Last Updated on June 17, 2018 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Ask any runner what they think of treadmills and chances are good they will respond with a shudder. With not-so-affectionate nicknames such as the “dreadmill” or “human hamster wheel”, it seems runners either hate them or tolerate them; very few claim to actually love treadmill running. But there is no denying the fact that treadmills can be both a convenient and useful supplement to regular training programs. I’m often asked by clients and gym patrons which is better, running on a treadmill or running outside, and my answer is usually “which ever method you’ll actually DO is the best one”. But do treadmills actually have benefits over road or trail running? Here is a list of the pros and cons of running on treadmills.
Quite possibly the most obvious benefit of treadmill running: it’s always there. Perhaps you are a parent who wants to put in a quick run while your child naps, without leaving the comfort of your own home or having to worry about finding a babysitter. Or maybe the closest running trail is simply too far of a drive when you are on a tight time crunch. Maybe you’d rather have teeth pulled than run outside in the freezing cold weather (I can sympathize.) Whatever the reason, a treadmill is a great, reliable option to ensure you have a place to run. As long as the power doesn’t go out.
Con: Treadmills are “easier”
(Is that really a con? Kidding…) Because the belt moves underneath your feet, the movement required to run on a treadmill is slightly different than running outdoors. On a treadmill a runner simply needs to lift their feet, instead of pushing off the ground and propelling themselves forward as they would on the road or a trail. As a result, many runners find treadmill running to be slightly easier, and their average pace faster on a treadmill than on the road. Taking your training off of the treadmill forces you to engage your muscles more actively to propel yourself forward. Further, factors such as wind resistance come into play, forcing you to push harder during your run. Running on a treadmill is certainly stellar cardiovascular exercise, but if you are training for a race rather than just fitness, make sure some of your training runs are done outside.
Note: to compensate for this difference, make sure you always set your treadmill incline to a minimum grade of 1.0% or higher.
Pro AND Con: Pacing
On a treadmill, you choose a specific pace, typically displayed as miles per hour, and run at that exact speed until you push the buttons signaling you would like to slow down or speed up. Your pace is consistent and predictable. Outdoors, you propel yourself forward without the aid of a moving road under your feet, thus your pace can vary greatly at any given time. If you are looking to maintain a certain pace to reach a specific time and distance goal, pacing yourself with a treadmill can be an excellent form of training. For example, running on treadmill will help you become more aware of what it feels like to sustain a steady pace of say, 8:00/ miles throughout the duration of your run. BUT…spending more time running outdoors will allow your body to become used to sustaining a consistent pace on your own, which requires more physical and mental effort than running on a treadmill.
Pro: Hill Training for Flat-Landers
If you live in a part of the country that lacks hills and elevation changes (I’m looking at you, Southern East Coast), training on a treadmill can simulate hill training. And let’s face it, running hills can be a fantastic workout, as it helps increase leg strength, cardiovascular endurance, and overall speed. Further, if you are training for a race that contains a lot of hills, it is imperative to replicate the hilly course during your training, or chances are you will end up miserable on race day. Most gym quality treadmills can reach an incline of up to a 12 percent grade, while some have the ability to go even higher. Don’t be afraid to use the incline.
Con: Running Downhill
What goes up, must come down…except on a treadmill. The majority of treadmills provide the option of either mimicking running on flat terrain, or running uphill. Very few offer a platform that descends, mimicking downhill running. It sounds silly to say that people don’t know how to run downhill, but it’s true; many people cannot get comfortable with the change in stride, and instead cause their body to almost fight against gravity. Running downhill requires greater eccentric contraction of the quadriceps and lower leg muscles, and also requires a different skill set and form than running on flat surfaces. Trust me when I tell you that there is an art to running downhill. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have been passed during a race on an uphill portion, only to fly past those same people on the downhill portion because they don’t know how to run downhill. Therefore, in order to train for and master downhill running technique, it is important to get outside and practice descending hills.
Pro: Injury Prevention…Sometimes.
The belt of a treadmill has more give than paved roads or cement sidewalks, and some treadmills are even padded underneath the belt. As a result, treadmills typically create less impact on your body, specifically the legs and lower back. The fact that a treadmill is easier on the body may be ideal for runners who are coming back from an injury, are trying to safely increase their overall mileage, or even overweight runners who may be more prone to impact injuries.
That said, the treadmill can sometimes create an unnatural gait in some runners, causing them experience discomfort from irregular running form. Overtime, this could lead to injury. And for what it’s worth: falling off of a treadmill isn’t very pretty, so be careful.
Pro: Avoid Bad Weather
I’m not going to lie: despite all of the crazy and sometimes downright ridiculous races I do, I’m still a pansy when it comes to cold weather. In fact, as I write this, it’s 7:30 am, and I’m trying to muster up the courage to go race a 5K in 34 “feels like 23” degree weather with 20 mph winds. No thanks. While many other (more bada$$) runners do not let inclement weather stop them, there often comes a time when weather conditions may be downright unsafe for everyone. Below freezing temperatures, dangerous winds, thunderstorms, or even extreme heat are not ideal, nor always safe, running conditions. A treadmill allows runners to put in their mileage regardless of the weather outdoors.
Con: No Fresh Air
Raise your hand if you work indoors (I’m guessing this applies to most of you.) With busy schedules, many people often find themselves stuck indoors for the majority of the day. Your mother wasn’t lying when she said you need to get outside and get some fresh air: there are a number of health benefits associated with spending time outdoors, including increased happiness, improved concentration, and even improved healing.
At least once a week I see a Facebook friend post about a scary encounter they had with either animals or sadly, humans, while on a run. Fortunately most end in simply a scare, but unfortunately not all of them do. Feeling uncomfortable running by yourself through a particular neighborhood or secluded trail without your running partner? Or maybe you were unable to find time for your workout during daylight hours, and are hesitant to run in the dark. Unfortunately I can’t say that I blame you these days. Running on a treadmill ensures that you are safe from things that go bump in the night (or simply jerks with intentions of ruining your day) within the confines of a gym or your own home.
Alright, so this “Con” is certainly subjective. But if you poll 100 runners, I’d be willing to bet the majority will report treadmill running to be monotonous. And for obvious reasons: because the scenery indoors doesn’t change, and the action of running on the moving belt doesn’t require too much thought, the treadmill can become very tedious and boring. Running outdoors, however, provides a constant change of scenery as the miles pass. Outside, you have the opportunity to explore new routes and see varying sights, which will help keep the monotony at bay. Further, running outdoors requires a much higher level of awareness than running on a treadmill; runners must be aware of things such as traffic, change in terrain, and other obstacles or possible hazards.
So there you have it, 10 solid pros and cons to treadmill running. Let’s hear it from you guys: love the treadmill or hate it? What benefits have you found from the treadmill when it comes to your training?