Ask any distance runner how they feel about treadmill running and you’re guaranteed a strong response. Whether you love them to the moon or despise the very thought of them, nearly every runner I’ve encountered has a marked opinion on the matter. I for one am on the pro side of the debate, but I thought the topic was an interesting one and warranted further investigation. So what are the pros and cons of training on a treadmill? Most of us base our feelings about the machines mainly on the mental and emotional aspects associated with them, but in terms of physical exertion and workout quality, how does running on a treadmill help or hurt a distance runner’s training?
When asked in a recent Running Times interview about how she incorporates treadmill running into her training regimen, elite distance runner Kara Goucher stated that she “would absolutely prefer to be outside” but admits that “sometimes workouts go by quicker because the treadmill does the thinking for you.” Goucher, who will be running on the USA Olympic Marathon Team this August, recognizes the treadmill’s practicality and ability to regulate pace for tempo workouts and solo runs. She notes that “there are times where you might push too hard outside [but] on the treadmill you can control that.”
I find that my feelings about treadmills are quite similar to those of Goucher. While I much prefer to run outside and enjoy the scenery and fresh air, every once in a while I take advantage of the mindless type of running a treadmill allows for. This past week I ended up running on a treadmill a total of three times: once for a long run, once for an easy 5-miler, and once for a tempo workout. Though this week was by no means representative of the usual proportion of my miles are run on the treadmill (and I know that if I always did it this often I would go insane), it was a refreshing change of pace- literally and figuratively- and helped remind me that sometimes running inside is actually a better option than braving the outdoors.
First, a short explanation of my reasons for embracing the treadmill these past few days. For my long run on Monday, I really wanted to lock into a consistent pace for the duration of my workout. Because I’ve been running on my own the past few weeks and don’t yet have a working GPS watch, I have no way of knowing what pace I’ve been doing my runs at. I ended up completing the run comfortably, and it was a reassuring feeling to finish the run feeling strong. My second treadmill run of the week- an easy 5-miler- was done on Wednesday afternoon. Considering the 106 degree temperature outside and the citywide air advisory in effect, I knew that any attempt to endure the heat would only cause me to run at slower than my desired pace and become unnecessarily dehydrated and worn out. Using the treadmill helped me avoid the scorching temperatures and take full advantage of my recovery day. My third treadmill run of the week- a 20 minute tempo run on Friday morning- allowed me to lock into the proper pace and get a better gauge of my fitness than running outside would have allowed. Since I’m new to the area and don’t have any mile markers to go by, this was the only way I could ensure I did my workout at the proper pace.
All that said, treadmills also have their negative aspects. Besides being incredibly unexciting, running on a treadmill deprives your body of the strength it gains by running outside. Even on relatively flat surfaces, outdoor running engages more muscles because you are constantly correcting for uneven terrain, turning corners, and going up and down small inclines and declines. When training for cross country in particular, running outside should comprise a majority of one’s miles logged for these very reasons. But when trying to avoid bad weather on an extremely hot or cold day, hoping to bypass massive hills during a recovery run, or looking for a way to mange your pace when running alone or doing an important workout, treadmill running can be an essential part of any training program.