RB78: How To Transition From Treadmill To Outdoor Running

RB78: How To Transition From Treadmill To Outdoor Running



Ok, treadmill warriors.  The weather is breaking and now it is time to take your running outside.  But before you hit the running trails,  you will want to prepare for outdoor running by transitioning from the treadmill properly.

Outdoor running is NOT the same as treadmill running. In this episode, Stephanie and I break down the differences between treadmill running and running outdoors and show you how to transition from treadmill running to outdoor running safely.

Show Notes:

So back in episode 22, I published an episode where I talked about running on the treadmill. As part of that episode, I walked through several tips you could implement when it came to treadmill running.

I also talked about some of the advantages and disadvantages of running on a treadmill and how to use a treadmill to your advantage. So, to jump-start this episode,  I thought it would be a good time to review a few of them because some of these things will come into play when we talk about transitioning from the treadmill to outdoor running.

One of the key takeaways is that treadmill running is NOT the same as outdoor running.  Both surface and biomechanics when it comes to  treadmill running are different. If you are primarily a runner who uses the treadmill regularly and all of a sudden you shift to outdoor running, you may see new running problems pop up. For example, injuries, heavy or achy legs, feet, or lower back and changes in your running pace are all common things that runners may experience when switching from the treadmill to outdoor running.  In fact, even the opposite is true if you transition to indoor running.

So  to address this, we thought this would be a good time review this in a podcast episode because this is the time of the year (depending on where you live) that the cold, crappy weather is starting to break and we start to get more and more nice days to run outside.

Before we talk about the transition process,  let’s first start with the advantages and disadvantages of treadmill running. Runners should be aware of these as treadmills can have both a positive and negative effect on your running.  

Advantages of Running on a Treadmill

  • Treadmills are the safest option when it comes to avoiding running in extreme cold, extreme heat, dark, or other dangerous running conditions.
  • Many hotels have treadmills in their workout rooms, which makes treadmills a convenient option when traveling.
  • Treadmills can help simulate warmer weather for those who live in cold areas but travel to race in hot climates. Just crank  the heat and run.
  • Treadmill deck surfaces are generally softer, smoother, and easier on your feet and joints.
  • Most modern treadmills have a variety of workouts and features to help make your training more interesting. Just note that when it comes to things like calories burned their accuracy is way off in most cases, so it is a vanity metric only.
  • You can watch TV while running on a treadmill, which may help limit boredom while running.
  • Speed intervals can be easier on a treadmill as it keeps pace for you easily.  Just set the speed and go. GPS watches have a delay in recording pace and looking at your watch during a speed interval is not the best thing for your running form.
  • Treadmills are great for moms and dads when they need to watch the kids and get a run in.

Disadvantages of Running on a Treadmill

  • Running on a treadmill is not exactly the same as running outside. Back in episode 21, with Dr. Rami Hashish, an expert who studies foot strike,  taught us that foot strike tends to be shorter or more extended, depending on your comfort level on the treadmill. This variation in foot strike makes it difficult to maintain the same running form you have when training outdoors.
  • When running on a treadmill, the belt helps propels you forward. In road and trail running, you don’t have this same momentum. You have to push off from the surface as well as address wind and terrain changes.
  • On a treadmill, it’s easy to get distracted or lose focus by everything else that’s going on in the gym or on the TV. Because of this, you may forget to pay attention to your running form.
  • Runners often pace surge and pull back when running on treadmills.  By this, I mean they tend to twiddle around with the speed controls, TV channels, and other distractions and therefore do not maintain a smooth, constant speed or rhythm.
  • For many, treadmill running can be boring, especially with longer distances.  This is more of a personal preference for each runner.
  • Since treadmill deck surfaces are easier on your feet and joints, they can help soften the impact on your muscles, bones, and joints. However, this can come at a cost when you take your running outside after primarily training indoors. The impact may create wear and tear, but you don’t always want to avoid it. When done in a careful and controlled manner, impact helps your muscles, bones, and joints become stronger.  If you always run on a treadmill, your level of adaptation will be in relation to the level of surface softness you run on – in other words when you eventually take your running outside, your body won’t handle the impact as well as someone who trains outside. So mix it up and try to get outdoors and run when you can.

8 Tips for Transitioning from Treadmill to Outdoor Running

  • Before running outdoors, try to challenge yourself by using the incline on the treadmill and practicing interval running on the treadmill. Outdoor running puts a lot more wear and tear on your muscles, therefore, playing with incline could prepare you a bit for the transition to outdoor running.
  • If you train mostly on a treadmill, take your time when transitioning to outside running.  Start by taking one run per week outside starting with your shortest run.  This helps you slowly adapt to the differences in running gait, impact, and intensity.
  • To let your body adapt, start with the shorter distance. For instance, if you're used to running six kilometers on the treadmill, start with three kilometers on your first outdoor run.
  • It is hard to learn to breathe properly running only on the treadmill. So on your first run outdoor, you lose breath very fast and stop. That's why I recommend starting with interval running, switching from running to walking, to let your body restore your breathing while walking. 
  • Slowly add in additional outdoor runs over a several-week period. Only add a new outdoor run if there are no signs of trouble.
  • Outdoor running is more difficult and demanding than on the treadmill. Use the level of effort, not pace as your guide. Not only it's more effective to train by effort than pace, but it will reduce the risk of injury while making the transition. If you run a 9:30/mile pace on a treadmill,  you may only be able to run a 10:00/mile pace outdoors until you adjust to outdoor running surfaces and resistance.
  • During the transition period, limit runs on hill or slanted (sloped) surfaces. For example, when running towards traffic, your left leg often has a longer reach to meet the road than your right leg. Stick to level running trails or sidewalks initially and slowly transition to roads if applicable.
  • Don't forget to hydrate yourself when you're running outside. And fuel yourself with protein after running to repair your muscles.

Additional Running Resources

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Steve is the founder and head running coach of RunBuzz.com. Steve is host of the RunBuzz podcast and founder of PaceBuilders, a complete online training program for runners. Steve is a RRCA / USA Track and Field Certified Running Coach and resides in Lewis Center, Ohio.