Banner Busters: Should runners work out using treadmills?

Rosalee Tilden, junior psychology major, works out in the Recreation Center at California Baptist University

With the growth of gym culture, running on treadmills has become a dominant way in which people do their cardiovascular exercise. Treadmills simulate a running experience, but does running on a treadmill actually give you the same workout as running outdoors?

Dr. Sydney Leisz, assistant professor of kinesiology, said that running is normally a full-body workout, involving hips, trunk, lower-body muscles and upper body.

“It is a whole-body experience,” Leisz said. “When you are running overground, no elevation, it is a full-body exercise.”

Running outdoors, or overground, and running on a treadmill both use the same muscles and biomechanics, according to a study on PubMed.gov.

“It is concluded that as long as the beltspeed is constant a coordinate system should be used which moves with the belt,” the study said. “In such a system no mechanical difference exists in comparison with overground locomotion with respect to a fixed coordinate system. All differences found in locomotion patterns must therefore originate from other than mechanical causes.”

So, the study says, both overground running and running on a treadmill require the same motion.

However, Leisz said other differences do exist between running overground and on a treadmill. For example, the impact of running is different on a treadmill. 

While impact is variant on a treadmill, the surfaces on which someone runs outdoors can adjust the load placed on the body and the difficulty of the task. 

For example, running on grass and compact dirt will increase difficulty, but it will have less impact on joints than running on hard surfaces such as sidewalks and pavement.

The weather also affects the difficulty of running outside versus using a treadmill. While a treadmill is in a controlled indoor environment, overground running is subject to factors such as temperature, wind and precipitation.

“Running in the afternoon outside in the middle of the summer is going to be much more taxing on your body as opposed to if you are running in the same time of year inside on a treadmill,” Leisz said. “Understanding how your body reacts in those different environments is super important.”

Regarding the difficulty of the task, Leisz said running on the treadmill at a 1% grade equates to the body doing the same amount of work as overground running.

Ultimately, the choice of whether to use a treadmill or pursue overground running comes down to individual needs and goals. 

For example, a treadmill might be useful for a hill workout because it is not variant like natural elevation. It can also have less impact on the body.

“I think the main difference is when you are running outside and you are running up a hill, the incline ebbs and flows,” Leisz said. 

“Even if you are on a paved road, you are never going to be running at the same percent grade the entire time. For the general exercise of it, I would say they are similar. It is probably better to run on a treadmill because you can decrease the amount of load or ground-reaction forces that act on your body, some of which are good, others of which can increase your likelihood of getting shin splints or other muscular or skeletal injuries.”

However, overground running is also useful for training in natural conditions. 

Leisz suggests establishing personal goals before deciding which is best for you and figuring out what works best for your body.

“The meat of it is what are you trying to get from it?” Leisz said. “Are you trying to get a good workout? Then, yes, (the treadmill) is going to be a great option, but if you are training to be a marathon runner in a hilly course, it is going to benefit you to run in the same environment that you will be competing or training in.”

Kylie Morrison, adjunct professor of kinesiology  said both forms of working out have benefits and disadvantages.

“Obviously the treadmill allows you to control all aspects, speed, incline and not having to deal with environmental factors,” Morrison said. “Outdoor running, however, allows you to run with your natural gait. You build different muscles from having to dodge obstacles on the road as well.”

Leisz also said that overground running has additional benefits that should encourage people to pursue outdoor running. However, she also explains how to do it safely.

“I would say the best thing to do is to run outside because there are so many factors like Vitamin D, (since) you can’t get that from being in a gym,” Leisz said. 

“With that, running on soft surfaces is going to be best, so trying to avoid sidewalks or pavement. Running on grass or compact dirt is going to be best because not only does it slightly increase the difficulty of the task, but it decreases the amount of load put on your joints. If you are a runner, over time that is going to serve you.”

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