On a recent beautiful and sunny day, I strolled into my local gym to lift some weights. The gym is near Nose Hill Park, which is one of the largest municipal parks in North America. It has majestic views of the city of Calgary and the Rocky Mountains, which can be seen from endless miles of paths and trails.
As I made my way toward the room full of heavy things I intended to pick up and put back down, I spied the double line of high-tech treadmills. Most of them were occupied.
I looked at the indoor running enthusiasts and thought, Are you people on dope?
I hate treadmills — the view doesn’t change and they make me feel like a hamster on a wheel. Even when it’s cold enough to get the beginnings of frostbite on a valuable part of my male anatomy (that really happened — not my best day), I still prefer to go outside.
And it turns out there is a reason, but it’s psychological, not physiological.
Much has been written about the biomechanical and metabolic differences between running on treadmills and running outdoors, and the general consensus is that both types of workouts are essentially the same. Running outdoors does offer a few mechanical advantages, namely the addition of wind resistance and the ability to build muscles specific to going downhill, around turns and on hard or uneven surfaces.
The major advantage of treadmills, as I see them, are what they lack — exposure to extreme weather, the threat of being run over by cellphone-yapping SUV drivers or chased by off-leash dogs, etc.
Overall, however, a 2008 study, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, determined that the kinetics of treadmill versus outdoor running is very similar. Runners adopt different running patterns when they’re on treadmills, such as landing a little more flat-footed, the study found. But considering that humans adapt their gait to run on snow, trails, synthetic tracks and sand, it makes sense that we would have a specific “treadmill gait” as well, the authors concluded.
There’s no doubt that treadmills can provide a valuable workout. In fact, many competitive runners consider the treadmill a critical component of their training regimen. Runners like Ingrid Kristiansen. The Norwegian has held world records in 5K, 10K, half-marathon and full-marathon distances. She has also won marathons in London, New York and Boston. And she often trains on a treadmill, according to an article published by Road Runner Sports.
And Fort Collins, Colo.-based Kim Jones came in second in the 1991 Boston Marathon with a personal best time of 2:26:40. She suffers from asthma, which can be aggravated by running in cold and wind or if there are high levels of pollution or pollen in the air. Jones did 80% of her training for the Boston race on a treadmill, according to the Road Runner Sports article.
But let’s face it: Few of us have the focused determination of competitive athletes like Kristiansen and Jones. For us regular folk, the allure of being outdoors can be a key factor in exercise motivation and enjoyment.
Research backs me up on this. A 2004 study from Duke University’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences found some telling evidence that convinces me that I’m not actually crazy when I lace up my running shoes at minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit. After testing and interviewing 60 runners in different environments, the researchers found that the people who ran outside ran faster than the people who ran on treadmills, yet they had lower perceived exertion and the “highest levels of positive engagement, revitalization, tranquillity, and course satisfaction,” according to the study, which was published in Psychology of Sport & Exercise.
In other words, the people outside like it more and work harder without realizing it. I should note that the tests were conducted during warm weather, but I’m confident that similar results could be expected once a person has become acclimatized to all-weather running.
Competitive athletes are different from you and me. They can push right to the limits on a treadmill because … because that’s just what they do. Average folks often struggle with motivation to run and need to wring every bit of positive reinforcement possible from the experience to keep going.
I’ll admit there have been times I’ve gone running in the bitter cold and felt like I’d been punched in the lungs with flesh-eating bacteria; when I could form a lucid thought, I started to wonder if I needed therapy. However, I still get that all-important positive reinforcement. I’ve got all the proper gear to stay warm and safe, and it makes me feel kind of tough, like I did something a lot of other people can’t do. Also, a hot shower after a cold run is an amazing experience.
We’ve got a lot of open space up here in Canada. Depending on where you live, running outside could mean sucking down smog or constantly having to cool your heels while waiting for traffic lights to change. I remember a trip to Guatemala where outdoor running was impossible because of the short blocks, uneven sidewalks and the tendency of drivers to view pedestrians as targets. I could see how the tranquillity of a treadmill may be preferable if your only other choice is a hostile environment.
From a workout standpoint, one major advantage that outdoor running has over treadmills is the inability to simply quit at any time. If you run five miles away from home, you’ve got to get back somehow. Unless you feel like hitchhiking or calling a cab, you’re going to have to run (or maybe walk) those same five miles back. With outdoor running, you only need to be motivated for the first half. With a treadmill you can hit stop and step off the instant your motivation lags — and considering how many people believe treadmills are boring, the determination to keep going can wane quickly.
There’s also the time-management aspect. If the treadmill you use is at a gym, then you need to actually get there first, and that wastes time. It’s a lot quicker to just lace up your shoes and head out your front door.
Running adherence all comes down to motivation. If you really like treadmills, then by all means continue using them. However, if your dedication to the hamster wheel is lagging, give the open skies a try. You might like it more.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.