Myth or Reality: Treadmill Just as Good as Road Running

PHOTO: Studies show running on a treadmill is roughly equivalent to running outdoors -- with a few slight differences.Getty Images
Studies show running on a treadmill is roughly equivalent to running outdoors -- with a few slight differences.

Frigid temperatures and unrelenting snow mean a lot of exercisers stuck indoors grinding out their miles on a treadmill. Many of them wonder if their run to nowhere is somehow inferior to hitting the pavement, track or trails.

Let’s break it down.

Biomechanics

Treadmill running has a few negligible variations in biomechanics compared to outdoor running, said exercise physiologist Reed Ferber, who is the director of the running injury clinic at the University of Calgary in Canada.

“You have more forward lean from your trunk and more flexion at the hips and knees when you run on a treadmill because you don’t need to generate as much power at the same speed as you do running on level ground outdoors,” he said. “For the average runner, this doesn’t mean much.”

Calorie Burn

Studies show there are miniscule differences in calorie burn when running at the same speed and incline on a treadmill compared to outdoors. These differences only become meaningful at speeds faster than about 8.5 miles per hour -- which, let’s face it, is way faster than an average runner’s pace, Ferber noted.

Ferber said that speedsters can incline their treadmill by 1 or 2 percent to make up the difference.

Injury

There are no studies comparing the injury rate or types of injuries you get on a treadmill versus running outdoors. However, Ferber still cautions runners who spend their winters on the treadmill to cut their mileage in half when they finally get back out on the road.

“When you run outdoors, your calf muscles produce about 80 percent of the forward propulsion power but this drops significantly on a treadmill because the ground moves underneath you,” he said. “When you transition from the treadmill to the road, you could be at risk for calf strains, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.”

Boredom

Treadmill workouts are the exercise equivalent to watching paint dry for many people, Ferber admitted. Some exercisers tend to cut their workouts short out of sheer boredom.

But studies have shown distraction techniques like listening to music, watching a movie or taking a treadmill class can help speed up time. Ferber also recommended playing around with any preprogrammed workouts that automatically change speed and incline to help keep the brain engaged.