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The Road to Nowhere: Is Treadmill Running Better for You?

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Every morning, I lace up my shoes, smell the fresh air, and step into the cool breeze and warm sunshine. Nothing makes me feel better than a nice, long run, which is why I promptly head indoors to the gym, where I do my daily five miles on the treadmill surrounded by one hundred sweaty strangers all simultaneously watching CNN, Law & Order, and Rock of Love.


As much as I love running, I find it very difficult to do outside (and not just because the gym has eight closed-captioned televisions to keep me distracted). I am a treadmill runner and judging by the number of people jogging next to me every day, I’m not alone.


But for those seeking the best workout, how does indoor running compare with outside exertion? Am I missing out by staying in?


Taking the Easy Way Out
Many people find treadmill running significantly easier than running outdoors One big reason? It is easier. When running indoors, your body doesn’t have to expend energy to propel you forward, since the ground is being pulled along underneath you. Running indoors doesn’t force you to push past wind resistance, either. Jeff Wilson, a trainer at Crunch Fitness in San Francisco who specializes in coaching runners, says that running indoors actually uses fewer muscles. “On a treadmill, you’re not turning,” Wilson says, “So you don’t use the smaller muscles in your legs.” Running outside, with its twists, turns, hills, and uneven surfaces also requires you to activate your core muscles for more serious stabilization.


Pounding the Pavement
It might be a bit less strenuous, but there are real benefits to running on a treadmill. The machine’s belt is built to absorb shocks, so it adds spring to your step and helps mitigate the effects of repetitive poundings on your knees, ankles, and back. Jessica Millstein, a former field hockey and lacrosse player, prefers to train on treadmills. “It’s easier on my knees,” she says. “And you don’t have to work as hard as you do when running outside.”


Keeping Pace and Commitment
Many runners find that a treadmill helps with their motivation, too. “The treadmill is a kind of commitment device,” says Maggie Grantner, a university administrator in New York City. “I can tell myself I’m going to run at seven miles per hour for ten minutes, and as long as I can resist pushing the button to slow down, I know I’ll be running at that speed.”


Treadmills also keep you at a consistent pace. Without the guidance of the machine, it’s easy to run too quickly too soon and burn out. If you’re settling in for a few miles or more, the treadmill keeps you at a steady pace. “I also like that I can see my speed, time, and heart rate without having to buy a heart monitor or pedometer,” says Grantner.


Whether the Weather Be Fair …
Being indoors eliminates many of the variables associated with outdoor running. It provides a consistent surface free of hills, changes in terrain, or traffic and many treadmill enthusiasts like that they don’t have to plan their workouts around the weather. Everyone’s seen hardcore runners slugging it out in sub-zero or sweltering temperatures, but most of us see our willpower crumble when it’s punishingly hot or cold outside. “I like not having to worry about the temperature,” says Grantner. “I also like being able to zone out without running into pedestrians, light poles, or taxi doors.”


Different Strokes for Different Folk
Of course, what helps one runner stay focused and motivated can drive another crazy. “Most of my clients prefer running outside,” says Wilson. He advises clients to get outdoors whenever possible and he himself avoids running on treadmills. “I like the change of scenery,” he says.


Even though gyms have televisions, ample opportunities for people-watching, and convenient places to rest your iPod, many runners find that running outside is more exciting. JD Sipes, a software engineer from Brooklyn, says “I like feeling like I’m going somewhere or accomplishing something, which is the opposite of what you get on a treadmill.” He’s never been able to distract himself with music or a magazine at the gym. “I just get bored when I’m running inside.”


Learning to Tackle Tough Terrain
Wilson advises that with a little preparation, anyone can shift to outdoor running. He recommends starting with ankle-strengthening exercises; some experts suggest running on a treadmill with its incline set to 1.0, which provides some resistance and eases the transition to running on the road. Wilson’s most important advice—find good routes to run. Trying different courses can break up the monotony and keep you challenged.  


Many treadmill lovers, however, see no need to switch. “I can tailor my workout to exactly what I want—hills one day, flat and fast the next—and that’s something that can be hard to do outside,” says Grantner. And although some people dread the tedium of running in place for an hour, Millstein prefers it. “I can stop my workout any time, and I never have to worry about getting back to the place where I started.”


No matter where, when, or why you run, the important thing is that you do it at all. Both indoor and outdoor running provide a great workout, and the details just boil down to a matter of personal preference. The bottom line for me? If I have to spend five to six hours per week running, I’d rather do it in a climate-controlled environment without bugs or traffic. Let the outdoor runners brag about the beautiful California scenery. At least I can catch up on my TV.

Updated October 13, 2010

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