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Treadmill debate

Treadmill debate

Treadmills can spark contentious debate among runners. Are they a legitimate training tool or a second-rate simulation?

"You can still get a great workout on the treadmill," says Jenny Hadfield, co-author of "Running for Mortals" and columnist for the Runner's World blog Ask Coach Jenny. "I hate that judgment associated with treadmill running, that it doesn't offer as good of a workout. It's still running."

But clear differences exist.

"Depending on the method you choose, some muscles work when others don't," says A. Lynn Millar, professor of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University. "There are a few muscles working differently when you propel yourself in outdoor running versus the treadmill propelling you."

This, Millar explained, is what those in the field deem "specificity of exercise," when specific muscles are targeted in training. Since you're working different muscles depending on the type of running, expect to have a transition period when alternating between them.

Some professional running coaches, such as Janet Hamilton of Atlanta-based Running Strong, consider treadmills a semi-simulation of running. "I don't give it a one-for-one equality. Outside, you have to push your body through air — even if there's no wind. The faster you go, the harder the resistance. You're running in place on a treadmill. You're not really having to push your body over the ground."

So does that mean you'll burn more calories one way or the other? Not necessarily, Millar says. You can achieve moderate-to-vigorous intensity whether you're indoors or outdoors." According to Millar, oxygen consumption is about the same.

Still, many believe that they need to push themselves harder on a treadmill to compensate for a perceived inequity in the workout.

"I see it all the time: People think they need to abuse themselves by setting their treadmill incline at a constant hill," Hadfield says. "People want to make treadmill running really hard, so they crank it to something like a 12 percent incline. But you aren't going to encounter many of those types of hills outdoors."

She recommends keeping the incline between 2 to 5 percent and alternating it to avoid injury: "Beyond that starts to alter your stride and can really strain your muscles."

Hamilton, who also teaches certification courses for the Road Runners Club of America, insists such a constant incline doesn't accurately reflect the outdoor terrain or the way runners behave outdoors. "You wouldn't go out your front door and find the steepest hill." Instead, she recommends simulating a rolling course — going uphill for a while and then bringing it back down.

Alternating the speed is another alternative, Millar says. "It can also beat the boredom some find with treadmill running."

And if you're a beginner, Hadfield recommends not worrying about the incline. She suggests keeping a zero incline and just "learning to run with good form." Just like in strength training, good form is essential to exercise efficiently and prevent injury. "When you start to lose your form," she says, "you start to lose the efficiency of muscle groups and you're not able to get through the workout as well."

One sure sign of bad form on the tread is when you find yourself bending forward to keep up with the pace. In this case, Hadfield recommends lowering the speed and focusing on keeping your back straight.

If you're looking to transition outdoors, make sure to give yourself some time to adjust.

"Know that the pace from your treadmill workout won't translate," Hadfield says. "Running outside is not necessarily harder. It's just different, and your body has to acclimate to that."

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