Treadmill vs. Elliptical vs. Outdoor Running

Winter means COLD in much of the world, and weather can make a runner’s life hard. Icy sidewalks, snow-covered trails, darkness, freezing fog, and wet roads (not to mention COLD!) can turn an easy-paced five-miler into a harrowing expedition. It’s a good time of year to move your training indoors, but there are also merits to braving the weather outside. Here is a look at the benefits of both, as well as tips on how to dress for winter weather.

Running in the Winter: Treadmill, elliptical, or outdoors?

  • Treadmill benefits
  • Elliptical machine benefits
  • Outdoor running benefits
  • Training considerations

Benefits of running on a treadmill

When faced with winter weather hazards, runners with access to a treadmill have an ideal alternative. Besides being relatively safe and more comfortable, indoor running has other benefits as well. Research has found that treadmills don’t change an individual runner’s biomechanics, which means they can be an effective training tool for outdoor goals. Treadmills also allow runners to control everything about their run, from pace to incline to recovery. This friendly environment can motivate you to push your workout to the next level.

If cold and darkness diminish your motivation to run, a treadmill will leave you with fewer excuses. They’re also a good choice for recovery from injury, as the moving belt absorbs impact and reduces pressure on your joints. While treadmills have a reputation for being monotonous, runners have many options to stay engaged while they run: Watching a movie, listening to books or music, or even working. A footpod can be linked to software that will connect you to a virtual world where you can run or race with others from around the globe.

Benefits of running on an elliptical machine

Elliptical machines are another option for runners interested in exercising indoors. These machines minimize impact while engaging similar muscles as running, making them ideal for injury avoidance or recovery. Elliptical machines are incredibly versatile, with settings for resistance and pace to mimic climbing or sprinting.

Benefits of running outside

Why would anyone in their right mind brave ice and cold to go for a run? There are still physical and mental benefits to running outdoors year-round. To start, outdoor running doesn’t require a gym membership or exercise equipment — it’s terrific if you have access to these things, but also okay to embrace the low-cost freedom of running outdoors. Running in nature engages more muscles and strengthens tendons as you navigate uneven surfaces. Hard surfaces such as pavement also prompt your body to adapt to impact, building stronger bones and joints. 

There are emotional and mental benefits to being outside in nature as well: Vitamin D from the sun, beautiful scenery to boost your mood, interacting with other people, or engaging in a mini-adventure by exploring a new place. Running outside in the winter is also a great way to build mental toughness. It can be challenging but rewarding to brave the elements. You can do hard things!

Training considerations

Runners training for an upcoming race may also benefit from staying outside. If you have any reason to expect inclement weather during your race, outdoor runs will help you adapt to challenging conditions as well as test your gear against the elements. While many treadmills have incline and decline settings, it’s still difficult to replicate the undulating nature of trails and roads. 

Running outdoors usually features wind resistance and other factors that increase difficulties. If you do most of your training on a treadmill, you may find you can’t as easily hold the same pace outdoors. On the flip side, if you’ve done most of your training in the cold and snow, a sunny spring race may feel like a breeze in comparison.

How to dress for winter:

The key to staying comfortable and happy through the winter is appropriate gear. As a popular saying goes, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” While this isn’t 100% true (think of lightning or tornadoes!), good gear goes a long way. Here are some tips for dressing for the cold and ice:

Layers 

Having multiple layers that you can add or remove as you go is key. Start with a light base layer of long-sleeved shirt and tights, then add gloves, a light jacket, and a mid-weight hat. In deep cold, runners will often need to add an insulating layer such as a down or synthetic puffy coat, shell mittens, and a down skirt. Be sure you have space to stuff all of these items away, such as a Fitletic running belt or small pack. Usually, runners need to shed layers as they go. During long runs, layers will often need to come back on as energy becomes depleted. 

Materials

Merino wool is a popular base layer material known for its superb breathability, comfort, and moisture-wicking performance. Synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester are also good choices. When woven well, synthetics retain almost no moisture and dry quickly. They also tend to be lighter than wool, although they can wear out more quickly. Be sure to avoid cotton altogether. Cotton retains moisture that will chill your body once you start to sweat. 

Gloves and a hat will go a long way.

Even when temperatures are near freezing, once your internal furnace starts cranking, you often won’t need much more than a base layer to stay warm. But if a chill sets in, adding small items such as gloves and a hat will add a lot of warmth. Carry these items, along with a light wind jacket, in your Fitletic running belt.

Wind protection

A blustery winter day may make you feel like you need to bundle up heavily against the cold, but lighter layers that shield the wind are often all you need. In addition to a wind jacket, consider a lightweight pair of rain pants.

Traction

If there is snow or ice along your route, be sure to bring a pair of traction devices for your shoes. Yaktrax work for icy pavement and black ice. Consider a burlier pair of running crampons for mixed snow and ice conditions, such as Kahtoola microspikes. Traction devices are heavy and a little awkward, but they are far less expensive and more comfortable than one of the alternatives — ending up in traction in the hospital. 

Stay visible

Daylight hours are short in the winter, and many runners find they need to be out early or late in the dark. Wear high-visibility gear such as a reflective safety vest, and invest in a quality headlamp.

 

As always, have fun! 

 

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