Is treadmill running the same as on the road?

During the winter months there can be nothing harder than heading outside for a run and at these times many of us, including myself often turn to our old friend, the treadmill. I see no reason not to do this, I have undoubtedly kept fit and even improved my running on the treadmill, I have used it to train for many races and to give me an accurate idea of where my fitness is at any given time. It’s a very useful tool.

However, there are downsides. Aside from the fact that treadmills are incredible boring, I’ve always wondered if they really stack up against running on the road. There’s an old myth that you have to set the treadmill to a 1% incline to replicate the experience of ‘real’ running. Thankfully, the answer to this can be found in this fantastic blog post by Casey Kerrigan, who is a Harvard Medical School graduate with a masters in physical rehabilitation. The following quote really sums up what the article does:

research has helped dispel pseudo scientific comments made about the treadmill such as “the treadmill belt propels you forward so that you do less work,” or “the treadmill belt pulls your leg through, resulting in a relatively passive extension of the hip, which reduces conditioning of the hip extensors.” Comments such as these often made by well meaning trainers and coaches are unfounded. Whether you’re moving over a stable base or the base is moving beneath you, the relative motion is the same, amounting to the same biomechanical conditions. Meaning that your hips, knees, etc. all move the same and that you’re working all the same muscles.

Casey has also written a study, here, which does away with the rumours that bio-mechanics are different when running on a treadmill compared to outside.

So, is it any easier to run on a treadmill? Well, it seems that it is, slightly, in some cases. Essentially you have to displace air when running outside which you don’t have to do on a treadmill.  A study done by the University of Brighton concluded that for speeds below 7.5mp/h there wasn’t any noticeable difference in energy consumption between running on the road vs the treadmill, above that speed they do suggest that a 1% incline on the treadmill is required to get the same ‘effort level’. This shows that the differences are fairly negligible, but if you’re a faster runner you might want to consider a 1% incline on the treadmill to get a good comparison for times.

About Simon 126 Articles
Avid runner, cyclist and judoka.