The United States of Running

The Pandemic Forced Me to Break Up With the Treadmill—Here’s How I Learned to Love Running Outside

Rachel Lapidos

Photo: Bose

I still remember the feeling of accomplishment after my first treadmill run. As a gym newbie, I’d really only stepped on the elliptical machine until, one day, I decided to try out the treadmill. Several sweaty miles later, it was love at first run. Eighteen years after that, I still prefer treadmill running to outdoor running. That is, until COVID-19 hit.

In March, all of my go-to treadmill locales (from Barry’s to the tiny gym in my building) shut their doors with no re-opening date in sight. I had no choice but to take my runs to the pavement… which had never clicked with me before. To me, it feels harder to run outdoors than to run on the treadmill. My number one gripe with running outside is that you can’t control your exact speed (which is particularly annoying if you like interval runs). And while the scenic parks are pretty, they’ve never been enough to make up for the speed precision and bounciness of a treadmill.

As I began running along an open path in a cozy suburb of northern Westchester, my initial quarantine spot, it felt really good to still be able to get my run in (and to get outside at all). Despite the different surroundings, the familiar movement still resulted in a clearer head and a mood boost—but I felt much slower. On treadmills, I was used to sprinting up to 12-miles-per-hour, but I had no idea how to shift gears on the pavement. Jogging now felt like I was running in place rather than bouncing at a casual 5-mile-per-hour on the tread. That’s because there are legitimate biomechanical differences when you look at treadmill running versus outdoor running.

“On a treadmill, your body gets an extra boost from the speed that the belt is rotating at, so generally your pace is a little bit faster [than running outside],” says Casey Green, a coach with Charge Running. The treadmill’s neutral position means that your stabilizers—the smaller muscles responsible for supporting their larger counterparts like the hamstrings, calves, and glutes—aren’t getting activated the way they would on the pavement. When you’re outside, you have to activate them on your own. What’s more: Your pacing also takes a hit when you switch from a treadmill to outdoors because the belt’s speed naturally helps your leg turnover. Without a moving running course, you have to do all the work yourself.

Pavement or tread belt, it’s the miles that keep me moving forward.

If you’re #TeamTread like I am and have taken up an outdoor running habit during the pandemic, I feel your pain. Green notes that there are unique benefits to each running type, so the key to making the switch is to find the fun in whichever one you do. The most important lesson? Stop comparing the two. “Don’t get caught up in the fact that it might take you an extra two minutes to run four miles outside than it does on a treadmill,” he says. “It’s not a sign that you’re slower or less fit—it’s a sign that you’re dealing with more environmental conditions than you would in a controlled environment like you would on a treadmill.” When you stop yourself from complaining about one running mode over another (something I’ve really had to work at), you can focus more on your form and the workout itself.

Six months later and I still haven’t stepped onto a treadmill. I’m back in New York City, so my isolated pavement runs have become miles on the track near my apartment, which happens to be where so many fellow runners come for their miles in lieu of the gym. My time at the track is the highlight of my day—the one chance that I get to really move my body and get out of work mode (not to mention my tiny apartment) as the rest of the world is, for the most part, halted until a COVID-19 vaccine comes out.

Even though it’s not on a beloved treadmill, those minutes where my feet are flying and the wind is against my face are the ones that keep my mental health in check when so much of regular life is in flux. Pavement or tread belt, it’s the miles that keep me moving forward.

Wherever you’re running, be sure to do it in proper form—here’s how:


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