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Treadmills vs. Running Outside

Great look, but terrible form.
This is not the proper way to
use a treadmill.

Running on a treadmill and running outside are both excellent forms of aerobic exercise, but they're not identical. There are subtle differences you need to consider when choosing one over the other. Here are the pros and cons of each.

Environment The environment is the most obvious. When it's snowing, raining or extremely hot, running outside can be difficult or impossible. Treadmills are generally kept inside climate-controlled environments so you can run comfortably any time, in any season.

Resistance Resistance is the next factor. When you run outside, your body is pushing through the air. If there's a breeze, the resistance increases even more. Tests show that resistance can increase your workload between 2% and 10%. Fortunately, there's a way to simulate that resistance inside. Simply incline the treadmill by 1% (or set it at level 1) and it'll more closely mimic running outside on a flat surface. Continue increasing the incline to simulate more wind resistance when you're running at higher speeds.

The best way to make sure the effort levels are the same inside and out is to use a heart rate monitor. Keep increasing the treadmill difficulty until your body is putting just as much into your indoor run as you would outside.

Proprioception Proprioception is the awareness of the position of your body. Running outside there are constant small challenges in the terrain as you move from one surface to another. Along the way, you're always avoiding obstacles like rocks, plants, curbs and anything else that may appear on the path. As you move around things and make adjustments, you're training your body to be more proprioceptive.

Running on a treadmill provides little or no variation. Because you don't have to make any split-second decisions you need to remind yourself to concentrate on all those body positions. Set an alarm to go off every couple of minutes and check the angle of your feet, hip positioning and how far forward or backward you're leaning.

Injuries Injuries are dramatically lower on a treadmill. You don't have to deal with all the distractions of running outside like potholes, stray dogs or low hanging branches. You also have the option when on a treadmill to cut a run short if you suddenly start cramping or fatigue. If those things happen on a long run outside, you'll have to find another way to get back home.

Motivation Motivation is a mixed bag. Some people are energized by being outside in the fresh air, experiencing new scenery and enjoying nature. Others are motivated by being able to watch television or play a video game while completing a run. You need to decide which one is more likely to keep you involved.

Mechanics The mechanics of how your body moves is another big factor. When you run outside three things happen: 1) Your foot makes an impact with the ground, 2) that leg drives your body forward and 3) you swing your back leg to the front for the next impact.

On a treadmill, you still have the impact, but because the treadmill is moving you don't have to drive yourself forward. Your leg gets pulled back and all you have to do is swing your back leg to the front.

You aren't pushing yourself forward so much as floating above the moving surface. That means if you use a treadmill a lot, you're not working the butt muscles or hamstrings as much as when running outside. You should compensate by doing more of those exercises in the gym.

If you've got money, there is an alternative. A treadmill company called Woodway designed the "Curve." It's a treadmill that's powered by the runner, not a motor. It's shaped like the letter C on its side. Each step you take drags the track and creates movement, so your butt and hamstrings are worked more like they are when you're running outside.

Downhill running is the final big difference. When you run outside, anytime you go up a hill, you're also going to go down it. That works muscles a different way and requires you to change your stance. Most treadmills don't have a downhill feature and the few that do are limited in how far they decline. If you're training for a race that has a lot of ups and downs, you should do the majority of your workouts on a similar terrain.

Both outdoor and treadmill running can be beneficial. Use this information to decide which would be the most appropriate for YOU.

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  • Treadmills Were Invented as a Torture Device!

    The Treadmill was originally invented in 1818 as a device to reform idle and unruly prisoners. English civil engineer Sir William Cubitt made a sort of paddle wheel, with 24 spokes on it. Convicts would walk or climb on it like a modern StairMaster. As the wheel turned, the gears pumped water or crushed grain. That's how the term evolved from Tread Wheel to Treadmill. (A mill crushes grain.)

    The treadmill persisted as a discipline device until the late 19th century, when it was discontinued for being too cruel.

    It wasn't until years later, after the benefits of cardio exercise became apparent, that treadmills were slowly re-introduced and sold as health machines.