When people tell you that running on actual ground is harder than running on a treadmill, take my word for it: they aren’t lying. My 5K is less than a month away and the weather has been getting (unseasonably, disturbingly) warm, so last week I decided that it was time to get used to what my run would actually feel like. In a word: oof.
It took four runs to get back up to a full 5k run (which, for the metrically confused, works out to 3.1 miles). Four runs. I only managed 2 miles on Thursday, and even that had me wanting to punch myself unconscious. Getting up to a still insufficient 2.6 miles on Sunday was such a victory that I barely even noticed how much my calves hurt. That’ s a lie. The not noticing the calf-pain. The only thing on my mind other than oh my God I need more oxygen and also don’t puke was how I’d been running for months and never once had sore calves.
Your calves, apparently, get a tiny bit of slack from the treadmill. It probably has something to do with not having to propel yourself across the ground with them. I could research the science behind it, but it would take work. If I wanted to research things that carefully, I’d go write a term paper. This is a blog. Give me a break. Either way, while the treadmill was incredible at getting me up to speed, conditioning me not to die after a half mile of running and generally getting me in better shape than I’d been in my life, it wasn’t quite as good at preparing me for the cruel transition to moving my body forward through spacetime.
I managed the full 5k on Tuesday for the first time. As I dragged myself across the trailhead, I pulled my iPhone out to look at my pedometer app (because nerds use apps to work out) (and shut up) and got my biggest, happiest shock: I’d added less than a minute per mile to my pace. I was down to just under 10 minutes/mile on the treadmill. My first Real Running 5k, packed with desperate slowdowns to catch my breath and the creeping sense of imminent heart failure? 10:30/mile. What how what? How did that happen? There were long stretches of walking. Surely I was slower than that, right?
Here’s what I think is going on, and it’s the real reason it’s so hard to go from treadmill to trail for the first time. It’s not that Real Running is that much harder. It’s not. The treadmill broke me down and built me into a doughy, lily white machine capable of mediocre speed and sub-par feats of stamina. It made me tougher and faster, even though I had no toughness and little speed at the start. The trail works some muscles harder, but you’re still basically doing the same things with your body. The real thing that kills you is that the trail lacks the treadmill’s most useful feature: speed control.
I have no idea what it feels like to run 7.2 miles per hour. None. But the treadmill can force me to run that fast and no faster. On the trail, I have to guess. As all my friends know, I’m a horrendous guesser. Instead of a steady 3/4 of a mile at 7.2 mph, what I’ve been doing are shorter bursts of an Unknown Faster Speed followed by longer catch-my-breath-and-don’t-vom walks. The treadmill was wonderful – indispensable even – because its steady pacing let me get myself safely up to speed without overstraining myself. On the trail, I’ve got to figure it out on my own. So far, I’m not doing an incredible job of it.
Beyond the sore calves, heatstroke, dehydration and pacing problems of trail running, there is one thing being outside has over a long run on the treadmill. It’s way less boring. A 30 minute treadmill run is excruciatingly dull. I’m as much at risk of giving in to boredom as fatigue. The trail makes the run fly by. It gives the illusion of going somewhere, even when you know you’re going to end up right where you started. It’s more fun. Way more fun.
That’s the thing I never thought I’d ever say about working out. That I was having fun. I always thought I’d hate running, so I never gave it a try until I was invited to the zombie 5K last fall. The last thing I expected was to find the one workout that made me feel good about myself, and didn’t utterly bore me to tears in the process. Graduating to the trail feels even better than my runs on the treadmill and, frankly, those had been feeling pretty good.
I asked my calves how they were handling the transition now that they were used to the trail. They refused to comment.