By Bob Barnett
The Rumor: Running outside is better for you
Running indoors has its advantages. If you’re on a treadmill, you can catch up on your favorite TV shows, and you get all those cool metrics (heart rate, distance, elevation, calories burned). If you’re on a track at the gym, you don’t have to worry about wayward poodles or potholes, and you get the emotional satisfaction of passing the same out-of-shape slowpokes again and again. (IN YOUR FACE!) Best of all, weather isn’t a factor. Come hurricane or snowstorm, you stay warm and safe and dryish (you’ll still sweat, after all). But does the comfort of indoor running come at a cost?
The Verdict: Running outside does give you a more well-rounded workout
There really is something special about lacing up your trainers and heading into the Great Outdoors. “There’s a significant physiological difference between running on a treadmill and running or jogging over pavement or a path,” says Richard T. Cotton, MA, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine. Outside, you’re paying attention to changing terrain underfoot, he says, so “you’re stimulating the muscles in your feet and legs in a different way, getting a more well-rounded workout for your legs and ankles.”
You can also run downhill -- which some treadmills don’t allow you to do -- and downhill running engages different muscle groups than flat or uphill running. “You have to slow yourself down, and balance yourself,” says Cotton. And if you like to run races, training that includes downhill running will help you when you’re running downhill in a race.
“You’re more airborne when you’re running outdoors,” adds James M. Pivarnik, Ph.D., director of the Human Energy Research Laboratory at the Michigan State University. “It’s a different neuromuscular pattern. You’re pushing yourself off the ground to move yourself forward, instead of [having] something under your feet that’s trying to push you backward.”
You’re also moving side to side. “If you run on a road, most of the time it’s curved, so you’re tilted, always running with one foot lower than the other,” says exercise physiologist Michael Bergeron, Ph.D., a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. “That real-world experience enhances neuromuscular control and balance.”
You’ll likely train harder outside, too. Researchers find that at the same level of perceived exertion, men and women run faster outdoors than they do on treadmills. “Often you’ll find yourself running faster, but not feeling that you are working as hard as you’d feel on the treadmill,” says Bergeron. “Running outdoors just stresses the body in a variety of ways, with water and sun and heat and hills, that makes you work harder. Outside is tougher -- but more rewarding.”
You’ll be running against air resistance, for one. Running flat outside burns the same energy as running against a 2-percent incline on a treadmill, says Cotton. Says Pivarnik, “You can max the treadmill up to 10 percent, but even that is nothing like taking a hill. You’d be foolish not to incorporate hill training into your run if you can. It’s another training technique, like putting more weight on the bar.”
Then there’s motivation. You’re more likely to stick with outdoor exercise, says Cotton, because “there’s the beauty and fun of it." Studies have found that running -- or walking, or biking -- outside puts people in a better mood than doing the same (boring) thing indoors. And studies of “green exercise” have found that spending as little as five minutes exercising in a natural setting boosts mood. In Japan, there’s a movement called “Forest Bath” (Shinrin-yoku) that promotes walking in nature. Studies on Shinrin-yoku have found that people have lower stress levels, pulse rates and blood pressure when they walk in a forest, vs. walking indoors. “Stress hormones are lower in outdoor exercisers,” agrees Cotton. Lastly, there’s the mood-boosting effect of sunshine (yes, wear sunscreen).
Not everyone prefers running outside to running indoors, of course. I personally find treadmills fun, and I like to catch up on the TV news, or the ending of “Knocked Up,” while I run. Any fitness expert will tell you that what really matters is that you just do it, to coin a phrase. So if your primary goal is cardiovascular health rather than, say, training for a marathon, treadmill running is just fine. “If you can’t run outside, a treadmill is an awesome substitute,” says Cotton. “If it’s late at night, and you want to get a workout in, it’s certainly better than running in the dark.”
Even Pivarnik -- who hates treadmills -- can sometimes get into it. “The only time I get on a treadmill is when I run in the lab,” he says. “There’s no TV, but I’ll turn on the radio, and if the Michigan State basketball team is playing and I can yell at them, that’s not bad.”