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Differences between running on a treadmill and outdoors.

There are differences between running on a treadmill and outdoors that we should be aware of, especially during the coronavirus crisis we are currently experiencing, where most runners have turned to using treadmills.

Let's address questions and doubts that you have raised, such as: Is running on a treadmill the same as running on the road? Does running on a treadmill have any advantages or disadvantages? What aspects of our running technique can be affected when running on a treadmill compared to running outdoors? Why are there curved treadmills?

Due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the risk of confinement that we all face, exercising has become almost obligatory to maintain calm and avoid losing our composure.

This situation has led many of you to dust off that old and forgotten treadmill, and today, it has become your great ally during this crisis. So, without further ado, let's address all those questions.

One of the most common questions you ask us during consultations or while conducting a 3D biomechanical study of running is: What are the differences between running on a treadmill and running outdoors?

Running on a treadmill is not the same as running outdoors, and we will explain the various reasons. However, this does not mean that running on a treadmill cannot have its applications. In fact, given the extraordinary situation we are experiencing, running on a treadmill is a magnificent way to exercise, and it is much better than lying on the couch all day, right?

Returning to the question: why is running on a treadmill not the same as running outdoors? Several aspects need to be considered:

  1. Greater Muscle Activation Outdoors:

Running outdoors results in greater activation of muscles compared to running on a treadmill. When running on a treadmill, the hip, knee, and foot extensor muscles (hamstrings, calves, soleus, and intrinsic foot muscles) barely engage, as the moving belt is responsible for propelling us forward. If you only run on a treadmill, these muscles tend to weaken, and their antagonist muscles (those performing the opposite movement) may work more than necessary. Therefore, pay attention to the quadriceps, tibialis, and psoas muscles. One common injury among those who only run on treadmills is tibial periostitis due to excessive demand on the tibialis anterior muscle.

  1. Running on a Treadmill is Easier:

Running on a treadmill is easier than running outdoors due to the reduced muscle involvement mentioned earlier, resulting in approximately 5% less calorie expenditure. Additionally, the friction forces generated when running outdoors, between the foot and the asphalt or terrain, are practically reduced to zero. Therefore, running on a treadmill is easier than running outdoors. To address this difference and equalize conditions between running on a treadmill and running outdoors, the solution is to increase the treadmill's incline, if possible, by 1%, as supported by various studies.

  1. Possibility of Running at Faster Paces on a Treadmill:

Due in part to the two points mentioned earlier, running at faster paces is easier on a treadmill, as there are fewer friction forces, and the moving belt assists us. All the explanations provided here are applicable when talking about common treadmills that we have all tried and know. But why do curved treadmills exist?

Curved treadmills make running indoors and outdoors practically the same from a mechanical and physiological standpoint. Let's explore why:

  1. No Motor: Curved treadmills do not have a motor; the belt moves thanks to your effort.
  2. Increased Caloric Expenditure: Caloric expenditure is higher than with other treadmills because more energy is needed to move it compared to traditional treadmills.
  3. Engages the Same Muscles as Outdoor Running: The same muscles involved in outdoor running are engaged when using curved treadmills.

Interesting, isn't it? The main disadvantage of these treadmills is their high prices; you can find models starting from three thousand euros and above. Now you know why they are not commonly seen in gyms.

So far, this answers why running on a treadmill is not the same as running outdoors. Next, let's analyse another important difference that is frequently asked:

How Does Our Running Technique Change When Running on a Treadmill Compared to Running Outdoors?

Firstly, I want to mention that there is no drastic difference between running on a treadmill and outdoors. In other words, if you don't have good running technique outdoors, you won't magically have it on a treadmill, and vice versa. That said, there are small variations that we will analyse:

  1. Changes in Your Steps:

As mentioned earlier, on a treadmill, the foot lifts off earlier due to the reduced need for the propulsive phase. The support phase, where the foot contacts the ground, becomes shorter, meaning that the stride decreases or steps become shorter.

  1. Increased Cadence:

Why is this so? Well, cadence is defined as the number of steps taken in a minute. If we determined in the first point that we take shorter steps, most runners will increase the number of steps, meaning they will increase their cadence.

  1. Variations in Vertical Oscillation:

Vertical oscillation, in simple terms, refers to jumping up and down while running instead of moving forward. Treadmills have built-in springs to absorb impact, which, depending on the model, can be excessive. These springs must cope with a very high variability of runners; weighing 50kg is not the same as weighing 90kg. Therefore, heavier runners may feel a greater sense of bounce.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using a Treadmill

Firstly, it's important to note that neither running on a treadmill is inherently good nor bad; it's just another way to exercise. Like everything in life, misuse or excessive use can have negative consequences, but, as mentioned earlier, it's crucial to understand the differences between running on a treadmill and outdoors.

The benefits, advantages, or when it's a good option to run on a treadmill may include:

  1. Ideal for Beginners: It is ideal for people who want to start running. They can alternate between running outdoors and on a treadmill since the treadmill absorbs more impact and is easier, as discussed earlier.
  1. Good for Injury Recovery: It is a good solution for those recovering from an injury or discomfort, and it has been a while since they last ran. Those initial contact days are crucial to not overthink it and evaluate how our bodies respond, always at the same speed, without terrain inclinations, etc., iin short, without surprises.
  2. For Experienced Runners Wanting to Increase Pace: For more experienced runners who want to run faster, increase the running pace, but struggle to do so outdoors, a treadmill is a very good option.

On the flip side, the disadvantages, or drawbacks I see with treadmills are mainly mechanical, as we have seen that more muscles are activated when running outdoors than on a treadmill.

However, undoubtedly, the biggest disadvantage of running on a treadmill compared to running outdoors is primarily emotional.

Never in life will running on a treadmill give us the feeling of freedom, the ability to enjoy extraordinary landscapes, the opportunity to run in a group, or the experience of running on rainy days. Some people might prefer running on a treadmill to avoid getting wet in the rain, but for me, running on rainy days creates a greater connection, something more spiritual or epic—whatever you want to call it.

So, without a doubt, except for these days with the coronavirus when we had no other option but to run on a treadmill, I personally prefer running outdoors.

What is your preference?

Albert Casas

Sports Podiatrist

Teacher at www.vibliotec.org

His course: Mejora la técnica de carrera para optimizar el rendimiento.

Note: In his course 'Improve Running Technique to Optimize Performance,' Albert will explain everything you need to know to enhance running technique with the goal of optimizing sports performance. The course is suitable for both self-application and teaching athletes how to run better, faster, and minimize the risk of injuries.

With Albert, you will learn the essential biomechanics of our lower extremity, focusing on the hip, knee, ankle, and foot. He will teach you to recognize all phases or cycles of running and conclude with the keys to efficient running technique.