by Rick Morris
As a running coach and a personal trainer, I get questions concerning the advantages and disadvantages of treadmill training from all types of clients. My running clients are concerned about the training effects of running on the treadmill. My personal training clients that are more interested in overall fitness and my weight loss clients, have questions concerning calorie burn and health benefits.
For fitness, health and weight loss purposes, there are really no disadvantages to treadmill training. A calorie burned on a treadmill is the same as a calorie burned during any other activity. Cardiovascular fitness is improved at a similar rate whether you run on a treadmill or outside on the road or track. The treadmill provides many added benefits for this type of user, including injury prevention, safety, convenience and improved exercise adherence.
The treadmill also provides these same benefits to competitive runners. Fitness gained from running on the treadmill has been shown to be very similar to training effects from free range running. In some cases, treadmill training provides even greater training benefits. An example of this is the consistent pace of the treadmill. Many training programs require workouts that are performed at a precise pace and distance. The treadmill makes maintaining an exact pace and judging the precise distance much easier.
There are some disadvantages for competitive runners. These disadvantages are related to the lack of specificity when training for road or track racing. There is a rule of training called the "rule of specificity" that says training should closely mimic the activity you are training for. There are very definite differences between treadmill running and free range running that violate this rule. Here is a summary of the pros and cons associated with treadmill running.
You look out your living room window. The wind is howling, the mercury in your thermometer is shivering at the bottom of the scale and the snow is piling up on your driveway. You have a five mile tempo run planned. Are you going to lace 'em up and head out? Unless you are about 400 meters short of a full mile, you are going to stay huddled in front of your fireplace! In situations like that, a treadmill is the perfect answer. You can perform any of your training runs in the safety and comfort of your own home or at your gym. A treadmill takes the weather factor out of the equation. You can always hop on your treadmill and do nearly any workout that you could have done outdoors. If ice or snow is present, running on the treadmill will certainly provide a better workout than running outside in those conditions.
If you are running outside on ice or snow, you must be very cautious of your footing. It is nearly impossible to concentrate on your form or pacing when running on ice. It is also very difficult to maintain your planned pace, since you must slow down on such a slippery surface. The bulky or multi-layer clothing that you must wear in cold weather can disturb your stride and arm action. Cold weather alone will probably not adversely affect your run. But, for some runners, cold weather becomes an excuse not to do their planned workout. This is especially a problem for beginning runners. A treadmill removes all excuses for not running.
Cold, ice and snow are not the only weather related problems a runner must deal with. Hot weather can create an even more serious situation. Dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are very serious conditions that are frequently encountered by runners. Each of these conditions are caused by a combination of high heat and insufficient fluids.
Speed Work/Interval Training
Successful interval training depends upon running the repeats at a fairly precise speed and at a precise distance. It is hard for most runners to accurately judge pace while training at the track and becomes even more difficult when training on the open road. When training on the track, you at least know the exact distance you are running, but on the open road, it is all guesswork. There are some fairly accurate GPS training watches available that use satellite information to give you your pace and distance. These have proven to be fairly accurate, but are still not as precise as treadmill running.
When you begin to fatigue during your outside training runs, you may sub-consciously slow down. You do not realize that you are slowing down because you feel like you are running at the same rate of perceived exertion. In other words, you still believe that you are running at your goal pace. The accumulating effects of fatigue make your goal pace feel harder and harder, so you slow down in response. This unintentional reduction in your pace can have a negative affect on the quality of your workout. This problem with inconsistent pace can happen in all workouts from speedwork to long runs.
Most competitive runners like to run fast. They love their speedwork and tempo runs. But you cannot run hard and fast all of the time. Your muscles need time to rest and recover. Without that recovery time, you will not be able to complete your harder workouts at an optimal pace and quality. Running easy is hard. In fact, running easy is one of the hardest things to do for many runners. Easy runs are necessary to allow your muscles to recover from hard, intense or long running sessions, but it can be very difficult to run at a pace easy enough to allow for muscle recovery. It can feel very slow and therefore many runners have a tendency to perform their easy runs at too fast a pace. The treadmill fixes this problem. Once you determine your easy pace, it is a simple matter to set the treadmill at that pace and jump on. As long as you don't give into temptation and increase the speed of the machine, you will stay at your easy pace for the duration of the session. Maintaining an easy pace on your rest days will allow your muscles to stay fresh and will improve the quality of your harder training runs and avoid overtraining problems.
Hill running is one of the best and most efficient workouts for building running strength, running economy and improving race performance. The problem is that many runners live in areas that have few hills, if any. So, what do you do if you live in a hill challenged area? Simple - get on your treadmill. Most treadmills will elevate from 1 percent to 12 percent. Some elevate as high as 15%. There are some newer models that also decline 2 or 3 percent, which would be great training for races with some downhill sections, such as the Boston Marathon or trail races.
The treadmill not only supplies hills to those without hills, it also removes hills for those that don't want them. Many runners that live in mountain communities have problems finding a route that does not have hills. There are many times, especially during easy runs and periods of rest and recovery, that you do not want to run on hills. The treadmill will flatten the hilliest terrain!
The term long run brings up visions of running long distances in parks, on roads or urban trails. There are many great benefits of doing long runs on that type of terrain. However, more and more runners are doing at least some of their long runs on the treadmill. Many do all of their winter long runs on the treadmill to avoid weather related problems. Running on a treadmill for two or three hours sounds boring. But for that matter, so is running outside for long periods of time. When doing long runs on the treadmill you can watch television or listen to music to help alleviate boredom. I like to tape marathons or other running events and watch them while I run. I also enjoy watching running movies. Any movie will entertain you while you run, but I find that running movies keep me motivated.
The quality of your long runs can also be improved by running on the treadmill. The precise pace control will allow you to keep the pace down when necessary. It will keep you from running too fast during the first part of your long run. It will also keep you at a quality pace if you are doing goal pace long runs. It can be very difficult to maintain that quality goal pace in the later stages of your long run. The treadmill will keep you at that goal pace and you don't even have to think about it. This is essential for marathon training. During the last 6 to 8 miles of a marathon, it becomes very difficult to maintain your pace. In order to run your best marathon, you must practice maintaining your goal pace when you are very fatigued. Since the treadmill does not get tired, you must push the button to slow it down. So, the machine will keep you on your pace unless you make the decision to reduce your speed.
When doing your long runs on a treadmill, you are also near all of your water and fluid replacement drinks. No need to hide fluids in a bush or carry them with you. You are also just steps from a bathroom. No more quick trips behind the bushes.
Running on concrete and asphalt day in and day out places a lot of stress on the connective tissues in your legs. This can lead to potential overuse injuries. High quality treadmills that are produced today give you a stable, but more forgiving surface. Treadmills are available in a fairly wide range of surface softness. The firmness of the treadmill is determined by a combination of the running deck and the suspension system. Some are designed to more closely mimic the firm asphalt or concrete surface of the road and others are designed with a lot of "give" in order to provide a very soft ride for heavy runners or those with injury problems. There are even some machines available that are adjustable to different levels of shock absorption.
The sport of running is a solitary activity that requires self- motivation, discipline and commitment along with both physical and mental toughness. These are all attributes that must be learned and practiced. Running on a treadmill is comfortable, efficient and safe. But, it is not psychologically easy. It is really quite difficult to run and maintain pace on a treadmill. This is due, in part, to the perception that you are not going anywhere. You do not have the psychological cues that you are making progress, such as the wind in your face and the objects and scenery moving by. You also do not have other runners around you to keep you motivated.
Since running on the treadmill is usually a solitary activity, it helps build self-motivation and commitment. Running and maintaining your pace on the treadmill builds a mental "toughness" that will help you in your races and outside training runs.
Great For Beginners
The treadmill is ideal for beginning runners. Many new runners feel a bit intimidated by the sport and by more experienced runners. There is no reason for them to feel this way, but many do none the less. The treadmill gives these beginners a great place to start and to gain confidence in themselves so that feeling of intimidation melts away. Most new runners start with walking. The treadmill is a great tool for incorporating those first running steps into a training program. It is very easy to add in very short surges of running. The treadmill provides them with a stable, level and dry surface in which to practice those first running steps.
The treadmill provides many benefits. But, as with everything, it is not perfect. Along with its many advantages, the treadmill does have some disadvantages.
Lack of Specificity
One of the "laws" of training is the law of specificity. This simply means that your training should be as specific as possible to your training goal. In other words, your training should match your goal as closely as possible. You are training to run outside on the road, trail or track and run races, not to run on a treadmill. Treadmill training has been proven, in scientific studies, to have very similar physiological effects, to outside or free- range running. In simpler terms, treadmill training gives you very similar training benefits when compared to free-range running. However, even though the physiological effects are very similar, it is not specifically the same as running outside. There are physical differences, which include lack of wind resistance, lack of changing terrain, running on a moving belt, bio-mechanical differences and psychological differences.
Lack of Wind Resistance
When running on the treadmill, you are obviously running in place. You are not running through the air. When you run outside you are running through the molecules of the air, which create resistance. The faster you run, the more of an effect the air resistance has on you. Studies have estimated that air resistance creates an increase in your running workload of between 2% and 10%, depending upon your running speed. The faster you run, the more of an effect the wind resistance has. You can compensate for the wind resistance by elevating the treadmill, one or two percent.
In addition to the wind resistance problem, there is some evidence that running bio-mechanics are different when running on the treadmill. There have been very few conclusive studies done on the running form differences between treadmill and free range running. The studies that have been done have presented some rather conflicting data. Here is a brief summary of the reported running mechanics problems that have been associated with treadmill running.
Stride Length - There have been reports of stride length being both longer and shorter than outside running. One study on the effects of treadmill running came up with some very interesting data. The study used one group of subjects that were very experienced runners and compared them to a group of new runners. The results showed that the more experienced group had longer strides when running on the treadmill, compared to their same pace when running outside. The interesting part is that the inexperienced group had the exact opposite result. They had shorter stride lengths on the treadmill than they did when running outside. More research is needed to determine why this happens and if it happens consistently to a large group of runners.
Longer Support Time - Support time is the amount of time that your support leg spends on the ground. Some runners tend to spend more time on their support leg when running on the treadmill. In order to maximize your running efficiency your support time should be kept at a minimum. If your support leg is on the ground longer, you are probably not running as efficiently as you could be. This increase in support time is probably caused by an unconscious desire to provide a more stable running base on the moving and somewhat unstable treadmill.
Less Forward Lean - Some studies have determined that some athletes run with less of a forward lean when running on the treadmill. This can cause more energy being wasted on up and down motion and less energy focused on forward momentum.
The even and soft surface of the treadmill is an advantage in many ways, but it does present one major disadvantage. When running outside you encounter uneven surfaces, stones, soft areas, hard areas, dry areas, wet areas and various combinations of these surfaces. The challenge of running over these surfaces improves your propreoception or the ability of your neuromuscular system to correct for the effect these types of surfaces have on your muscles and the position of your body parts and joints. This is critical to runners because it affects balance, power and running economy. Running on the treadmill removes this very important part of training.