The Runner’s Winter Dilemma: Train Indoors or Outdoors

It’s that time of year again. Autumn is slowly giving way to winter and temperatures are on a rapid decline. You might be wondering what the best option is for you for your winter training regimen. Should you tough the chilly temperatures and take to the streets? Or, is running on a treadmill a safe, comfortable, and effective way to get your miles in?

Here we explore some common concerns you might take into consideration in planning out your routine and compare how running outdoors and running on the treadmill stack up to one another.

Calories Burned

You may have heard that running in cold weather helps you to burn more calories because your body’s shivering response causes an expenditure of energy that is meant to warm the body. But the truth is, if you are wearing the appropriate clothing and increasing body heat through exercise, you won’t shiver and therefore won’t burn calories that way.

The good news, however, is when running outdoors you will likely experience naturally varied terrain, including uphills and downhills, as well as increased resistance from wind and other weather-related factors. That biting breeze or that tough mid-run incline are sure to test your mental toughness, but they may just help you burn a few more calories than you would indoors.

Training Effectiveness

The jury still appears to be out on whether running on a treadmill is as effective as running overground.

What seems more clear than efficiency itself is that each training option causes unique variations in how we run. For example, one 2017 study in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that treadmill runners make adjustments to their stride length and frequency that outdoor runners do not in order to attain higher speeds. A treadmill runner has to continually lengthen their stride in order to accelerate, while overground runners’ stride length plateaus at a certain point making stride frequency the necessary adjustment for acceleration.

Another study concluded that overground runners have a greater range of motion and extension of the hip flexors than those on a treadmill. If you’re someone who experiences tightness in your hip flexors, you may want to take that into consideration.

Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that using a treadmill may cause you to make adjustments to your stride or may cause you to engage different muscles than you would typically use when running outdoors.

Interval Training

If you’re someone who incorporates intervals into your training, you might have a hard time doing so on a treadmill. Since treadmills are typically only built to accommodate speeds up to 12 mph, you’re not likely to be able to go into a full sprint. However, if you’re someone whose maximum interval speed is at around 12 mph (or a 5-minute mile), this shouldn’t be an issue.

Weather

Though some die-hard runners are willing to brave snow, sleet, and rain, other runners will opt for a treadmill when weather is a factor in the decision process. Running inside means staying warm and avoiding the havoc winter wreaks on our streets, sidewalks, and trails.

However, if you are someone who prefers the great outdoors, there are plenty of options available to you to keep you safe and warm during your winter runs. Consider these tips:

  • Choose a moisture-wicking shirt as your first layer. Moisture-wicking material will move sweat and moisture away from your body, meaning you’ll be less likely to experience a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature from being cold and wet.
  • Wear plenty of layers. You can always take something off while you’re running, but once you’re out the door you can’t add anything more.
  • Make sure your shoes have intact treads. If you’ve worn your shoes down too much, you won’t be able to get the traction you need when running on snow or ice.
  • Take it slow! Running too fast in slippery conditions can throw your sense of balance out of whack and put you at risk for falling and injuring yourself.

Boredom

Treadmills are a feat of human innovation, but let’s face it, running on a treadmill is boring. If you’re someone who appreciates variation and the beauty of the outdoors, toughing the treacherous winter weather might just be worth it for you.

Of course, you always have the option to do a combination of the two, sticking to the treadmill when running conditions outdoors are unsafe and taking it outdoors when you can do so comfortably. You can even look to see if there’s an indoor track near you so you can get the experience of overground running without the drawbacks of running in the cold.

Article Sources & Studies:
Bailey, J. et al. (2017). Is the relationship between stride length, stride frequency, and velocity influenced by running on a treadmill or overground?

Sinclair, J.K. et al. (2013). 3-d kinematic comparison of treadmill and overground running. https://doi.org/10.1080/14763141.2012.759614

 

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