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Is Running on a Treadmill \"Fake Running\"?

Training Log For: 01/01/10

For more reading: Article

Posted by Matthew

If you step foot inside your stereotypical gym, you will see rows of treadmills and elliptical machines facing large screen televisions. For the most part, the people exercising on these machines are working up a sweat, breathing heavily and appear to be receiving a pretty good workout. If your main goals are general fitness, improved cardiovascular fitness and weight loss, the physiological reactions of these people would be enough to satisfy the definition of a "good" workout. What if your fitness goal is to complete a marathon? Can a 12 mile run on a treadmill be substituted for real-world "natural" running.

At first glance, the problem seems to involve several main factors:

  • psychological differences
  • moving versus stationary running surface
  • environmental factors: uneven terrain, wind resistance, unpredictable incline/declines

Personally the first factor, for me, has the largest difference between the two types of running we are discussing. Running on a treadmill is BORING. Even with an mp3 player or visual stimulation, the sensory experience of running in place feels like a bigger waste of time than running on a track. I'll be honest, I don't like running very much. Usually I have to perform a lot of positive self talk just to start running. However, running in the "real world" has many more stimulants and distractions over the course of 1-2 hours. After about 30 minutes of running on a treadmill I have had enough.

The second factor is rooted in more quantifiable measurements. If your treadmill is operating at 6 mph, you have to move your legs at 6mph to avoid being thrown off the back of the treadmill (yes I have seen this happen) or to avoid running into the supports on the front of the machine. In contrast, the surface of the Earth is moving at it's constant rotational speed and taking you along for the ride. In order to run on a fixed surface your legs have to produce enough force to move your body at a specific speed. Natural running is producing the force to reach a desired speed whereas treadmill running is keeping up with a certain speed. Granted, both forms of running require energy expenditure and muscle involvement. Personally, I feel more effort is required to run outside at the same speed as on a treadmill. The verdict seems to still be debatable with regards to scientific studies.

The last factor grouping likely has a place in the equation, but modern exercise machines have ways of countering the discrepancies. Treadmills have pre-programmed routines that vary the incline (but not decline) and the speed of the treadmills surface, essentially mimicking hill inclines and varied levels of difficulty. Once again though, I feel that natural running has the advantage. Depending on your route, the degree to which a real-world surface can vary in levelness and incline/decline is still unmatched on a stationary machine. Many of the paths I run on require subtle but constant adjustments in balance and compensation from both of my legs. It sort of reminds me of the independent suspension found on most modern cars. Both legs are exposed to different requirements during an outdoors run. This is probably more of a factor for trail and street running than it is on maintained running tracks.

To answer the question, I'm not really sure if running on a treadmill would limit the benefits of a long run while training for a marathon. I can say with certainty though, that running on a treadmill beats not running at all. In my opinion the best way to train for any sport is to attempt to mimic the actual performing of the sport itself. If you are going to be running a marathon on a treadmill, then by all means, train on one. I'll be running outside though, so I prefer to train outside. My neighborhood isn't the safest at night though, so if I have to do my running at night I choose the treadmill. Getting robbed on a 12-mile run is probably a bad way to train.