Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Winter is coming. (I hope you read that sentence in your most ominous voice.) That means some days just won’t be conducive to heading outdoors for a run. Yet, your coach (or training plan) keeps assigning run workouts! What’s a busy athlete to do when it’s dark as you leave for work and sleeting when you’re driving home?
Insert the treadmill. Some people love them and others consider them torture devices fit to be banned.
Regardless of your personal feelings about treadmills, many athletes rely on them to squeeze essential workouts into busy lives. Which raises several important questions! Is there a difference between running on a treadmill and running outside? Are there certain workouts that should be done on one or the other?
We’re here to shed some light on when and how to get the most out of running on a treadmill this winter (and when it’s best to brave the elements).
Is there a difference between running outdoors and running on a treadmill?
Some runners are adamant that running on a treadmill is easier than running outdoors. There’s an equally animated group of athletes who swear that treadmill running is more challenging.
While there is a difference between treadmill running and “overland” running (wind resistance, terrain, etc.), there’s really no clear right or wrong answer. Both have their advantages, depending on your specific training needs.
Treadmills, for example, can force you to maintain specific speeds or intensity levels that might be difficult to replicate outdoors. Overland running, on the other hand, usually improves your stability and endurance by forcing your body and mind to adapt and navigate constantly-changing terrain.
A systematic review from an international team of researchers attempted to put the debate to rest by compiling the results of 34 studies (with a total of 468 participants). The overarching conclusion of the study was that “running is running.” There’s no significant advantage to running on a treadmill (unless your treadmill belt is miscalibrated… which, evidently, is a common problem).
Overall, the study found that during a typical run at a moderate effort, the difference between treadmill running and “overground” running was pretty similar for most people! The notable difference was in speed. In the study, many participants selected a lower speed on a treadmill compared to their “overground” pace.
Benefits Of Treadmill Running for Athletes
Whether you love it or hate it, there are actually some benefits to adding a few strategic treadmill runs to your training regimen (or falling back on a treadmill when the weather or schedule doesn’t cooperate).
Temperature and weather control
The most obvious benefit of treadmill running is being able to control your environment. You can avoid dangerous or inclement weather conditions--and you can create the right weather conditions! If you’re training for a hot-weather race in a cooler climate, the treadmill can be an excellent tool to help with heat acclimatization!
Simulate certain race conditions
If you live in a flat area but you’re training for a hilly race, hill repeats on the treadmill will likely be a game-changer for you. Some smart treadmills on the market can even simulate specific race courses!
An often overlooked benefit to moving your hill sessions to a treadmill is that you don’t need to run downhill, which can put tremendous strain on your body! Of course, you’ll definitely want to practice running downhill regularly (especially if you’re training for a particularly hilly course) to build up the specific muscle strength.
Some athletes also use treadmill sessions to test race-day clothing, nutrition, and other factors that can significantly impact performance. Being able to try these things in a controlled environment prevents you from having to make the “call of shame” to ask your significant other or friend to come pick you up several miles from home.
Road crossings, dodging pedestrian traffic, navigating hilly terrain, and other factors can make it challenging to maintain a specific pace or intensity when running outdoors. Treadmill sessions can be an excellent solution! You’ll be able to stick to the prescribed pace for the right length of time and get the most out of the workout.
When running on a treadmill, it’s easy to track mileage, pace, perceived exertion, and loads of other variables. Treadmills also offer better shock absorption than concrete, putting less strain on your knee and ankle joints.
This can be a game-changer for athletes returning from injury! You can also stop anytime, reducing the temptation to push beyond your limits or hinder your recovery.
Convenient for time-crunched athletes
At the end of the day, a treadmill run session is definitely better than skipping the workout entirely. So, treadmills enable time-crunched athletes to squeeze in a late-night or early morning session. They’re also game-changers for parents who need to keep an eye on children.
Disadvantages of Treadmill Running
For all the advantages that treadmills offer, there are some disadvantages to consider.
You won’t practice turns, downhills, and other skills
There are almost no running events that offer a dead-straight course. You’ll need to navigate turns, hills, and other terrain features. Unfortunately, treadmills can only simulate running straight ahead and either flat or uphill.
Running around corners and over uneven pavement and terrain requires lateral agility and strength in your core, knees, and ankles. Your body also needs to build up or maintain its conditioning to withstand all the pounding from running on concrete. You’ll definitely want to consider keeping at least one or two outdoor runs each week in your training plan so you build the strength and endurance required to navigate an outdoor course.
Treadmills can be boring
There’s a reason the machine has earned the nickname, “dreadmill.” Athletes joke about being hamsters trapped on a wheel, and some athletes just can’t get past the boredom.
Even with television, music, and other forms of entertainment, we do admit, the treadmill can be a bit boring, especially if you’re logging some long runs. But this disadvantage is actually a double-edged sword. It can feel tedious and monotonous to tick the miles running in place, but it can also be a great way to build your mental strength.
What Workouts Are Good Treadmill Sessions
There’s no simple answer to this question. Every athlete is navigating different circumstances and time constraints.
If your only objective is to meet or maintain your cardiovascular fitness goals, then you’ll likely be fine doing any or all of your run sessions on a treadmill. If you’re training for a running race, then the general rule of thumb is to limit your treadmill runs to no more than 40% of your overall run training. This will give your body a good mix of indoor and outdoor running to glean all the benefits of both types of workouts.
When choosing which workouts to move indoors, lean toward performing your pace sessions on a treadmill to glean the benefit of being able to hold a specific pace for the right amount of time. Long runs are excellent outdoor sessions whenever possible.
Speed sessions that include short bursts of speed and focus on form are usually best left outdoors whenever possible. Treadmills can be tricky to bump the speed up and down quickly enough to get the full benefit of the workout.
As always, consult with your coach about your own needs and challenges. A quality coach will work with you to plan run sessions (either indoors or outdoors) to meet your personal needs.
Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Gregg@TeamMPI.com.