Sep 10, 2007

Which is Best? Treadmill vs. Elliptical vs. Outdoor Running.

I can’t tell you how often a question like this one finds its way into a conversation with a client. A good and fair question, to be sure, but one whose answer is difficult to “put in a box.” However, if you’re looking for the quick and easy answer so you can be on your way to some good surfing before the sun sets, head in to your physicians appointment, or on to your next article, here it is...There isn’t a “best,” there is a “better.”

Let me unpack this question a bit. Ultimately, there are several facets that affect the final answer to a question like this such as an individual’s goals, health and medical history, genetic makeup, exercise history, and interests. However, to be concise, I’ll break it down into three main areas of consideration: Consistency, Caloric Expenditure and
Biomechanical Adaptations.

Think of the Consistency issue as the “Will you do it?” issue. I truly believe this is one of the most overlooked aspects of the whole exercise and wellness equation. We so easily get caught up in the “what’s going to get me the fastest result in the shortest time” mindset that we honestly forget to consider whether or not we will stick with it for the long haul...or even long enough to get any benefit at all. So let’s be honest here, which one are you going to do for more than just a couple of weeks? That’s where you need to start.

Another factor to consider with regard to consistency is a principle that is becoming fairly well known to the masses: The
FITT Principle. The letters in this acronym represent Frequency (how often), Intensity (how difficult), Time (how long) and Type (which mode of exercise). These are four easily adjusted variables for cardiovascular exercise that can be used for a variety of purposes, such as: avoidance of boredom, avoidance of plateaus and avoidance of overuse injuries. Truthfully, all of these factors are going to play a large role in an individual’s continuing efforts toward health and wellness. Since we are focused on the “Type” of cardiovascular exercise, let’s address the question at hand from the FITT Principle angle: Which exercise is going to be better of the three mentioned here? One that is constantly changing in order to keep you interested, constantly improving toward your specific goals and away from injury. That may mean outdoor running on different surfaces or inclines, alternating between the treadmill and outdoors, going different directions on the elliptical trainer, or varying between all of these.

Caloric Expenditure. How many calories will you burn for the time you spend? This is often a significant concern. So what’s the answer here? Will the treadmill, outdoor running, or elliptical trainer provide the best workout? The simple response is this... based on the research I have come across there appears to be a slightly higher caloric expenditure (all things held equal) with treadmill use over elliptical trainers. It’s easier to control treadmills (as opposed to outdoor running) in the research setting, so all of the studies I’
ve come across have used treadmills and have not included outdoor running. However, is it reasonable to assume caloric expenditure will be similar for these two activities? I would say so.

There is, of course, one caveat to what I’
ve mentioned. Let’s apply the FITT Principle to the caloric expenditure issue. As we know, the more often you engage in a physical activity, the better the body becomes at accomplishing that task. For example, you run a mile 3 times a week for 3 months. By the end of the 3 months you’ll run it faster and easier than when you started. Pros? You’re in better shape, you can run faster, you can perform at a higher level. Cons? You will burn fewer calories doing that activity at the end of the 3 months because your body has become more have ‘adapted’ to that stress. Therefore, if your goal is to burn more calories in each workout, it’s wise to regularly adjust one of the four FITT variables in order to keep your body guessing, so to speak. Otherwise, continue onward adjusting the variables to help you improve your times.

Biomechanical Adaptations...sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what are we talking about here? What happens to your body (i.e. bones, ligaments, joints, muscle firing patterns, muscle memory) as a result of engaging in cardiovascular exercise? Let’s keep it simple. You want to engage in the activity (or activities) that are going to provide the safest, most efficient progress toward the goals you have in mind, right? Let me give you another principle that may not be quite so well known as the first: the SAID Principle. The letters stand for Specific Adaptations to the Imposed Demands. In short, our bodies will adapt specifically to the demands we place on them. Example: swim far and you’ll get better at swimming far, swim fast and you’ll get better at swimming fast, run far and you’ll improve at distance running, lift weights and you’ll get stronger, etc. Notice I did not say swim far and you’ll become a world-class sprinter. There is a time and a place for many things in your training, but if you want to become a better outdoor distance runner or sprinter, guess it. Believe it or not, our bodies can be that specific to improvement. Running on a treadmill is slightly different than running on the ground (forces applied change, equilibrium is slightly different, etc.). Ever step off a treadmill and try to take off on a quick jog and feel like you just had a few too many to drink (but didn’t)? It is, in part, due to the adjustments your body has made to maintain balance and stability on the treadmill and therefore feels awkward walking on the ground. Subtle, but true.

So does that mean no treadmill or elliptical if you are an outdoor athlete or competitor? No. Like I said, there’s a time and place. Treadmills offer the advantage of training indoors during poor weather, often have softer impact on joints and allow for Strength and Conditioning professionals to evaluate running mechanics in a more controlled setting for athletes.
Ellipticals offer the lowest impact on joints (little to none at all) and are therefore much easier for those struggling with joint issues. They can also be beneficial to those who are just beginning a weight loss program that have considerable weight to shed as progression might be slower and easier.

Which is best? None. But there is one that is better for you. Which one will you stick with? Is caloric expenditure an issue for you? Which type of activity is more applicable for you and your improvement? How will you vary your mode to help you avoid injuries and plateaus? Answering these questions will help you decide which mode of exercise is best for you and your goal.

Written for SB Fitness Magazine Fall/Winter 2006 Issue (click here to visit site)

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