills fool us by estimating total calories burned during our time on the machine. Factors that affect the amount of calories used during exercise include:

  • Weight: your muscles must use calories to move your mass across a mile or kilometer. This is the most important factor. The more weight, the more calories burned per mile or kilometer.
  • Stride length: a shorter stride means picking up and putting down your feet more times per mile or kilometer, which burns more calories.
  • Exercise intensity: you burn more calories if your heart and lungs are working harder. This can be measured by your heart rate.
  • Efficiency: the smoother your motion, the fewer calories you will burn over a given distance.
  • Speed: covering the same distance in a shorter amount of time, you not only have burned more calories during that time due to intensity, you will also be burning calories just breathing and existing in the time you saved. The net effect is more calories burned.
  • Incline: walking or running uphill burns more calories than going downhill or on a level surface.
  • Motorized treadmills: the moving belt and smooth surface reduce your calories burned per mile compared with non-treadmill walking or running. The difference in calories burned can be made up by having at least a 1% incline on the treadmill.
  • Holding Onto the hand rails: you will burn fewer calories if you hold onto the rails while walking or running on the treadmill.

 

Many treadmills cannot compile all of this information to accurately calculate your calories burned. With that, you can use the calorie counter on your treadmill as a general guide and/or to keep you motivated to continue running. Just keep these other factors in mind before rewarding yourself with a post-workout donut!

 

Q: Why do treadmills use “mph” when runners prefer minutes per mile?

Short answer: Because mph is beginner-friendly.

Longer answer: Most treadmills offer both readings of miles per hour and minutes per mile. Manufacturers include mph because beginners or casual treadmill users may not be familiar with the concept of minutes per mile, which is the measure preferred by experienced runners. If you’re stuck on an old treadmill that offers only mph, converting to minutes per mile just requires some math.

Here is a cheat sheet:

Miles per Hour Minutes per Mile
5.0 12:00
6.0 10:00
7.0 8:34
8.0 7:30
9.0 6:40
10.0 6:00
11.0 5:27
12.0 5:00

Q: Am I better off running faster with no incline, or slower with a steeper incline?

Short answer: Yes!

Longer answer: Both are needed for improving your fitness. The slower uphill workouts build strength and power, while the faster flat workouts build stamina, endurance, and foot speed. Adjust both speed and incline during your workout, and you can better simulate the changing terrain of a road run.

Q: What’s the difference between a $1,000 treadmill and a $3,000 one?

Short answer: Quality.

Longer answer: Pricier treadmills are built with stronger frames and motors that can endure long-term use. For a quality treadmill with a smooth ride, look to spend about $1,000 to $3,000. Machines that cost less than this often can’t handle long-term use, and those more than $3,000 are technological overkill for most runners.

Hit the Road, Runners!

As a runner myself, I prefer the road. The scenery and people-watching help keep me occupied as I rack up the miles. And you never know when you’ll serendipitously meet up with a runner friend, and will have companionship and conversation to pass the time. Still, others prefer the treadmill for the consistency of environment, the climate controlled room, and access to a TV. Sure, both methods have their up and down sides. But you can train safely either way. The important thing is that you lace up those shoes, fill up that water bottle, and get out there and run!