Treadmill Running =/= Outdoor Running

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this the girl who likes the treadmill? Who runs on the treadmill regularly? Who wrote a whole post about why treadmill running actually works for her? Yep. And it’s still true. I still like the treadmill. Honestly, if it weren’t for the treadmill, I don’t know that I would have run at all this winter.

What I’m trying to say here is that while the treadmill is a valid option, and one I clearly can’t live without, running on the treadmill simply does not adequately prepare you for, and does not in any way compare to, running outside. I sort of re-realized this on my long run last Wednesday. Here’s why:

Treadmills keep a consistent speed.

You get on the treadmill, set your speed, and go. You don’t have to think about it, and your body doesn’t have to self regulate. You just move your legs to match the speed of the belt. Outside, the only thing controlling your pace is you, and it’s a lot harder to keep a consistent speed when you are the only motivating factor. Thus, I usually run too fast or too slow outside.

There are no pedestrians to contend with on the treadmill.

Because the weather is getting nicer, there are people EVERYWHERE. Moms with babies in strollers, couples walking hand in hand, people walking to and from work, people walking their dogs. And you have to compete with them for space. Weave around them. Call out “On your left!” to get them to move over. Or do the awkward side-step dance where you keep getting in each other’s way. This definitely slows me down.

There are no obstacles to contend with on the treadmill.

Puddles. Mud. Ice. Snow. Dog poop. These are all realities of running outside, and if you want to keep your feet clean and dry for the duration of your run, some maneuvering is definitely necessary. I probably added a quarter of a mile to my run on Wednesday just by swinging wide into peoples’ lawns to avoid the puddles and/or mud that have taken over Burlington sidewalks.

Treadmills are flat.

I mean, unless you change the elevation, of course. But you have sole control of the elevation profile on your treadmill run. I don’t know about you, but 99% of my treadmill runs are flat. I’ve found that running a “hill” on a treadmill is somehow way harder than running an actual hill. They also don’t really simulate downhill well. And then I get outdoors after training on a treadmill for months and wonder why RUNNING IS SUDDENLY SO HARD!!

Treadmills are monotonous. 

Outdoor running is just way more fun. Fresh air, sunshine (or maybe rain), people, birds, animals, scenery… Whereas on the treadmill your eyes are either glued to a TV screen or desperately trying not to make eye contact with the meat head squat grunting or whatever it is he’s doing. Not so much fun.


When you run outside, you experience much more extreme temperatures, and can experience a wide range of temperatures even on a single run. Generally speaking, treadmills are indoors, and you therefore experience a constant, moderate temperature. Also, there’s no rain/hail/snow/sleet on the treadmill. ‘Nuff said. Which means that when you’ve been training on a treadmill all winter and then try to run a race in -6 windchill temps, you’re in for a rude awakening.

As you can see, treadmill running, while a necessary evil, just doesn’t fully prepare you for running outside. And running outside is obviously better.

Did I miss any of the major differences between outdoor and treadmill running?

Do you love or hate the treadmill?

Conquering my Fear of Outdoor Running

This might seem weird to some, but I always get super anxious about running outside by myself.  When I first started trying to get into running while I was in high school, I lived in a sub-divided neighborhood with lots of small streets that meant I didn’t need to leave my comfort zone and deal with traffic.  When we were living in Boston, I never went running outside by myself–Ben always went with me.  But now, with training, I kind of have to go whether I’ve got company or not.

Last night was my first solo run outside in Burlington.  Now, Burlington is NOT a big city.  Most of you who live in places like Boston or NYC would probably laugh at me calling Burlington a city at all, but there are definitely dangers–busy intersections, places with no sidewalks, and less-than-desirable neighborhoods.  And I almost psyched myself out of my run last night, even though it was a sunny, warm afternoon.

Things I am Afraid of When Running Outside (In No Particular Order)

1.  Being hit by a car/bike

2.  Getting lost

3.  Weather

4.  Being attacked/kidnapped or otherwise accosted

5.  Looking foolish

Now, I know some of these are more or less lame (looking foolish), but some are legitimate concerns, especially as a female runner.  I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.  However, there are definitely some things I (or anyone) can do to mitigate the dangers and make running outside less anxiety-inducing.

1.  Plan your route.  You’re much less likely to get lost, and much more likely to get your necessary mileage in.  Pick routes through areas you know and are comfortable in.

2.  Always let someone know where you’ll be and how long you’ll be gone.  I talked my route out with Ben last night, and told him I shouldn’t be gone longer than 40 minutes.  That way, if I was gone too long, he’d know something was up and be on the alert.

3.  Always carry ID and/or your phone.  Last night, I carried my driver’s license and phone in the handy-dandy pocket of my running jacket.  If I got lost, I could call for help, and if I were to be injured, emergency personnel would know my name and be able to get a hold of my emergency contacts.  I plan to eventually get a Road ID bracelet so I won’t have to shuffle my license around all the time.

4.  Use visibility gear like reflective a reflective vest and/or headlamp.  I will admit, I’m not currently equipped for low-visibility situations, so I won’t run outside in the dark or during bad weather until I am.

5.  Check the weather report and dress appropriately.  Wear layers so you’re warm enough, or can strip layers off if you get too hot.  Bring rain gear if necessary.  Wear sunscreen.  Bring sunglasses.  Wear a hat.

6.  Don’t run with headphones.  This one is important.  I have a hard time running without my music sometimes, but if you’ve got your music turned up, it can be difficult to be totally aware of the world around you.  You may not hear an attacker approaching behind you, or hear a car horn honk.  You can’t hear other runners who may want to pass you.  If you absolutely must have music, try only using one ear-bud, or keeping it turned down low.

7.  Slow down or stop altogether at intersections, even if you have a “walk” sign.  This proved especially true for me last night.  There were a couple of instances when I was approaching an intersection with a walk sign, but when I looked behind me, there were cars coming in to make left turns.  Both times I was able to make eye-contact with the drivers and was waved through.  But if I hadn’t looked, or if the driver wasn’t paying attention, I could have been hit.

8.  Stay on the sidewalk.  This may seem obvious, but I saw lots of runners last night running in the street, when there were definitely sidewalks available.  Sure, the sidewalks weren’t in prime condition, but even so, I didn’t really get it.  If you are going to run in the street, make sure you are on the side of the road facing traffic (the opposite side you would drive on).  This way, cars can see you coming and you can see them.

These are just my opinions–obviously not everyone is as fearful as I am, and you should do what works for you.  I think the most important thing is just to remain situationally aware.  Try not to zone out too much, or you might miss important cues to dangerous situations.

Despite my anxiety, last night’s run was AMAZING.  It was one of the first truly nice days we’ve had this year–the sun was out and the temperature was in the mid-40s.  Lots of other runners were out, and one girl and I ended up crossing each other’s paths several times.  It was kind of cool.

I ended up not doing what I said yesterday–I didn’t feel like running my route to work.  It would have felt too much like going to work.  Instead, I plotted out a nice little 3-ish mile loop around my neighborhood.  The sidewalks were atrocious–much, much worse than the pictures I took yesterday–so it ended up being a bit of an obstacle course.  But I felt really good the whole time, and kept an average pace of about a 10-minute mile, which is fantastic!  I often have a hard time pacing myself outside, so it was gratifying to see that I can actually pace myself without a treadmill’s help.

Do you ever get outdoor running anxiety?