Running is my “thinking time” and as I was running today I was thinking about the pros and cons of running on a treadmill. The majority of the miles I run are outdoor, even in the winter, but I chose the treadmill for running today for many specific reasons. As I was listing those reasons in my mind I thought this might be an interesting topic to write about. So, here’s my thinking.
Pros of Treadmill Running:
Treadmills offer more cushioning or have more “give” than hard concrete or asphalt surfaces. This can be helpful for those recovering from an injury or those prone to plantar fasciitis or other ailments. In the winter, ice and snow can slow pacing and increases the risk of slipping and falling; so naturally if these are concerns, the treadmill is a good option. Treadmills offer safety from traffic, as well as can be done late at night or early in the morning when it’s dark outside. Often poor air quality or allergies drive people indoors. As a mother I have many friends with young children that choose to run on the treadmill because they can do it even with small children at home. It’s convenient. I know this is helpful for many.
Another thing I like to do is use my Lily Trotters (best compression socks out there – use the code RUNBLONDE to save) on the treadmill to work on my running form. Without the extra cushion of running shoes this forces you to adapt for a soft landing on the midfoot. It helps to build ankle strength.
One thing I like about treadmill running is that you can set a pace and zone out. Your only job is to maintain that pace and hold it. It can also help develop more consistent pacing in running. If you struggle with this, then give a treadmill tempo workout a try. Treadmill or “hamster wheel” running, as some people affectionately call it, can also improve cadence.
Another good thing about treadmill running is there’s a bathroom close by. I have had many athletes with this concern and have suggested treadmill running for them. However it is also easier for them to “give-up” or cut a workout short because they have not run miles away from home and have to get back, but at least there are no worries about air quality or allergens in the air like outdoors.
Another plus to treadmill running that I’ve seen with my mother-in-law, is the ability to listen to books on tape/podcasts, read or watch movies to make the time go faster. It keeps you busy so you don’t snack on junk food too.
Cons of Treadmill Running:
For me, the number one con for treadmill use is not being outdoors and enjoying the scenery. I am a total nature girl and enjoy being outdoors. We all need a little sunshine. Although I am not a fan of the cold, I will get out and run in it, because you get warm when you run (well, mostly). When I run indoors I tend to “sweat buckets” and often run with a visor to help keep sweat out of my eyes. If you do use the treadmill inside be sure to use a fan to increase the air movement to cool you down! Be aware that it can dehydrate you quickly so be sure to drink up!
Another Con is “people watching” you at the gym. On occasion I have seen the person on the treadmill next to me glance over and one-up my effort, like we are racing or something. For me, I am not there to compete with others, I just want to do my workout. A lot of times I just turn up the tunes in my ears and zone-out. I love listening to music when I work-out. I dance and snap my fingers, at first I was worried this would bother others but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. I just have fun and enjoy my run. I love to run! Some people join in the fun and start snapping too and we exchange smiles. I love it! Once when I was doing intervals a friend saw me and formed a little cheering crowd. It was crazy fun and I rocked that workout! I am not always up for this kind of attention though, so I usually find the less-visible treadmill so I can just do my thing.
Another disadvantage to treadmill running is that the movement is not the same. It’s not “natural” some would say. I agree. I find that I shortening my stride so I don’t step on the front of the treadmill. The treadmill also pulls your leg back for you, not allowing you to use the glutes, hamstrings and stabilizing muscles the same. I don’t believe the muscles are developed the same way on the treadmill as they are outdoor. After coaching for so many years I can say it is not the same. I know I mentioned safety as a “pro” for treadmill use, but it can also be a con if you are a clumsy athlete that struggles to stay upright. I am sure you’ve all seen the funny YouTube videos on treadmill running mishaps. So a fall and injury is a real possibility on the treadmill for some. Maybe the snow is better?
Another concern for me with treadmill running is the accuracy. I often notice that the pacing is different on the indoor treadmills for the effort so I am not sure how accurate it is. Different treadmills will spit out different numbers, albeit a pretty good “ball-park” number I would assume. Being kind of anal about training details this is a little bothersome to me and has been for my athletes.
Because the numbers, accurate or not, are staring at me in the face. I often look at them and find myself “watching time.” You know what they say about watching a pot of water boil? Yep, time goes slowly when you watch it. Maybe this is what contributes to the boredom for some and the reason some call it the “dreadmill.” However, sometimes I use this “number-watching” to further breakdown my workouts and stay focused, so it can actually be helpful. I think many people prefer to look at trees and things go by them though. It’s a valuable distraction. Most gym treadmills often limit your time too. Our gym gives you 45 minutes (after 40 minutes it automatically starts you on a 5 minute cool-down) then it is someone else’s turn or you have to start it over. I don’t like this stop and go when I get in my groove.
So, as usual, I was curious as to what all my running & triathlon friends thought about running on the treadmill so I posted this question to Facebook:
Do you think treadmill running is easier or harder than outdoor running and why?
I got a variety of responses and I believe the consensus indicated that treadmill running can be boring and that it is mentally hard. I would agree with this. This is one of the reasons I do it, to build mental toughness. One of my favorite responses was outdoor running is “…good for the soul.” I would agree 100%. Everyone needs a little sunshine and fresh air (assuming the air quality is good when you go – wink). On the other hand, if you feel like Ben and “…would rather poke your eyes out with flaming sticks than run” but a treadmill works for you, go for it.
I value the benefits of both indoor treadmill running and running on the roads. So let’s talk about the pros of outdoor running for a bit. In nearly all of my running classes I talk about ‘training like you race’ and how many races are done on a treadmill? Few, if any. Thus, there is value in outdoor running. It’s a more natural movement and what we will be doing when it comes race time.
In my opinion, health-wise, I think it’s wise to do a bit of both, but mostly outdoor running, because it’s more natural. Go indoor if you need some mental work, want to work on pace/cadence a little bit or if the air quality is poor or horrible weather. Certainly a fall is not going to be good for your running! Either way the treadmill can be a useful training tool taking all things into consideration. Just create balance.
Coach Lora Erickson