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It’s a long running debate (excuse the pun), and one which can often come down to personal preference, but who’s the winner in the running outside vs treadmill running contest?
The first thing to consider is energy; or rather, which one requires more and so will get you fitter more quickly? In the running outside vs treadmill running debate the outdoors running camp claim that running outside burns more energy. One of the main factors here is wind resistance – which you don’t get in the gym. So you’d think that running outdoors would be the winner. But in a study by Exeter University, runners were made to run along a road while their energy expenditure was measured. The same volunteers were then made to run on a treadmill, again with energy output being measured, but at varying levels of incline. The study found that by using the incline, treadmill running could be made as strenuous as the street/track variety. A 1-2% gradient was enough to nullify the difference.
Secondly, speed is also a factor. Those running on a treadmill tend to overestimate the speed at which they are going. A Singapore study asked candidates to run outdoors at a particular speed and then match that pace on a treadmill. When they tried this the study showed that even though they thought they had matched the speed on the treadmill, they were actually going markedly slower. The scientists behind the study concluded that on the treadmill, runners lacked visual clues they would have got outdoors that helped them to judge speed.
Safety is also a consideration. Running outdoors can be hazardous due to traffic, other runners, pedestrians and other hazards. However, running on a treadmill also has safety issues. People often nudge the front of the treadmill, especially when coming under physical pressure, slips and falls see runners “spat out the back” as the treadmill shoots them off backwards.
Proprioception – running on a treadmill is very repetitive. This means that the same pressures and same impacts are exerted with every step. This has a two-fold effect. Firstly, it means that repetitive strain injuries are much more common on a treadmill. Secondly, it does little to improve co-ordination and communication between the brain and limbs. The variation of outdoors running, from incline to surface to direction change means that these repetitive strain injuries are less likely; it also improves co-ordination more.
Measurability – the treadmill is precisely measurable. You know exactly how you did from one run to the next as speed, incline, pace and time are all measured accurately. However, with the onset of affordable gps tracking systems and fitness watches, measuring an outdoors run has never been easier.
Well being – it seems fairly obvious that running outdoors will produce greater feelings of well-being and more endorphins. The increased physical challenge produces the latter; variety, greater possibilities for teaming up with other runners and proximity to nature helping the former. Scientists from the same team at Exeter University tried to properly evaluate the evidence and running outdoors was the clear winner.
So which one is better? Most of the evidence points to running outdoors. But the key factor to all exercise should be achievability and enjoyment. If you like to go to the gym and use a treadmill, then go for it. If you like running outdoors better, then stick to that. Whatever makes you more likely to exercise is the real winner! Perhaps a combination off the two, (particularly the treadmill in winter darkness) would be a good option.