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TREADMILLS VS. THE ROAD: WHICH IS BEST FOR YOUR RUNNING?

TREADMILLS VS. THE ROAD: WHICH IS BEST FOR YOUR RUNNING?

Text by Rod Cedaro (M. App. Sc.) Consultant Exercise Physiologist ACC Accredited Level III Triathlon Coach (DUNCAN)

In TMSM (a magazine I write for) I’ve often sung the praises of riding indoors on trainers as a means of taking your cycling to another level.

In fact, here in Brisbane where we run our two Activ Tri-Group sessions at our indoor cycling facility (see: www.activcyclecoaching.com) as (i) it is easier to keep a group of varying ability levels together and safe and (ii) because the improvement we’ve seen from riding on the computrainers are substantially more than we could have hoped for by sending athletes out to do their sessions on the road. So that begs the question can treadmill running be to running what the computrainer is to cycling?

Personally I believe, like cycling on a computrainer, running on a treadmill can be an excellent “adjunct” to road running, but as is the case with riding, running on a treadmill should not be used to completely replace road, trail or track running sessions.

Rod Cedaro 1

I’ve often had athletes comment that running on a treadmill feels somewhat “easier” than running at the same pace than running over the ground. How can this be? If you’re running 4.00/km on the road you’re running 15kph, surely, if you stoke a treadmill up to the same speed you’ll be doing the same sort of work, or will you……….

When you run on a treadmill the ground (or rather belt) is being pulled underneath your feet and there’s no wind resistance, whilst when you’re running outdoors you literally have to lift and pull yourself over the ground and deal with air resistance. You don’t think that the air resistance is a factor? Just like drafting on the bike, running in another athlete’s slipstream pays big dividends, more than faster you go, in fact at an elite level on a 400 metre track during a 5-10km race the advantage of “sitting on” has been calculated by the boffins to be in the order of about 1 second per 400.

Think about that, over the 25 laps almost half a minute improvement for your 10km for the same effort by simply drafting a slightly faster runner – hence why at major track meets and major international marathons they employ “rabbits” to take the favourites through the first 2/3 to 3/4 of an event.

Rod Cedaro

Anyway back to our treadmill question. Running on a treadmill, along the flat is indeed “easier” than running at the equivalent pace outdoors, but, as you will see, this too can have its advantages. So how you can simulate running outdoors on the treadmill to make up for the air resistance and having the belt moving under you, rather than you moving over the ground? Simple, stick the treadmill on a slight incline – 1.5-2% will suffice. You will then find that the speed on the treadmill and what you experience outside over the ground will be similar.

So why not do all of your running on the treadmill? After all, it is indoors, in a controlled environment, there are no potholes to worry about twisting an ankle in, etc. The fact is that running all of your training on the treadmill is “too” repetitive and can lead to overuse injuries.

When you run outdoors you are constantly having the make minor adjustments in your foot plant and running gait to negotiate the ever changing terrain and surfaces you travel over. No two steps are the same; this is not the case with the treadmill.

Secondly, until relatively recent times treadmills didn’t have a lot of “give” in their decks, so athletes who did considerable amounts of their training on the treadmill (landing in the same manner over and over again countless times) often experienced stress fractures and the like. This is certainly also true of runners who spend the vast majority of their time running on the road (asphalt) or worse still concrete footpaths, however when running outdoors the athlete always has the option to run on softer surfaces like nature-strips and golf courses to lower the impact shock.

To their credit, treadmill manufacturers have recognised this shortcoming in their products and a number of manufacturers have made remarkable advances in treadmill deck design resulting in a much gentler run for the user. Unfortunately they haven’t (and to my way of thinking) wont, be able to get over the issues of every step being pretty much identical to the last and hence increasing the possibility of overuse injuries.

So is it worthwhile using a treadmill? Absolutely! A treadmill can be a valuable adjunct to your training when:

(a) You are trying to teach an athlete to run at “tempo” – in other words a consistent regular rhythm. Set the treadmill at 12kph and the speed won’t vary and the athlete will follow suit. Ask that same athlete to run 120 second per 400 metre lap (i.e. 12kph) after lap on a track and chances are the speed will be all over the place. Given that the most “efficient” way to run a race is even paced through the first phase of the run and then kicking for home, treadmills can be most valuable in this instance.

(b) When you’re doing some “over-speed” work. Swim coaches have long known that cardiovascular fitness, strength, etc. is only part of the answer to developing speed, the other part is “feel” or for those of you more technically minded out there – neuromuscular firing patterns. Swim coaches achieve this by literally pulling/towing swimmers through the water faster than they are capable of swimming. This gives the swimmer the “feel” of swimming at a higher velocity so that they can endeavour to achieve that same sensation when training/racing by reproducing similar muscular firing patterns. The same applies to a runner. If out on the road you are limited to turning your legs over at 20kph, a treadmill, where your legs are being “dragged through” by the belt can be stoked up to 20.5kph to teach the nerves that innervate your muscles to fire appropriately. Sure you can also achieve this outside by running DOWN a gentle gradient, but this changes your gait more so and greatly increases the chance of injury.

(c) Technique modification. Stick a treadmill in front of a mirror, point out the technical faults of someone whilst they are running and immediately, by watching themselves in the mirror and gaining instant feedback, they can modify their style and quickly improve their efficiency and ultimately their performance.

(d) Safety. If you’re in a strange location on business, you don’t know your way around the streets or the streets are chocked with car fumes, seeking refuge in a hotel health club or local gymnasium and jumping on the treadmill can ensure you still get that all important training session in.

Rod Cedaro 2

 

In short, used wisely and not exclusively, treadmill running has the potential to help lift your running prowess to the next level – consider it as another training option, but remember, mentally, you’ll likely have a tougher time dealing with the monotony of the treadmill. I can go out on a road/trail run and have two hours slip by easily, get me on a treadmill and I’m looking at my watch every 3 minutes and 24 seconds wishing the session to be over! It’s easier to distract yourself when running outside. The bottom line, as you get closer to competition be specific, try to train outside as much as possible to prepare for race conditions.

Rod Cedaro