Hit the Trail or the Treadmill? An Analysis of Indoor Running

As we move from chilly fall mornings into temperatures below freezing, it is no longer possible to deny the onset of true winter, leaving those who rely on the outdoors to stay active a bit high and dry. Runners are faced with the dilemma that comes every winter: how can one continue their passion (or their pain) when outside conditions aren’t always conducive to trail or street running? This question leads to the controversial topic of the treadmill.    

There seems to be a deep divide among the running community as far as treadmills go. Some are die-hard trail runners, others are die-hard treadmill users, and each group thinks that their running alternative is superior. But what is really the difference between the two? Is one better than the other? Are treadmills, like some claim, bad for your body, or is that a myth? 

Just like any other issue, it turns out there are pros and cons for running outside and running on a treadmill. The treadmill offers a safe and easily manipulated terrain, controlled climate, convenience, and doesn’t require intense focus, so it is possible to listen to music or multitask. Unfortunately, the “safe terrain” of the treadmill also equates to boredom for many runners, especially those used to the changing terrain of trail running. The treadmill’s hard surface can also contribute to shin splints and joint injuries; however, all running is extremely hard on the body. While music helps, some say the treadmill can still lead to a sort of “hamster on the wheel” feeling.

Meanwhile, trail running offers new terrain that keeps the run interesting and can offer slightly more cushion for the joints and shins depending on the trail. Nevertheless, changing terrain can demand increased focus and raise the possibility of injuries with rocks and roots to avoid.

As to which method is “better,” this claim depends on the experience level of the runner and the end goal. Running outside uses muscles in a more uniform way and builds stronger muscles because there is no belt to help with body propulsion—ideal for experienced runners. Beginning runners and runners with injuries, however, should most likely run inside to build running muscle memory and to avoid uneven terrain. Treadmills are thought of more as a way to stay in shape, but not necessarily change body composition. Meanwhile, those training for shorter races or marathons should most likely train outside because it is more physically challenging and the various terrains work both hamstrings and quadriceps.        

In the end, there isn’t one method that is better than the other; rather, it is an individual choice based on personal goals. Some choose to train on the treadmill almost every day regardless of weather, while others only train on the treadmill when forced by snow or ice.

Either way, running is an incredible workout that targets not only the entire body and lungs (burning about 100 calories per mile), but also has been proven to be one of the best ways to relieve stress, increase oxygen flow to the brain, and improve brain capacity. So, hit the trail or the treadmill and enjoy an active winter. 

For those still dreading the monotony of the treadmill, here are a few suggestions to bring back some excitement:

1. Listen to a podcast. Some interesting podcasts are: Invisibilia, This American Life, The Moth, RadioLab, and TED talks. Choose a podcast or presentation that is about as long as you’d like to run, and take your mind off the monotony while learning something new.   

2. Create a running playlist. Because of the versatility and rhythm of her songs, Rihanna is a great addition to any playlist. But if smooth jazz is more your style, that’s also an option.

3. Find classroom texts online in audio versions. For those facing extremely hectic schedules,  you can listen while you run. The combined movement, increased oxygen during the run, and information directly from the headphones into your ears can increase retention of material.   


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