Hey, New York! Bomb cyclones and freezing temperatures messing with your running routine? Hate the thought of logging lots of treadmill miles? Here’s how to decide if it’s worth braving the cold temps to run outside.

First, take note of if running outside is safe. Roads that haven’t been plowed, slushy NYC sidewalks, and black ice are less than ideal running conditions. If it’s safe outside, asses your wardrobe. Do you have enough layers? You’ll need something to cover your face, thick socks and warm gloves. If conditions are pretty bad or you’re unprepared for the cold temperatures, running outside will increase your risk of injury and chances of getting sick.

While the treadmill is a great (and safe) alternative to outdoor running, there a few things to keep in mind. When running on a treadmill, your body is keeping up with a moving belt, forcing you to maintain a specific speed. Because the belt propells your body forward, the amount of force needed to push off decreases, which can alter your foot strike and gait pattern. Also the static internal environment in a gym (no wind resistance) results in lower running energy cost.

Even though treadmill running is not always the most optimal running pattern, studies have shown that increasing the incline to 1% more accurately reflects outdoor conditions. One study looked at 9 male runners at 6 different speeds, at 4 different treadmill grades and once outside on a level road. Researchers collected expired air from each runner in the last 2 minutes of their run to determine oxygen consumption. Overall they found significantly different consumption rates from treadmill running at 0%, 2%, and 3% inclines, but not 1%.

So if you aren’t equipped for outdoor running, or just want to stay warm, bump up the treadmill incline to 1%. You’ll get the closest simulation of running outdoors without the cold toes!

Andrew M. Jone, Jonathan H. Doust. (1996). A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. Journal of Sports Sciences, 14(4), 321-327. doi: 10.1080/026404196367796

Dr. Lisbeth Hoyt, PT, DPT