If you’re looking to get into running, you’re probably wondering whether you can start jogging on a treadmill or if you need to be on the road. We explore the benefits of both and if one is better than the other.
When I first started running over 5k, I did so on a treadmill. Instead of sticking with 30 minute jogs in the cold morning air, I set myself a goal of running for an hour a few times a week on a treadmill at the gym, plugged into MTV. Treadmill running was the perfect place to start building up my confidence because I knew I could stop at any time, had plenty of distractions (MTV) and I didn’t have to worry about my pace.
After a few weeks, a trainer came up to me and asked why I was “wasting my time” on the treadmills when I could be spending that time running home. After an hour on the machine, I had to spend an hour on the Tube… when I could have been spending an hour running towards my house. It was at that point that I started running on the road.
Lots of runners are snobby about running on treadmills. It’s seen as easier and not as ‘real’ as road running. But beyond the optics, can running on a machine be as beneficial as running on the road?
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Treadmills can be great for running faster
“I think the answer there is a ‘yes, but it depends’,” says running coach, presenter, multi-marathoner and all-round running legend, Kate Carter. She says that while treadmills are great for improving endurance, they can help to improve speed “if you can do it”.
By that, she explains that sometimes, running at a faster pace on the treadmill can feel a lot faster than on the road or the track. “Often that’s because you are in a warm room – a gym without a brilliant air con or home (if you have your own treadmill). You have to work really hard just to keep cool. Then again, other people find treadmills easier… it really does depend.”
In recent years, I’ve tried to incorporate one treadmill session a week into my schedule as a speed workout. Exactly for the reasons outlined by Carter, I do these at specific treadmill-focused studios like Victus Soul or Barry’s – places with icy air con, dark lighting and banging playlists. I’m definitely able to run faster than I would outside on the road. The question is: is it actually easier to run faster on a machine and if so, how helpful is that for overall training?
But they can’t replicate running outside
“Personally, I don’t like running on treadmills,” says Garmin ambassador and former British Olympic sprinter, Iwan Thomas MBE. When he was training as a professional athlete, treadmills were pieces of equipment that Thomas “never touched” because they didn’t replicate the experience of running on the track accurately.
“If you want to get a false sense of security, you can run faster on a treadmill because the ground is moving but nothing replicates actually being out there – particularly if you’re doing something like the New Forest Marathon or 10k,” he tells Stylist.
The most important part of being outside for Thomas, however, is the mental aspect. Now that he’s not training seven days a week on the track (he’s still the current UK 400m record holder), running has become a mental health tool.
“I personally love running out on the roads. For me, it’s my escapism. If I’m in a bad mood or having a bad day, I force myself out and come back feeling so much better. I turn my phone off and enjoy being outdoors in nature,” he says. “Other people like treadmills and they’re probably a good thing for switching your training up but I personally would rather be on the roads.”
Treadmill running can be kinder to joints and bones
While Carter notes that some of us may run differently on a treadmill to the way we’d naturally stride on the road, the research is inconclusive. Some studies claim that our biomechanical patterns don’t change between running on a treadmill or outside, but it stands to reason that running outside may be better suited to our natural running style.
From a purely psychological point of view, you may feel like you’ve got to move faster because the ground beneath you is moving. Because treadmills tend to be bouncier, it might also feel easier to move forwards compared with running on the road, where you’ve got to propel yourself forward.
However, that softer treadmill surface can be great for protecting joints and bones – so if you’re trying to run regularly, the odd treadmill workout may offer your knees and ankles a little relief from the relentless pounding they get from pavement running.
While running outside offers lots of mental health benefits
There are things that treadmills can’t do, of course. For one thing, the scenery always changes and if you plan your route well, you can find yourself benefitting from being in nature while getting a good workout.
Then there’s the fact that every few yards, you have to move slightly; we’ve got to dodge dogs, go round corners, step around broken paving stones or jump onto grass. Nearly everywhere has a slight incline or decline. If you keep your treadmill on flat the whole time, you miss out on those cardio and muscle-building tweaks and it can be challenging to transition to road racing if you’ve never had to attempt even a small hill climb.
Then there’s the mental side to training al fresco, as Thomas eludes to. A 2011 review published in The Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry concluded that there are plenty of mental and benefits from exercising in nature. Taking workouts outside was associated with “greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.”
That’s not to say, however, that you couldn’t train for an event entirely on a treadmill. Carter says: “You certainly could do it, but I think you’d be missing out on two things: firstly, the treadmill is softer, and roads do tend to be a harder surface with more impact. That’s perhaps more likely to make you sore afterwards, but in a long race, it could also impact you during the event itself.
“Then there’s also the weather; if you train in a super air-conned gym and it’s hot on race day, it might be a bit of a shock to the system. Ditto hills – if there are any on your race route, they are going to really throw you after a pancake flat treadmill-based training.”
Running on hard roads is actually makes bones stronger
In terms of technique, treadmills can also add poor posture into the mix. When we run, we want to stand as tall and relaxed as possible so that the lungs can fill up with oxygen. On treadmills, however, people have a tendency to look down or stoop forwards – which Carter believes is caused by them squinting at phone or machine screens. At all times, whether running on the road or machine, you want to look straight into the middle distance.
Then there’s the fact that running on hard road isn’t actually bad for you; in fact, research suggests that pounding the pavement may actually be better for your bones than resistance training. We also know that running doesn’t damage knee cartilage as many have previously believed; it can actually make our knees stronger and more resilient to injury.
Mix up training with treadmills… but get outside
For Carter, there’s nothing like running in the great outdoors and she advises trying running outside if you don’t already. “I’ve got nothing against treadmills and do quite a few miles on them to mix things up, but nothing beats being outside. It’s not so much even just the training element: it’s that running outside, particularly in nature, has so many other benefits that you could be missing out on.”
And that’s the thing: the key to enjoyable running is finding what feels good. Adding the odd sprint session into your week does make other outings feel easier, and in my experience, it’s far more enjoyable to jump on a treadmill to up the speed and incline. For those longer, easy runs, however, there’s nothing like being outside in the fresh air to leave you feeling calm, happy and accomplished.
If you’re new to running and need time to build your confidence, by all means, stick to the treadmills – they’re a great place to start. But when you can, start transitioning to the road/park/canal and see how you feel.
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.