Some runners consider treadmill running a lesser substitute for running outdoors. Going nowhere on a machine is not their first choice. It is only done when outdoor running is impractical. Some runners even refuse to run on a treadmill–dismissing the activity as not “real” running. Other runners view the treadmill for favorably. Self-described “treadmill junkie” Rick Morris wrote an entire book on treadmill training (Treadmill Training for Runners).
Even some elite runners embrace their treadmills. Both the male and female winners of the 2000 US Olympic Trials Marathons, Rod DeHaven and Christine Clark, were heavy treadmill users. In fact, Clark, an Alaskan, did almost all of her training on a treadmill in her basement in preparation for the Olympic Trials.
So it’s obvious that treadmill training can be as effective as running outdoors. But that doesn’t make it any less boring. So is treadmill running right for you? Read over the following lists of pros and cons and then decide for yourself.
Treadmills are convenient.
One of the great things about running is that you can do it almost anywhere, anytime. But there are situations in which outdoor running is impractical and treadmill running is preferable. For example, if you often run before the sun comes up, a treadmill can spare you from having to run in the dark. If the sidewalks get icy in the winter in your area, a treadmill can spare you from a nasty fall.
Treadmills facilitate controlled and precise workouts.
Even when you can run outdoors, running on a treadmill may be preferable in certain circumstances. For example, if you want to practice running at your goal pace before an upcoming race, you can take advantage of your ability to dial in a precise pace on the treadmill and use it to get your body and mind accustomed to holding that pace steadily.
Treadmill running is effective.
Some treadmill haters argue that treadmill running is easier than running outdoors, hence not as effective. Research has shown that heart rate is slightly lower at any given pace on a treadmill than it is outdoors, but the difference is very slight, and you can counteract it by running at a 1 percent gradient on the treadmill.
Treadmills are boring.
There is no denying the fact that, except for those few treadmill junkies like Rick Morris, running on the treadmill simply is not as fun as running outside. One can argue that runners need to be willing to put up with a little boredom in their training once in a while, but there is evidence that the tedium of treadmill running could make it slightly less effective than outdoor running.
For example, in one study by researchers at the University of Stockholm, runners were allowed to set their own pace in an indoor treadmill run and an outdoor trail run. They ran significantly faster at the same perceived effort level outdoors. This finding suggests that it is easier to train harder outdoors than on a treadmill.
Treadmill running lacks physical variation.
Even for the most diehard treadmill junkie, treadmill running cannot wholly substitute for running outdoors. For example, the maximum speed of most treadmills is 12 mph, which is slower than sprint speed for most runners, making it impossible to perform sprints and very short, very fast intervals on a treadmill. Also, it is impossible to simulate downhill running on most treadmills, so one cannot use a treadmill to prepare for races with extensive downhill sections such as the Boston Marathon.
Buy or borrow?
Most runners who do some treadmill running use machines at the fitness clubs where they are members or at the fitness centers where they live. Only a few use their own machines at home. The reason is simple: Treadmills are expensive. Products of comparable quality to those in fitness clubs cost around $3,000. But some runners consider the cost well worth the convenience of being able to run at home anytime.
Obviously, the first factor you have to consider in deciding whether to buy a treadmill is your budget. Quite simply, can you afford to buy a treadmill or not? A second important factor to consider is how often you run or plan to run on a treadmill. The more often you are likely to use your treadmill, the more value you will get from the investment.
There are much less expensive treadmills available, but as with most other products, you get what you pay for. The costlier models are typically sturdier and more accurate, powerful, durable and reliable. They also have more features. Still, there are some very good treadmills to be found for less than $1,000. If you are considering buying a treadmill for home use, do your homework before committing. Check out Consumer Reports or other reviews and visit more than one store to test out competing models.
There are several other factors you will want to consider before making a purchase. What kind of warranty is offered? How often does the machine need to be recalibrated? Who will service the machine if something goes wrong? How much noise does it make? (Be aware that noise from treadmills located above the first floor tends to bleed into the floor below.) How much space do you have at home? (If space is limited, consider buying a folding treadmill.)
If you choose to purchase a treadmill for home use, be sure to install it in a space with appropriate climate control. You generate a lot of heat when running and are likely to feel uncomfortably warm in the same room that is perfectly comfortable when you are sitting still. Whether you have windows, air conditioning, or a fan, you need some means to keep from overheating while using your machine.
Also, to keep from getting bored, you will probably want to set up your treadmill in a place that allows you to watch television while using it.
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. He is also a coach and training intelligence specialist for PEAR Sports. Learn more at mattfitzgerald.org.