It may have reached 60 degrees in Boston yesterday, but with January and February approaching, there's guaranteed to be some icy and snowy days in most of the US. The most common question I get this time of year is- "Is running on the treadmill the same as running outside and is it okay if I do some of my runs on the treadmill?" Keep reading to find out about the physiological differences between treadmill running and outdoor running, some tips on how to use the treadmill properly, and some advice on how to avoid it (if you want to!). PS: This lovely runner is my little sis who was both my high school and college teammate (plus so much more ❤)
Is there a physiological difference between running on the treadmill and running outside?
Even though these are both forms of the same activity, there actually are some physiological differences! When the treadmill's belt moves below you, it pulls the foot that is in contact with the ground behind you. This allows you to use your hamstrings less and forces you to use your quads more. This is one reason why some people find treadmill running easier than others. Those with stronger quads than hamstrings often feel smooth and easy on the treadmill while those with weaker quads and stronger hamstrings often feel the opposite. (Side note: Treadmill running may help one recover from a hamstring injury because it takes some of the stress off of the muscle.) Does this physiological difference affect training? I haven't read any studies that have proven one form of running to be advantageous over the other, but keep in mind that races are run outdoors. If you are solely running on the treadmill, you may want to consider getting outside sometimes. Nonetheless, I've seen some athletes race great without stepping outside during training.
If weather conditions are not ideal, should I run on the treadmill to ensure that I hit my goal workout paces?
Running outside in poor weather makes you more prepared for poor weather racing conditions (think Des Linden winning the 2018 Boston Marathon). Just like we practice running hills or running on a track, there is a lot to gain from crushing a workout in the windy rain, even if it means that the splits are slower than what they would have been on a clear day. When I lived in Michigan, my coaches had a us do an experiment where we ran a tempo on a snowy windy day in Michigan and then hopped on a plane and did the same tempo in ideal temps in Florida. After shedding all of the warm weather gear and getting out of the wind, I was 30 seconds per mile faster in Florida. Yes, the paces were slower in the tough conditions, but I was still getting the necessary fitness in. Running in harsh conditions translates to fast times in ideal conditions, but the opposite is not always true. Therefore, I like to look at the challenging weather days as opportunities to make me stronger, rather than getting frustrated or hiding from them on the treadmill to ensure perfect splits. The one exception to this rule is dangerous conditions. If there is deep snow or ice outside, one should definitely stick to the treadmill. The same is true if it is very dark out or excruciatingly cold.
How can I run in slippery and snowy conditions if I don't have access to a treadmill?
No worries! Due North ice cleats are probably the best running related item that I've ever purchased. I was introduced to them when I was training in Michigan where I'm fairly certain it snowed every day from November to April. I was skeptical at first. I thought the cleats would feel heavy, clank on the ground where there wasn't snow, or simply fall off. Friends in the area swore by them, so I eventually gave in and it was a game-changer. (I also couldn't keep up if I didn't have them on, since I was the only one still sliding backwards with every step!) The cleats come in a few different sizes and the spikes make a substantial difference with traction. I have even been able to do hard tempo runs on the snow without feeling the dangers or frustrations of slippery surfaces. The spikes are small, so I am also able to run with them where there is no snow on the ground with limited irritability. They make a slight clicking noise, but it is nothing near the discomfort one feels walking on concrete with track spikes. Even if this were to bother you, the spikes are removable and the rubber surface on the bottom of the cleat still helps a great deal with traction. We had a snow/ice storm all day yesterday in Boston and today I was able to do my morning shakeout around the local unplowed reservoir without a problem. This way I could actually enjoy the snow!
How do you properly run on the treadmill?
Many runners are subconsciously nervous about falling off the back of the treadmill. Therefore, they run close to the front of the belt. While this seems "safer", it will actually cause one to alter their form by shortening their stride. Such alterations in running form could lead to injury or make running on the treadmill unnecessarily difficult. Aim to let yourself run in the middle of the treadmill, which may feel like the back. In addition, when logging miles on the treadmill, set the incline to 0.5% to 1.0% to account for the air resistance that you would encounter running outside (set the incline even higher if you want to account for those wintery gusts 😉)
My GPS watch and the treadmill display do not match. Which should I trust?
Unfortunately, GPS watches, even on their indoor mode, aren't very accurate on the treadmill. I always go by both the pace and distance on the treadmill display and ditch the watch. While is possible that a treadmill may not be calibrated correctly, I find the watch is usually less accurate. Remember, don't be too much of a perfectionist with pace and distance, especially on a treadmill. As long as you feel like you got in the proper effort, then you accomplished the goal of the day.
An interesting treadmill study
My friend, Wali ,set me an intriguing treadmill-related article this morning that definitely deserves to be shared. According to a study done by @strydrunning (using their foot pod power sensor) , the treadmill's belt speed is not constant. "When your foot strikes the belt, the motor is loaded in the belt slows temporarily. Conversely, when your body is in the air, the motor applies an extra speed to the belt to recover from the previous loading." What does this mean for you as a runner? If your treadmill is properly calibrated, about 2% of the distance the belt travels during your run is "free distance" that is recorded by the treadmill but does not have any metabolic cost to you. The figure above, taken from the Stryd Blog article, displays belt speed over the time of a runner's stride. Does this mean running on the treadmill is easier than running outside? Possibly, but it depends on how your treadmill is calibrated and whether you run with a normal stride when you are on it.