We don’t run because the activity itself, the solitary motion you put yourself through, is fun. Rather, we run for reasons both cerebral and spiritual
Photo by Samantha Ong
Let’s be very frank and admit that running is not the most exciting activity in the world—certainly not to watch, and after 15 kilometers, not to do.
Evaluating running in your head alone goes something like this: “right foot, then left, right foot, then left, right foot, then left.” Quite seriously speaking, there is a wide array of things more exciting to think about: what I had for breakfast, what a dog thinks when I pet it, and when my next cup of coffee will be. And so I posit that we don’t run because the activity itself, the solitary motion you put yourself through, is fun. Rather, we run for reasons both cerebral and spiritual.
Some of us run for the feeling of achievement, the feeling of control—perhaps we’re striving for a goal. On other occasions, we run to experience peace, to escape the daily motion that wraps us with unnecessary gadgetry, information, and other emotionally engaging stimuli.
The question I seek here to address is whether one heightens the benefits sought in running on a treadmill or out on an open road.
Off the bat, I will admit to running on both. If it’s pouring outside, you won’t likely see me braving the storm—that is unless I’m extraordinarily motivated on the given day (or if I’ve had too much coffee and have given into the delusion of feeling indestructible). Additionally, I have felt that most treadmills offer a little bounce with each stride, lightening the impact on my ankles and knees. And so, if I am regularly training for a race, I’d likely alternate between the treadmill and the road, making sure to take the pressure off my knees and ankles however I could.
Running outside offers no such bounce. There are however rocks and other random articles you have to look out for. Other than these little obstacles you stride to avoid, you often experience wind resistance. Whereas on a treadmill you could comfortably exert the same effort to keep a pace, there is the occasional push you must make outdoors to keep yourself going against the force of the wind.
We see that there are athletic benefits to be obtained from both, but now let me zero in on my original question.
My experience on a treadmill is usually me on a machine, a massive mirror in front of me, with me not-so-patiently waiting for myself to sweat. There is a fairly loud whirring filling the gym (likely bothering its other occupants) and this is accompanied by a constant thud, thud, thud happily provided by my feet on the treadmill. For the runner running to escape his thoughts etc., I must say it’s more difficult to do so when you hardly move an inch. Don’t get me wrong though: You can have a terrific workout on a treadmill and the rush of endorphins awarded to you after a solid slog is not withheld.
But what a delightful rush being outside and with urgency is. I say with urgency because unlike on a treadmill, outside you literally move away from where you started by your own decision-making. Unlike on a treadmill, the pace you strive for, nurture, and keep is yours. You’ve succumbed to the constant discipline-required, focus-encompassing task of keeping a pace. It’s likely that you arrive at the run’s end with the same rush of endorphins as you would with any run, but another benefit has cropped up.
Rather than watching your face become unfamiliar in a mirror (embarrassingly, I’d sometimes get so bored that I’d give into making faces at myself), you finish a run observing the ever-changing expansiveness of the world outside. Your focus has been pulled away from your usually homeostatic routine and forced into the details of simpler things: your pace, the strain you make to counter the wind, the crack in the road that you should probably avoid. Your focus had offered so little space for the worries of your day that these little stimuli are more easily seen for what they are—minutiae of your much bigger life.
If you’re running to a goal or to stay in shape, be it on a treadmill or outdoors, you’re more than likely to adjourn your workout with a smile on your face (and sweat all over you). But for the arguably spiritual experience of leaving your occupied (or humdrum) daily wade and moving into a more present, focused, grounded state of mind, the great outdoors has a good deal to offer (and at no price).
There are some outdoors to run in that are more comfortable and safer than others. The point is that they can be found. Perhaps seeking them and giving them a try every once in a while has its merits. The hefty benefit that comes from your run might very well be provided by just how far you had to move away from your starting point and how much urgency you had in bringing yourself there. My best bet came from alternating between the treadmill and the outdoors, and so I say to each his own—but when you’re making faces in the mirror, perhaps it’s best to go outside.