Running indoors on a treadmill can be a great way to maintain fitness during the winter without some of the challenges that can accompany cold weather running. Now that spring is in the air and roads, paths, and trails are starting to become more accessible most runners are itching to get outside. This transition can come with some challenges that should be addressed. The dynamics of running outdoors are different, the stress that outdoor running puts on the body should be accounted for. With some thought and preparation, this transition can be seamless and enjoyable.
Treadmill vs. Outdoors
Let’s start by looking at why running on a treadmill is different than running outdoors. On the surface, it may seem like running is running, so why do we need to do things differently to prepare for outdoor running? The differences, although subtle, add up to make a big difference for many runners.
- Controlled Speed – The treadmill allows a “set it and forget it” approach to pacing. As long as you can keep up, the machine does the rest of the work for you. Pacing is not that straightforward outdoors and requires more effort to manage.
- Outside Isn’t Flat – Most runners leave the treadmill on 0% incline when they run. Even the flattest areas typically have some type of undulating terrain. This makes things harder outdoors.
- Less Impact – Treadmills have some amount of “give” built-in. This limits the impact that runners feel. This, of course, is not the case outdoors, and running becomes a much higher impact discipline.
- Unstable Footing – Every single time your foot makes contact with a treadmill it’s exactly the same. Even when running on the road this is not the case. Uneven terrain makes for a much more dynamic footfall.
Strength Training and Conditioning
Strength training is an important component of every athlete’s training regiment. However, as you make the transition from primarily running indoors to outdoors it becomes even more important. The physicality of running outdoors is much greater than the treadmill can provide. Strength training will ensure that your body is ready to handle the impact, variability, and stress that comes with running outdoors. Begin strength training before you fully transition to outdoor runs to aid in improved fitness and injury prevention. A focused “pre-hab” regiment becomes even more important as the outdoor miles begin to stack up. Foam rolling, stretching, and targeting myofascial release are key components to a runner’s arsenal. The impact of outdoor runs will take its toll on joints and smaller muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Regular self-care is vital to the longevity of runners of all types. So often as soon as the weather allows runners will dive in headfirst to much longer runs than they’ve been doing. Fight the urge to increase the volume too rapidly. Slowly build into progressively longer runs while maintaining your strength training routine, crosstraining, and stretching. It’s better to have many great runs, than one long run and then fight injury for the rest of the season. Always take the longterm and sustainable approach.
One of the often-overlooked but important distinctions between running indoors and outdoors is the necessary gear, access to food, and hydration. On the treadmill, you’re in a conditioned environment protected from the elements. There are also places to put food, water, phone, etc. so all you have to do is turn on the machine and go for it. This, of course, is not the case outdoors. You’ll have to contend with the elements, as well as plan for food and hydration needs as your runs get longer. If you’re run is going to last over an hour it’s typically a good idea to bring a handheld water bottle with a drink mix containing calories and electrolytes, or plain water, and some calories in the form of gels or bars. For multi-hour runs, there’s a little more planning involved. A popular option is a running vest that allows for handsfree transportation of water bottles, food, extra layers, and any other necessary gear for the terrain/environment. As your runs get longer practice how to best carry your gear, what types of food and drink are most palatable, and your must-have gear in case the weather turns cold and/or rainy. Part of what makes running outdoors great is being in the elements, but those elements also need to be respected and prepare for. When you leave the comfort of the treadmill make sure you have the gear you need.
Running is one of the purest and most approachable endurance activities. The freedom of movement that accompanies running is what runners crave and chase season after season. The treadmill is a great way to maintain fitness for when outdoor running becomes an option again. However, they are not created equal. Make sure your body is prepared for the stress that comes from variable terrain, unstable footing, and higher impact running. Strength training, stretching, and foam rolling should be a mainstay as mileage increases. Be prepared and enjoy every step as you venture outside.
Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, team organizer, writer, and podcast host. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from running and cycling to mountaineering. For more information on their personal coaching and training plan options visit http://www.thomasendurancecoaching.com/. Also, listen to their top-rated podcast Endurance Minded everywhere you get your podcasts.