Don’t buy into the common – and often dangerous – assumption that running on a treadmill directly mimics running outside. You set your body up for injury if you assume that winter treadmill workouts have prepared you for comparable outdoor workouts. A 30-minute treadmill run is not identical to hitting the pavement for half an hour.
You recruit different muscles when you run on a treadmill. Plus, it doesn’t require runners to have the same level of balance, agility, strength and co-ordination. Don’t underestimate the extra effort concrete, wind and rain can require – a five-kilometre run on a supposedly easy route can feel like murder on a windy day.
I am not arguing that using a treadmill is “bad” – the treadmill offers a well-lit, slightly cushioned running surface that is predictable; it’s ideal for those wary of tripping on uneven ground or slipping on ice, or those nervous of running in the dark. If you have no desire to take your practice outside, no problem. Do what works for you – stay in “your own fitness lane.” But if you do decide to run outside, make sure you transition intelligently.
Three ways to transition
1. Tweak your strength routine
The treadmill alters muscle recruitment. When outside, without the aid of the belt, the glutes (bum) should theoretically pull the leg backward into hip extension, which propels the body and facilitates forward motion.
On a treadmill, the belt pulls the leg backward and the hip flexors work to resist the pull of the belt and pull your leg forward. Treadmill running can contribute to “lazy,” inactive bum muscles and hyperactive hip flexors. Unfortunately, most of us also sit too much, which causes similar muscular imbalances.
To prepare your body to run outside, stretch your hip flexors (for example, with the lunge stretch below), strengthen your entire lower body with exercises such as squats, deadlifts and bridges, and do the running-specific hip-extension exercises outlined below.
Lying prone hip extension: Lie face down, legs straight and core engaged. Use your right bum muscle – not your lower back – to lift your right leg off of the floor. Repeat 15 times. Switch sides.
Standing hip extension: Stand with your left leg on a step and your right leg dangling off the side with your hips level. Engage your right bum muscle – not your back – and bring the leg slightly back in space. Make sure your left bum muscle is activated to stabilize you. Repeat 15 times. Switch sides.
Lunge hip-flexor stretch: Step your left leg forward into a shallow lunge, both feet facing forward. Tuck your pelvis – your right hip bones should move toward your ribs. Feel the stretch up the front of your right thigh. Hold for 30 seconds or more. Switch sides.
These are also useful if you decide to continue using the treadmill – they help mitigate any negative effects of treadmill running on muscle recruitment.
2. Train for agility, ankle strength and balance
Running outside is less predicable than being on a treadmill; runners have to be aware of their environment and have the agility, balance and strength to navigate uneven terrain and weave through their surroundings. To prepare, do exercises that challenge balance, train co-ordination and agility and strengthen the ankles and lower legs.
Do exercises standing on one leg. Once that gets easy, close your eyes.
Strengthen your lower legs with standing calf raises to heel walks. Start standing and lift yourself up on your toes for 15 reps. Then lift the front of your foot off the floor. Balance on your heels and walk across the room.
Improve your reactivity and ankle strength with clock jumps. Imagine you are standing in the centre of a clock. Jump to your 12 o’clock. Then return to your starting position. Then jump to 3 o’clock, then 6 o’clock and finally 9 o’clock. Always return to the centre between jumps. As you get better at it, change up your speed and directions.
3. Don’t underestimate the impact of concrete and the elements on your body
Running requires your body to dissipate and absorb ground reaction forces. Running outside – especially on concrete – only amplifies these forces.
Progress appropriately. Initially, incorporate regular walking breaks – for example, complete your regular distance but walk for one minute after every kilometre. Or don’t walk, but decrease your speed, your distance or both. Your first few runs are “test” runs. If they don’t produce negative pain, gradually decrease walk breaks or increase your speed and distance. Also, schedule at least one day off between outdoor running days.
Respect the fact that running – especially running outside – is hard on the body. Don’t just run. Cross-train, and don’t base how well you expect your body to run on an outdated (your running regimen last summer) or even superhuman image of yourself. Train smart. Injuries are not worth it. You don’t need your first overzealous outdoor run to derail your entire summer training schedule.