Running on a Treadmill vs. Outdoors

running on a treadmill vs. outdoors

Throughout the winter, the treadmill has served for many of us as a substitution for the outdoors, a device constructed to train our bodies all year round, regardless of the weather. As the weather warms and the days become longer, many of us will make the shift from the treadmill to the outdoors. Most of us will have a similar experience the first day back on the pavement. We set out to run a certain number of miles, and we struggle…a lot. Why when we have spent all winter running on a treadmill can we not run our usual mileage? Let me explain.

Undoubtedly, the treadmill is the most popular piece of equipment in the gym. When used properly, it can be an extremely effective way to get the blood flowing during a warmup, improve your cardiovascular condition, and burn unwanted fat. There have been a lot of articles written about the biomechanics and metabolic differences between running on the treadmill and running outdoors, and the bottom line is that both workouts are essentially the same. However, there are mechanical advantages to running outside such as the muscles engaged and built when running against the wind, as well as downhill, around turns, and uneven ground. Although the overall workout and calorie burn many be the same between the two, let’s take a deeper look at why running outdoors presents a more challenging workout than running on a treadmill.

Treadmills do a lot of the work for you. As you run on the treadmill, the moving belt pulls your foot back rather than you pulling your foot back yourself and as a result you don’t need to pull your body forward with the back of your legs to setup for your next stride. In other words, the treadmill is essentially pulling you along. This not only changes your running gait but doesn’t engage and develop your hamstring and glute muscles, which are heavily relied on for running outside. So what happens when you decide to run outside? Your body isn’t prepared to pull your planted leg to drive your body forward and into the next stride.

Elements of nature can also be a huge deterring factor. Inside, you are in a controlled, most likely, air conditioned environment. The biggest burst of air in the gym comes from the lovely cooling fan above or in front of you. Outside, it can be much warmer, the air is thicker, the wind is coming from every direction, the ground is uneven, and the surface is opposite of flat. Provided with all of these unpredictable elements of mother nature, your body isn’t used to it’s new running environment, and it can be a struggle.

Another huge, not to be overlooked factor of why running on a treadmill can be much easier than outside, is the principle of specificity. In other words, the body will adapt to the specific demands and stresses that it encounters. Bottom line: train for what you want to be good at. If you want to be good at running on the treadmill, run on the treadmill. If you want to be good at running outside, run outside. Although comparable workouts, the treadmill and the outdoors place a different stress on the body, which in turn will create a different outcome.

To improve your outdoor runs, spend more time away from the treadmill and gradually build up your running time outdoors. Increase your outdoor running time each week and decrease your treadmill time. For example, you can begin with a goal of 20 minutes running time outdoors and still do 60 minute runs on the treadmill. The following week increase your outdoor running time by 5-10 mins and decrease your treadmill time by the same. When training on a treadmill, make sure to put the incline at a minimum of 1% to simulate the outdoors. Also be sure to build your hamstring and glute muscles with strength training all year round with hip and leg extension exercises such as: different variations of deadlifts, glute ham raises, and kettlebell swings. Now get outside and have a good run!

Written by Sophie DeHenzel
Running on a Treadmill vs. Outdoors

Photo courtesy of: avemario/

About DeHenzel Training Systems: DeHenzel Training Systems offers In Home Personal Training services throughout Northern Virginia and Washington DC.  Aside from in home, personal training is also available at the office gym or outdoors at a local park.

Within Northern Virginia, we service Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William Counties including: Alexandria, Annandale, Arlington, Ashburn, Burke, Centreville, Chantilly, Fairfax, Falls Church, Great Falls, Herndon, Lansdowne, Leesburg, Lorton, McLean, Oakton, Reston, Springfield, Sterling, Tyson’s Corner, Vienna and Woodbridge.

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