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June 14, 2012

The Fit Factor:
Indoor or Outdoor: That is the Question


Indoor or Outdoor: That is the Question
There is no question that running, when done properly and in appropriate amounts, is a highly beneficial form of aerobic exercise. When balanced with adequate amounts of flexibility and resistance training, benefits can include: increased maximum oxygen uptake, improved body composition (decrease in body- fat stores), coronary risk reduction, increased bone strength, and enhanced psychological well- being. But one question always arises: Which is better: outdoor running, or indoor treadmill running? The simple answer is that both can be a highly effective form of aerobic exercise. However, each form does come with its own list of advantages and disadvantages.

There are many benefits of running indoor on a good quality treadmill. You may be asking: "What constitutes good quality?" An effective treadmill should be able to accommodate people of all shapes and sizes. Ideally, it will be built from aircraft aluminum and be able to support a 500 pound load. It should also have at least a 2.0 "continuous horsepower" motor and be able to go at least 10 miles per hour. It should have a width of 18- 24 inches and a length of 45- 60 inches. The longest belt available is always recommended to accommodate people who are over six feet tall. There should also be plenty of standing room along either side of the belt.

The main advantage to running indoors on a treadmill is that it allows us to avoid extreme weather conditions that are often encountered during outdoor running. Running in extreme cold, strong winds, and intense heat and humidity has been known to wreak havoc on the body. Illnesses such as hypothermia and heat exhaustion and/ or heat stroke have been cited under these weather conditions. The treadmill also offers a cushioned surface that is safer for the joints of the ankle, knee, and hip. It is also a great tool to be used for physical therapy and rehabilitation, especially for those people who suffer from orthopedic disabilities. People who consistently use treadmills often cite fewer incidences of shin splints and other ankle and knee injuries, most likely due to the even and smooth running surface. Many people also enjoy the luxury of having fluids close by as well as being able to listen to music and watch television. These amenities can often prevent boredom and burnout.

For me, the best feature of treadmill running is that it gives the runner complete control over his/ her workout. Speed and elevation are easily monitored and controlled by the push of a button. Caloric expenditure is displayed on the screen in front of the runner. Research has shown that runners can compensate for loss of wind and upward terrain that would normally be experienced during outdoor running by setting the treadmill at a 1- 2% elevation. Elevating the treadmill surface can also help to compensate for the lower energy expenditure caused by having a cushioned surface.

The main advantage for outdoor running is that it gets people out into fresh air with changing scenery and also offers a wide variety of different running routes. Many people need to have this mental stimulation in order to stay committed to their running routine. The harder surface of asphalt also allows for more energy expenditure. Wind resistance can also account for a higher energy expenditure and increased oxygen uptake. However, there is a danger here as well. I have seen many people cease their running routines completely once winter weather arrives. Chicago is known to have extremely cold winters. As I mentioned before, running in these hazardous conditions is not always suitable even for extremely fit individuals. In those cases, it is probably a much wiser idea to run indoors on a treadmill. However, some people do not like change. Those people who have programmed themselves to only enjoy outdoor running will often stop running completely during extreme weather months. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation as the body will decelerate at more than twice the rate that it was trained.

Conversely, if you suddenly switch from running on a treadmill to running outdoors, it is very important that you listen to your body. In this instance, the body is not accustomed to the new stressors of wind and terrain. You may indeed need to slow down your pace for a while to allow for the body to become accustomed to these new added challenges.

Research has shown that performing a combination of both indoor and outdoor running is what is most effective in gaining aerobic endurance. It is always healthy to not be "stuck" in one particular mode of exercise, but rather to have variety. I also highly suggest balancing running with non- impact forms of aerobics such as the elliptical trainer and/ or biking to prevent wear and tear on the joints. It is also very important to utilize lower body resistance training in conjunction with running as it will strengthen and stabilize the tendons and ligaments of the ankle, knee, and hip.

As always, the most important thing to remember here is the value of consistency. Once a running program is developed, it must be maintained, whether it is indoor or outdoor. We all have things that motivate us but we must not let those motivating factors hold us back from continued training. So, if you can't get to a treadmill for whatever reason, try running outside for a change. If the weather is hazardous, try running inside. Both are, and always have been, valued forms of aerobic exercise.

Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last thirteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website,

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