Anyone who remembers their high school physics (F = m.a, E = F.s, and so forth) will probably guess that running on a treadmill should be a lot easier than covering actual miles you can count on a map.
As it turns out, though, adding just a little resistance to the treadmill experience makes the two types of exercise basically equivalent, at least aerobically.
Yet, for whatever reason, serious joggers often look at the treadmill as something of a toy; a cute piece of equipment that has no value when it comes to “real” endurance training.
Is this viewpoint valid, and if so, why?
What Happens When You Pound a Treadmill Instead of Pavement?
As they say, it’s often the small stuff that makes a big difference. The small stuff, in the case of running on a treadmill vs outside, are the muscles (those aside from your hamstrings, quadriceps, soleus, and others) that actually keep you from taking a spill every five minutes.
Even on surfaced roads, our ankles, hips and knees work pretty hard at maintaining our balance. It’s actually kind of amazing that all of this happens subconsciously; robots have only recently gotten the ability to do the same thing. Every time we take a step, especially if our new footfall is higher or lower than the previous one or the surface is slightly tilted, a whole bunch of minor muscles contract isometrically to prop up and guide their larger counterparts.
Can You Train for Outdoor Running Using a Treadmill?
Some runners are so dedicated that neither snow, hail, nor feral dogs can put them off their schedule. Others don’t fancy the idea of getting rained on very much, don’t have time to train during daylight hours, or are legitimately afraid for their safety.
In cases like these, sweating out your frustrations in the comfort of your own basement or living room seems like the perfect solution.
There is, however, one major drawback to using a treadmill as a surrogate for “real” jogging. If you’ve ever gotten to a high level of fitness by training on flat routes before suddenly tackling hills, you’ll have no problem imagining what the sticking point is. As it turns out, all running is not the same. To give another example, someone who runs exclusively on tarmac is likely to do very badly at trail running.
Conditioning your body for long-distance running can be seen as a combination of
1) strengthening your cardiovascular system,
2) your major leg muscles, and
3) your body’s support structure (tendons, ligaments, joints, and stabilizing muscles).
So, a good treadmill can certainly form a part of your ordinary training routine. It can be hugely useful in providing instant feedback on your performance and in tracking your progress over time, depending on its level of connectivity.
It is not, however, enough on its own; if you want to do any kind of serious running in the real world, practicing by doing exactly that remains essential.
Cross Training and Treadmills
The majority of people who run, at least among those I know, aren’t actually runners, or at least not primarily. The ease of starting makes jogging the natural complement to lifting weights and dieting for any person trying to lose weight or improve their general health.
Just as importantly, the natural motion and cardio benefits of jogging mean that boxers, football players, and even dancers tend to incorporate at least a couple of miles a week into their workout routines. Could they, however, see the same benefits if they were to hit a treadmill instead of the road?
The only possible answer here is “not so much”, for exactly the same reasons as above.
It’s a good way to exercise your lungs, heart, and certain muscle groups, but the repetitive nature of the exercise means that it doesn’t come close to what most people would call “functional fitness”. There’s a good analogy to this in the form of cabled resistance machines. These are fine for beginners and occasionally useful for specialized exercises, but mostly give a very inferior workout compared to old-fashioned barbells.
Having a treadmill in the garage is still highly convenient, of course. It’s less trouble than going to a swimming pool for your cardio, and provides a much better full-body workout than a stationary bike or elliptical trainer. Just don’t forget that burning some calories in the fresh air has its advantages, too.
All Those Poor Treadmills, Gathering Dust…
Perhaps the biggest difference between running on a treadmill vs outside has absolutely nothing to do with biomechanics, aerobic performance, or proper running form. Simply put, the most useless run is the one you never take.
It’s far easier to put off a training session until “tomorrow” when you don’t have a friend waiting for you.
Arguably, though, if someone really wants to train, they will, and vice versa. The mental challenge of actually exercising on your own should be weighed up against the convenience and rigor of a treadmill workout – you can’t really fool yourself about your pace when the numbers are displayed right in front of you.
On the flip side to the boredom they’re usually associated with, treadmills offer some pretty significant benefits to those who are serious about training.
If your goal is to get thin, a treadmill can easily keep tabs on how many calories you burn from day to day or week to week, with or without a wearable fitness band. At the same time, the absence of street sounds makes listening to music or an audiobook much more satisfying.
People who really want to push themselves don’t need to hold back for either their running crew or traffic lights, and can train at their hardest regardless of whether it’s raining, dark, or 35° C outside. After the summer we’ve recently suffered through, that alone makes getting a treadmill worthwhile.
If you’re training for a particular race and your treadmill supports programmable courses, you can even use it to get accustomed to the ups and downs in order to shave a few seconds off your time.
Good Things to Come?
So, treadmills are a great workout tool for beginners and competitive athletes alike, but their main drawback continues to be that they’re not that much fun to use. Technology is likely to completely invert the question of motivation in the near future, though.
Although virtual reality treadmills are still in an early stage of development and currently aimed mainly at the video game crowd, it’s only a matter of time before they start making their way into gyms. When this happens, I am very definitely getting one for myself.