How To Transition From Running On The Treadmill To Running Outdoors

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
I'm a decent runner on the treadmill, but when it comes to running outside, I kind of suck. On a treadmill, I can maintain a steady pace, binge-watch Fixer Upper, and hop off for a bathroom break if I need to. Outdoors, I run significantly slower, feel weaker, and have less control. In a perfect world, I would be the type of person who runs outside instead of the treadmill, I just wish it wasn't so damn hard.
Luckily, I'm not the only person who has this issue. Running on the treadmill is much different than running outside, and it can feel "easier" for a few reasons. "The thing that makes the treadmill easier is it's a machine; it's going to assist you in your leg turnover," says Christy Vachal, ACE-certified personal trainer, certified running coach, and instructor at Mile High Run Club. "It's essentially pulling you, versus outside you need to spend more energy propelling yourself forward." For these reasons, you may find it's easier to maintain a steady pace, or just run faster on a treadmill, she says.
Treadmills are also typically indoors, so you have the added luxury of being able to control the environment, Vachal says. Believe it or not, wind resistance outside can slow down your pace a lot, says Zika Rea, lead female coach and co-founder of ZAP Fitness, a Reebok-sponsored training center for runners in Blowing Rock, NC. And finally, your body takes quite a pounding when you run on hard pavement compared to a cushy treadmill, she says.
If you're like me and prefer the treadmill, that doesn't make you any less of a runner, but it may be worth it to expand your horizons and challenge yourself to run outside. According to Vachal, it's normal for treadmill runners to get disappointed when they first run outside, because it's a totally different ball game. Ahead, Vachal and Rea share their tips for those of us who have been treadmill-bound for a while, about how to make the transition to the outdoors a little bit easier.
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Practice on the treadmill.

One way you can get your body ready for the road is by setting your treadmill to at least a 1% incline, Vachal says. At Mile High Run Club, they suggest this whenever the class is doing a "flat workout," aka anything that's not hill-specific, she says. Although it seems minuscule, it's just enough to match the wind resistance that you'll experience in the great outdoors. "It kind of mimics the energy cost of what you’re getting outside on flat ground," she says.
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Focus on your breathing.

With a treadmill, you have the luxury of being able to read your pace, distance, and time right in front of your face, whereas "outside you have to use your internal instincts to stay at that pace, which can be more difficult for runners," Vachal says. When you're running outside, try to measure your pace by thinking about how much effort you're expending, she says.

Your breath is a good metric to use: "If you’re breathing too hard and it's uncomfortable, you’re running too fast," Rea says. Aim to run at a "conversational pace," meaning you can hold a conversation (if you're alone, you can talk to yourself) and feel in control of your breathing, she says. "It takes practice to learn that feedback from your body of what pace is comfortable for you," she says.
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Don't go too fast.

Often, people will go outside and start running too fast because they assume they are running too slow, Vachal says. "It can be really discouraging for runners," she says. Start almost too slow, Rea suggests. "You’re better off being too slow and being able to pick it up," she says. And don't be afraid to take breaks and slow down when you feel yourself getting fatigued, Rea says. "It's okay to slow down; it doesn't mean you have to start walking, just slow down a lot," she says. Then, once you've caught your breath, you can get going again.
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Conquer hills with confidence.

If you encounter a daunting hill that you've never run before, you will survive. When you're running on a hill, think about keeping your foot cadence high, and aim for around 90 steps per minute, Rea says. Boosting your cadence will make you naturally lighter on your feet, which is important when you're running hills. Really pump your arms, and remember that it's okay to go slow, she says. "Running the hills is going to be one of the best things you can do as a runner to make you more efficient and stronger," she says. "So, a lot of it is just practicing and being out there."
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Plan your route.

Ideally, you'd have a set running path or route that you know the exact distance of — but that's not always doable. What you can do to figure out how far you're running is map your route on the website MapMyRun (they also have a smartphone app), Vachal says. You can either create your own route, and it will tell you how far it is with the elevation, or choose from one of their pre-set routes.
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Be kind to your joints.

"Pavement is going to beat you up," Rea says. Over time, running on pavement could strengthen your bones, but can be brutal compared to the cushy treadmill, Vachal says. Most treadmills are very soft (at Mile High Run Club, they use Woodway treadmills, which are the crème de la crème of treadmills), which can help with injury prevention, she says.

It's a good idea to work your way up to running on the street, so you don't transition too quickly and get injured, she says. And try to vary the types of surfaces you're running on if possible, Rea says. "If you are lucky and can find dirt paths to run on, or even just grass, that takes some of the pounding away," she says.
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Factor in the weather.

Make sure you're dressed appropriately for whatever the weather is doing, Vachal says. If it's hot, and you're going on a run longer than 60 minutes, or if the humidity is more than 80%, it's a good idea to bring fluids with you, she says. And it's always better to be cautious and stay inside if you're unsure about the safety. "You have to be careful and smart about it," she says. "If you’re gonna slip and fall, then it’s definitely safe to take it inside — runners are a little crazy."
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Start with long runs.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, you may want to start running outdoors when you have a long run to do. For example, if you're training for a race and have a mid-week long run that you can do outside, that's a great one to start out with, because those runs are often in training plans to help develop endurance, she says. "[Long runs are] one of the more important runs to get outside if you’re training for a race," she says. "Then, speed and tempo you can still do on the treadmill." Try moving a longer run outside for two to four weeks, and then see how you feel.

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