When it comes to running, there are two key questions: “How many miles will you take on?” and “Should you stay in or head out?” Once you decide your target distance, your mode of racking up miles becomes the main focus. While the most important thing is that you get your steps in, when will you get a better workout taking to the pavement, and when is it more beneficial to crank up the treadmill? Minnesota-based coach Dennis Barker, who has guided runners from beginners to Olympians, details three times you want to run on the roads, and three situations where the gym is a better bet.
3 Times When You Should Run Indoors
1. When You Want To Control All Variables
The treadmill can be your best friend if you want to train under conditions you can control. In addition to helping you keep pace from the start and allowing you to automatically control incline without scouting an area, it’s a great way to take advantage of a a climate-controlled environment. If you have a more advanced ‘mill and a specific race in mind, consider programming the course. Some fancy incline trainers will even match the downhills of a mapped route. “It can be a really good simulation,” says Barker.
Equally important, the smooth, safe surface underfoot ensures that you can focus all your efforts on the specific training goals and effects, which is especially helpful when the weather gets iffy. “You need to have some sort of expectation of success for the workout,” Barker says. “If you don’t have that outside, a more controlled environment ensures that you set your workout out on solid footing.” On a hot day, for example, you’re not going to be able to run as fast. “As your core temperature skyrockets, your workout will degenerate so quickly that you won’t get anything out of it,” he says.
2. When It’s Too Dark To Run Outside
Weather doesn’t pose the only danger. A late-night work schedule could mean you get home when it’s already dark. If your street doesn’t have streetlights, is sparsely populated, or is less than ideal for late-night runs due to lack of sidewalk, hit the treadmill. “Anytime safety is a concern, inside is the better option,” says Barker.
3. When You Want To Crank Aerobic Intensity and Minimize Leg Stress
Choose the treadmill when you’re feeling muscularly beat-up but want to work your heart and lungs, or when you want to add to your training volume while lessening the risk of getting hurt. “On the treadmill, you get a high-quality aerobic workout, but you recover better,” Barker says. “It’s a tough workout when you’re on there—but the next day, your legs feel better than they would have if you were out on the road.” This reduced stress stems from several factors: The treadmill’s belt provides softer landings than most outdoor running surfaces, you can run uphills without the pounding of downhills, and you adopt a more efficient form on a treadmill, with shorter strides, flatter landings and less ground contact time than you would have outside.
3 Times When You Should Run Outdoors
1. When You’re Training For A Road Race
While treadmills can reduce the stress on your knees, lessen the jarring motion of running, and help you build up aerobic capacity, they’re not an ideal training ground for road races. If you’re going to race outdoors, you need to train your legs for specific outdoor stressors. “You have to get your legs used to the effort,” says Barker.
Learning the specific mechanics of running on pavement is particularly important on inclines. “Hills on the treadmill are extremely different from the road,” says Barker. “Posture is different. Even with an incline, treadmills create the tendency for people to stand up and run tall. Outside, runners typically bend slightly forward at the ankle and lean into a hill as they run up it.” If you’re going to run a rolling, hilly marathon, for example, you have to get out on the road—training on indoor hills just doesn’t translate as well.
2. When You Want To Perfect Your Pacing
Similarly, you can’t rely on the steady roll of the belt to do the pacing work for you once you move outside. “The treadmill is good for learning pace,” says Barker. “But, if you can’t translate it to the road, it is kind of worthless since that’s where you need it.” Barker likes using the treadmill to teach runners what a 7- or 8-minute mile feels like. But eventually you’ve got to cut loose and follow your internal speed monitor. “Get that feel, then we’ll take that out on the road,” says Barker.
3. When You Need A Nature Reset
As nice as it is to be able to control all the elements and variables on a treadmill, nothing beats the feeling of getting out and exercising in nature. Research shows that getting outside does more than reduce boredom. Compared to those who exercise indoors, people who exercise outdoors have greater feelings of revitalization and increased energy, with decreased tension, confusion, anger, and depression. They also tend to enjoy the exercise more, and they’re more likely to want to do it again. So while the treadmill is a good training tool, to get the full benefits and enjoyment of your runs, head for the great outdoors.
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This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.