Treadmill versus running
May 22, 2009 1:34 AM   Subscribe

Treadmills: is running on a running machine a good approximation of running for real?

I find running on a running machine pretty easy, but when I run for real it's a lot more difficult. Which got me wondering...

How similar is running on a running machine (electric treadmill) to running in real life? Are the same muscles used? Is the technique the same? If yes, why is running on an old fashioned (non-electric) treadmill so much more difficult?
posted by devnull to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I just got through with a conversation about this very topic with a marathon-runner friend of mine. The answer is yes and no. It's all the same muscles, for the most part, but treadmill running is significantly easier on all levels, to the point where he never runs with the treadmill flat, and always does a programmable hill-and-speedwork workout.

It's easier on the joints and connective tissue, there's no wind resistance, no temperature issues, etc. If your typical workout on the treadmill is "X intensity," once you get outside, you'll find yourself capable of only "(X - 30 percent) intensity."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:57 AM on May 22, 2009

I'm not a big runner, but I've also heard an analogy of treadmill:outdoor running :: machine:free weights. You'll strengthen stabilizing muscles with the latter.

I think the key with the old fashioned treadmill is that you're essentially running uphill in order to move the mat. If it was truly flat (like modern treadmills) it wouldn't move, right?
posted by FuManchu at 2:04 AM on May 22, 2009

Treadmills have a sprung floor - this helps prevent injury but also makes it a lot easier to run (the bounce energy is returned to you), but you don't get this help out in the real world.

Also, hills - yes, you can set certain treadmills to vary the incline, but there's no substitute for an actual gradient.

However, you're training exactly the same muscles whether on a treadmill or on the road, and once you go out on the road regularly, you will acclimitise pretty quickly.
posted by BigCalm at 3:24 AM on May 22, 2009

Other things that make treadmills easier is that the machine keeps you at a consistant pace. If you aren't good at maintaining pace than it is easier to find yourself running faster outside without noticing it which can lead to earlier burnout. Also when running outside you are using some muscles differently (i.e. making turns) as well as having to worry about your running surface and avoiding obstacles etc.
posted by mmascolino at 3:25 AM on May 22, 2009

It's a close approximation. But, on a treadmill, you're locked to the machine's perfect, constant pace. In many ways, it can feel like you're being dragged along by the nose.
When you run on the ground, you run much more Your pace is not a constant, perfect speed. You run according to your body's feedback. It's a constant, micro adjustment.

I much prefer running outdoors. If only the roads were as shock-absorbing as a treadmill's deck.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:27 AM on May 22, 2009

I was told to set the treadmill at 2 or 3% incline to get a better approximation of road running.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:05 AM on May 22, 2009

1) I've read an actual, peer-reviewed study that showed (based on heartrate and perceived exertion) that a treadmill should be set at 1% incline to simulate running outside on the flat.

2) Treadmills are actually responsible for a lot of injuries because one's footstrike is the same over and over. There is nothing to vary it. If you've gotten a running injury for which you don't know the mechanism, and gone to a good ortho, part of the intake will focus on whether and how you're using a treadmill.
posted by OmieWise at 4:59 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

The incline needed to make it aproximate. Turn on the machine and simply stand on it without jogging. See: you are moving. You can not do that on the road. But for many folks, there is a boredom in the mill that is annoying and shortens the workout. I do recall an elite woman marathoner who lived in alaska and said she ran two hours per day on her mill. I could never do more than 30 minutes.
posted by Postroad at 5:48 AM on May 22, 2009

This chart seems to indicate that a 1% incline is about as close to outside conditions as you'll get.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:13 AM on May 22, 2009

Depending on how long your legs are and how big the treadmill is, the treadmill may encourage or even force you to use an unnaturally short gait. I run on a treadmill and outside, and I have to make a conscious effort to lengthen my stride on the treadmill.

Another difference is that there is no air moving over your body on the treadmill, so unless you set up a fan you will tend to got hotter and sweatier, all other things being equal.

One other difference: if you run on a treadmill, it's much easier to quit. You just get off and there you are. If you're running outdoors, though, if you stop you've still got to at least walk back. Knowing that has always encouraged me to finish the run when I'm outdoors.
posted by jedicus at 6:19 AM on May 22, 2009

Also, don't underestimate the psychological difference of being able to _see_ the hill. I find this to be one of the major differences for me...
posted by advil at 6:57 AM on May 22, 2009

Treadmills are easier on the joints and easier than road running. I can run a 7 minute mile on a treadmill a lot easier than on the road. In fact I don't think I can run a 7 minute mile on the road? Plus I notice with a treadmill I do not get shin splints. Either way I get a good work out.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:00 AM on May 22, 2009

Someone mentioned this earlier in brief. While running on a treadmill is easier on the body, it is by far more mentally taxing. I find I can run longer distances outside just because there's more visual eye candy. The outside run is just more interesting. When I'm running on my treadmill, I am staring at the walls or ceiling and need much more mental discipline to continue on.
posted by seppyk at 7:31 AM on May 22, 2009

When you run on a treadmill you don't actually need to push your body forward with each step, you just need to keep your legs moving. I.e. there's no resistance between your foot and the running surface on a treadmill, the way there is when you run on real ground.
posted by Kololo at 9:02 AM on May 22, 2009

Running on a treadmill causes your body to miss out on the valuable proteins you get from swallowing bugs.

I'll agree with everyone else here. Running on a treadmill has always been boring for me. I could never do more than 20 minutes or so. Outside running just feels better, and it's outside which is nice.

That said, when you're on a treadmill weather isn't a concern.

Hmm. I didn't answer the question. Treadmill running is a good approximation if you use a slight incline as mentioned above. You probably find it more difficult outside because outside is not a treadmill and your feet need to adjust to varying surfaces, etc. That said, run outside more and you'll get used to it.
posted by bDiddy at 9:22 AM on May 22, 2009

Response by poster: There are loads of really good answers here - thanks!
posted by devnull at 5:11 AM on June 22, 2009

I'm late to the conversation here but for me the treadmill is better than not running at all. In a perfect world, I'd run outside every day but I live in an area of the world where it rains a lot and I hate running in the rain so the treadmill at the gym is much better than not running.
posted by octothorpe at 10:16 AM on November 30, 2009

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