Transitioning From the Treadmill to Running Outdoors? Follow These 5 Expert Tips

Taking your run outside can have a number of benefits — if you do it correctly.
Image Credit: Drazen Zigic/iStock/GettyImages

For most runners, there's only thing better than a heart-pounding indoor run: an outdoor run.

In fact, getting outside can keep you active for longer than doing it inside, according to a July 2012 International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. It can also help lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and unhealthy levels of stress, per an October 2018 ​Environmental Research​ study. It's like taking your runs outside doubles your exercise benefits.

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Ready to tackle an outdoor run, but don't know exactly where to start? The experts weigh in on their best-practice tips for running outside.

1. Don’t Skimp on Stretches and Warm-Ups

It can be super tempting to jump past your warm-up when you're anxious to get moving. But according to February 2018 research published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, a good, fluid warm-up can help increase range of motion and stave off injury.

Before you start, make sure to keep your muscles and joints moving with dynamic (moving) stretches. "Focus on your soleus (calf muscle) and hip flexors, but don't forget your feet and ankles," says David Potucek, PT, a physical therapist with Elite Health Services. "And mimic the joint motions of running with brisk walking, high knees, butt kicks, jump rope or stairs." (Or try one of these eight stretches before taking off.)

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When you're finished with your run, that's when you can do static, or still, stretches. "Perform some static stretches and mobility drills for the calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, IT bands, glutes and quads using a foam roller or lacrosse ball," he says.

2. Know Your Route Before You Get Going

Unlike hitting the treadmill, where you're staying in one place for the duration of your sweat, tackling the open road leaves a lot of room for decision-making. Cut out some of the anxiety by planning exactly where you're going from the moment your run begins.

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"This way, you can relax," says Precision Run coach and Variis instructor, Elizabeth Corkum, called "Coach Corky" by her clients. "You don't need the added stress of navigating or planning during your run."

Corkum adds that the ideal route would be a park or a road with space to safely run. This way, you don't have to navigate congested intersections or excess traffic.

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Always run against traffic, Corkum says. That means you'll stay on the left side of a road with cars passing on your right side. This way, you’re more visible and are aware of what’s happening around you.

3. Make Time to Mix Things up

You don't need to go out there and run the exact same 5K loop every single day. In fact, it's a lot better if you don't, Corkum says. "Variety is the spice of life. Make sure to balance your hard efforts with easy and aerobic runs. Easy days are incredibly necessary for staying healthy."

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For example, one day run for 3 miles uninterrupted. Then, a few days later, try some running intervals, mixing faster and slower speeds. This way, you'll stave off boredom and have fun learning what type of running you like best.

"Interval training, cadence work and hill climbs are all techniques that can provide variability in training and work different aspects of running mechanics," Potucek says.

4. Be Patient With Your Progress

Don't go overboard the second you're running on the regular. New-to-running athletes should start with some sort of walk-and-run plan, at a maximum of three days of activity per week. "You don't want to do too much too soon," says Jes Woods, a Nike running and Brooklyn Track Club ultra and trail coach. "While hitting new milestones is great, you shouldn't be making big jumps that could lead to injury."

Mixing up the type of surface you run on also helps. "You'll also need to give yourself time to adapt to harder running surfaces like pavement," Potucek says. "Or you can start running on a track or trail, as there's better shock absorption."

Once you safely reach two weeks of building a habit and getting into the groove, Woods suggests gradually adding either more distance or more time. "A good rule of thumb is not to add more than 2 miles per week of training in total," she says.

Or stick to the 10-percent rule. "That means not adding more than 10 percent to intensity, speed, duration or frequency in one run," he says. "You can also use perceived exertion to gauge how hard you can push yourself on any given day. On days you feel good, work harder; on days you feel tired, decrease training intensity."

5. Cross-Train to Prep Your Body for Outdoor Terrain

Staying injury-free while running isn't just a matter of what you do on your run. What you do on your non-run days also factors in. Whether you mix things up by cycling or doing a body-weight HIIT workout, you should also make time for strength training.

"When you run on a treadmill, there's less active hip extension, so exercises like bridges and hip thrusts can get your glutes ready for outdoor training," Potucek says. "Forces on the Achilles are also higher when running on a treadmill, making calf stretches even more important for outdoor runners."

Runners often develop pain in the front or side of the knee called runner's knee. To minimize your risk, strengthen your glutes and hip flexors with clamshells, side-lying leg lifts and hip thrusts, he says. Practicing single-leg dynamic balance exercises and single-leg squats will also help with lower-body stability.

6. Don't Forget to Wear Layers

Whether it's cold outside or on the warmer side, layering allows you to gauge the temperature as you move and stay comfortable. You want to make sure that your layers are sweat-wicking, which means that they — you guessed it — help get sweat away from the body and keep you cool.

Also, avoid cotton when you can. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet, unlike other performance-focused choices. Since cotton dries so slowly, you may get cold — and stay cold.

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