By Allie Wisniewski, American Forests
Whether you’re an avid outdoor adventurer or in a committed relationship with the gym, it’s likely that you’re partial to your preferred setting when it comes to nailing down the ideal run. So, what exactly qualifies a run as “ideal?” Which is helping you get the most out of your workout: the trail or the treadmill? It turns out there’s a multitude of factors that play into answering this age-old question. In order to determine the verdict, we’re diving into four run-related considerations: speed, safety, fitness and overall well-being.
I hate to burst your bubble, gym rats, but you might not be as running as fast as you think you are. According to a study by researchers in Singapore, the average treadmill runner tends to overestimate their pace. When scientists asked participants to run outside and then match their speed on a treadmill, people ran much slower, though they assumed their speed hadn’t changed. This is attributed to the perception of different visual cues when running indoors. Overall, it seems that we subconsciously work harder and thus run faster when outside. Trail: 1. Treadmill: 0
In terms of safety, the trail and the treadmill both seem to have their pros and cons. If perhaps, for example, you live in an area plagued by frigid, snowy winters, running outside in mid-January might not be the best idea. Icy roads are a recipe for disaster when it comes to outdoor jogging — just ask Carrie Tollefson, 2004 Olympian who tore several muscles in her pelvis and abdomen after slipping during a risky winter run. Additionally, treadmills are proven to be easier on your joints than hard pavement, due to the cushioning of the belt. I’m definitely not saying you should become a recluse and never go outside again, but keep in mind that there are natural dangers associated with uneven ground and exposure to the elements. Trail: 1. Treadmill: 1
You might be able to guess that although it’s a wildly realistic alternative, the treadmill can’t quite replicate the varied terrain of the outdoors. The uneven nature of roads and trails — paved and unpaved — provides the added fitness benefit of increasing your agility. Not to mention, you’re working more muscles than you would on the mechanized treadmill. According to research, those who run on the treadmill expend less energy than outdoor runners when covering the same distance. An article in TIME Magazine explains: “Outside, you typically rely on your hamstrings to finish the stride cycle and lift your legs behind you, almost kicking your butt. But on a treadmill, the propulsion of the belt does much of that work for you.” Trail: 2. Treadmill: 1
While up to this point we’ve examined the more physical aspects of each running environment, mind, body, and soul are all active and important components of well-rounded exercise. Little scientific evidence is required to affirm the fact that treadmill running can become extremely boring, but there is now plenty of research to suggest the disparities in mental engagement when comparing indoor and outdoor physical activity. A 2011 study from Harvard University found when participants were asked to go for two walks, one on a treadmill and the other outdoors, psychological tests reported higher measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem after they walked outside. I mean, it makes sense, right? Maybe it’s just me, but no matter how nice the gym, it can never compare to the beauty of a forest path. Trail: 3. Treadmill: 1
While ultimately it comes down to your personal preferences, it looks like the trail has taken the cake this time around. Sorry, treadmill. You might be convenient in a snowstorm, but you just can’t compete with the allure of the wild. We humans were born to run. So, get up, get out and get moving!