I have really enjoyed my return to running. In the past two months I have run in the Army Ten Miler and in the Richmond Half Marathon. I'm no speed demon, but I run and I finish, and with that I am quite pleased. In my post-half-marathon runner's high, and as motivation to keep running during the cold, dark winter months, I signed up for the National Marathon on March 26. Morning runs are now part of my routine several days per week, and I look forward to my runs as one of my favorite parts of the day.
However, here in Washington DC we are having an unusually cold start to the winter, and my willingness to run in the predawn darkness when the temperature hovers around 20° is being tested (my friends from colder climates are probably laughing at me right now!). I have a flexible schedule and live next door to my office, so I've been known to adjust my work schedule so that I can run in the middle of the day, when the temperature soars to a balmy 35°.
Of course, the other option is to go to the nearby gym and use the dreadmill, ahem, the treadmill. The treadmill is that dreadfull device that, though located in a climate controlled environment where the temperature is approximately 68°, provides you with a running experience like no other. There is no wind on your face, and you don't actually go anywhere. There is no scenery passing by, no puddles to jump, no birds or squirrels crossing your path, no trail alongside a rushing creek. The sounds you hear are of grunts dropping weights, friends chit-chatting, and the bad radio station the gym manager has decided to play that day. As someone who enjoys the many facets of outdoor running, the treadmill is just dreadfull.
And then there is the pace. When we run outdoors, we run at a pace that is influenced my multiple factors, both physiological and environmental. For amateurs like me – and perhaps for more elite runners, too? – pace is not perfectly consistent. At right is a chart showing my pace over a recent 8 mile run. While I ran a fairly consistent pace for the 8 miles – my splits ranged from 8:40 to 9:00 – as you can see, my pace within those miles varied to some degree. What created those pace spikes and drops? Street crossings, uphills and downhills, fiddling with my hat and gloves, playing with my stride, getting warmed up, accomodating that little kink in my ankle that pops up from time to time … any number of factors contribute to pace variations.
You don't get that kind of variation when running on a treadmill. The pace is established by the machine, which runs a consistent pace without variation. Surely you can program the treadmill to simulate a course or a workout, with various hill simulations or pace increases or decreases, but it doesn't allow your legs and body to run with the natural pace variation it might otherwise want or need to. You either run the machine's pace, or you get flung off the machine. Take your choice.
I know that I might succumb to the treadmill soon enough, especially if the unusually cold temperatures remain. My gym is open 24-hours, and there is only so much schedule-juggling that I can do to accomodate my preference to run when the temperature peaks higher than 25°. And I might yet learn to run in the predawn darkness with temps in the teens or single digits. But I'm preparing for what might be the inevitable – and dreadful – decision to get on the treadmill and run. Wish me luck.
UPDATE: A helpful article from Active.com, Treadmill Training for Winter Fitness.