As the weather gets less amazing, I’m relegated to treadmill miles more and more. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to run in some great locations lately, including a week of running along the Thames in London. Amazing.
The treadmill isn’t all bad, so perhaps ‘relegated’ isn’t the right word, but it is not as good as running outside. It does have some distinct benefits, and I’d actually recommend it for a novice or to get back on your feet to help build some basics. Then set yourself free and really do some amazing things on your feet outside.
Treadmills provide a steady, reliable and consistent platform on which to run. That means the major muscle groups can develop in a bit of a protected environment. I’ve discussed how this helped me rebuild foot toughness as I got back into running after hernia surgery. It’s also really easy to see your progress thanks to all the metrics most treadmills provide. So, if you’re just getting into running, it can be a good way to build into it smoothly.
One other strong point is that you don’t run on treadmills. Treadmills run you. This is also a downside I discuss later, but for a novice, this can be really helpful. If you use intervals, you are forced to keep up (or fall off), so you end up going faster when you should and slower when you shouldn’t. Just be sure to be choosing appropriate speeds.
So, there are benefits.
I already mentioned a pro that is a con – treadmills run you, not the other way around. While this can help to ensure you speed up during your intense interval, I find that, for the same level of effort, I go considerably slower on the treadmill than outside. I tend to run in the low 7-minutes when I go on my 2 minute intense interval. On the treadmill, I really have to kick it hard to maintain an 8-minute pace, and am hurting to break 8. I can also maintain a sub 7’30” pace running outside for some distance (or time), but can’t do that on the treadmill. Well, ‘can’t’ is a strong word. I could, but it wouldn’t be wise.
Another downside is the lack of variability in cushioning, path level/variation, and direction. Hitting different types of surfaces builds some really fine motor skills in your feet, ankles, calves…basically, everything – even your arms since you likely use them a bit differently on different surfaces. The same goes for dealing with uneven or undulating surfaces. And making a turn is a good thing to develop muscles all around your leg rather than just the narrow set needed to go straight ahead. In essence, variability in what you’re running on really helps build a complete running machine. This is really similar to lifting weights with a machine versus free weights.
I was really shocked at the whole ‘treadmill runs you’ aspect. I started running on a treadmill, and signed up for a 5K, but was really concerned with my expected time given what I was doing on the treadmill. My first run outside, I shaved 3 minutes off my 5K. That’s huge. By the end of the month with maybe 40% outdoor running, my non-treadmill time had come down by another 3 minutes. My treadmill time was roughly the same, though. This was so surprising.
So, they aren’t all bad, and aren’t all good. They serve a purpose, and are definitely better than not running, but if you can, do get out into the world and run a bit. It’s really rewarding mentally and physically. If you can track your time and distance, I think you will find it really rewarding to your sense of accomplishment, too. Go on, enlighten.your.body.