Treadmill Pace vs Road Pace: What Is The Difference?

Treadmill Pace vs Road Pace

Treadmill pace vs road pace. What is the difference?

It surely feels different. And there are several explanations as to why it’s different.

Read on and discover why the pace on the treadmill differs from running outside.

Treadmill Pace vs Road Pace – Similar, Yet Different

At first glance, running outdoor seems incredibly similar to running on a treadmill. Your technique is identical, and the level of effort you exert also appears to be the same. 

But, is it the case?

Well, not entirely. At first glance, both types of running pose comparable levels of challenge. If you’re not a well-trained runner and you can’t do much running outdoors, don’t expect to hop on a treadmill and bang out ten miles like it was nothing.

According to some research, the primary factor that makes a difference between treadmill and outdoor running is wind resistance (1). While it may seem insignificant, wind resistance can make your run significantly more challenging, especially if it’s windy outside. Plus, air resistance rises with your speed of running. The quicker you run, the more resistance you experience.

In one study, researchers hypothesize that treadmill running at an incline of one percent closely mimics the energetic cost of running outdoors (2).

Interestingly enough, a researcher came up with an interesting idea to test the theory:

L. G. Pugh created a windshield to alleviate wind resistance for runners and found that running on a track still had a greater energetic cost than a treadmill (3). This led many researchers to speculate as to why that it. In 1983, Frishberg published a study that looked at the biomechanics of overground and treadmill sprinting (4). 

The findings?

The researcher suggested that the primary difference in energetic cost comes from biomechanical adjustments. Specifically, “the moving treadmill belt reduces the energy requirements of the runner by bringing the supporting leg back under the body during the support phase of running.”

In other words, the treadmill makes it easier for us to run and assists with the movement, resulting in a smaller energetic cost. Instead of exerting a certain amount of energy for each stride to maintain a consistent speed, the treadmill helps us and reduces the energetic cost for each stride.

Another consideration worth going over here is the comfort of running. You see, many people feel anxious to run on a treadmill for fear of falling off. This can make the run feel more challenging than it is, and it can discourage people from being consistent with their workouts.

On the other hand, outdoor running is far more comfortable because people don’t feel anxious about falling off and aren’t afraid to push themselves harder and run faster. 

And finally, we also need to consider how the lack of wind resistance can be a bad thing. You see, it’s well-established that wind has a cooling effect, and that can be incredibly beneficial for people who run outdoors. But, if you’re indoors, you can’t rely on this because there isn’t moving air to cool you down and lower your perceived exertion rate.

When Should You Choose Outdoor Running?

For most of us, outdoor running will be the better option most of the time. It’s a natural way of moving through space, and it allows an autoregulated approach to running. If you start feeling more tired, you can adjust your running speed seamlessly.

Outdoor running is also fantastic because it allows you to have refreshing workouts and enjoy the fresh air instead of staying indoors and staring at a wall. For many, an outdoor running session in the morning is a near-perfect way to start the day.

Another underrated factor worth going over is the perceived progress one makes when running on a treadmill vs. outdoors. You see, some people feel like they’re not doing much work on a treadmill precisely because they are running in place. Sure, the digits on the screen go up, but there is no real-world sense of progression; of going from point A to point B.

And finally, we also need to consider the carryover factor. If you want to run a 5K, 10K, a half-marathon, or a whole marathon, having outside running sessions will be necessary. This is because a treadmill cannot fully simulate an outside running environment – the terrain, the shift in incline, the wind resistance, the sun, and more.

If you aspire to compete in running competitions, at least most of your workouts should be in the real world, where you closely mimic your upcoming race conditions.

When Might Treadmill Running Be The Better Option?

If you enjoy treadmill running, by all means, go ahead. There is nothing wrong with it, and you can still have fantastic workouts indoors.

If the weather outside is bad (for example, the winter months have come), running on a treadmill would be a no-brainer for most people. Even if you aspire to compete in a running trial, having some of your workouts on a treadmill won’t be the end of the world.

In the late 1990s, Christine Clark trained for the 2000 Olympic marathon trials exclusively on a treadmill. Despite what many people thought, she won the trials, and it all came down to repetition: day after day, and mile after mile. Improvements add up to significant achievements over time.

Calibrate Your Treadmill

If you are unsure if your treadmill is showing the correct speed, there are ways to calibrate your mill – at least so that you know how fast you REALLY are running when the display shows 9 mph…

To calibrate, follow the steps in this video series:

In short, you will have to measure the true belt length of your treadmill. When you know the true length of the belt, put a mark on the belt and start the treadmill using a low speed. At the same time as you start the treadmill, start a stopwatch. Now: By watching the mark on the belt, count the number of revolutions until you reach a minimum of 80 rounds. Stop the treadmill and stopwatch.

To calculate the true speed, use the following mathematical formula:

True Belt Speed = Revolutions * True Belt Length / Time

Now you know if your treadmill is way off – or if it actually is showing the correct speed.

Final Words: Running Outdoor and Treadmill Running is not the Same

Everyone who has been doing treadmill workouts can compare it to running outside. It feels different. Not just the stride length and the obvious different surface, but also how the two differ in the effort needed to run at the same pace. Either you are doing tempo runs, slow walks, or jogging – it doesn’t matter. It’s not just the same – And studies support this.

There are a couple of logical reasons for it:

The fact is, while you when running outside will be challenged by the elements (wind, air resistance, etc.), running on the treadmill will bring no other resistance than the cooling fan blowing towards your face. Also, while the treadmill belt will constantly work to keep your feet moving- running outside requires you to use a higher amount of energy as you drive your body forward to keep going at a steady pace.

Do you see the difference?

Want to learn more about other cardio activities as well? Come visit my at-home cardio training article archive, PACKED with workout tips, training plans, and actionable fitness hacks!

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Other Helpful Resources

References

  1. Some fundamental aspects of the biomechanics of overground versus treadmill locomotion. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1980;12(4):257-61.
  2. A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. Journal of Sports
  3. Sciences 14(4):321-7 DOI: 10.1080/02640419608727717 Oxygen intake in track and treadmill running with observations on the effect of air resistance. J Physiol. 1970 May;207(3):823-35. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1970.sp009097.
  4. An analysis of overground and treadmill sprinting. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1983;15(6):478-85.