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home > training > training tips > man vs. machine: a guide to indoor aerobic training

Man vs. Machine: A Guide to Indoor Aerobic Training
Machines. Were human beings really meant to derive exercise on steel contraptions that push, pull, stretch, and strain muscles? Didn't our ancestors maintain fitness by covering ground outdoors in search of their next meal or to out-distance enemies in pursuit? Who among us wouldn't rather enjoy the fresh outside air in lieu of an antiseptic gym atmosphere?

Man vs. Machine: A Guide to Indoor Aerobic Training

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By Don Allison
Posted Friday, 12 December, 1997

Machines. Were human beings really meant to derive exercise on steel contraptions that push, pull, stretch, and strain muscles? Didn't our ancestors maintain fitness by covering ground outdoors in search of their next meal or to out-distance enemies in pursuit? Who among us wouldn't rather enjoy the fresh outside air in lieu of an antiseptic gym atmosphere?

Plenty of people, apparently. Otherwise, who are all of those individuals filling up health clubs and gyms, going nowhere on treadmills, stationery bikes, and stair climbers? Who are all of those individuals huffing and puffing, working up a sweat while staring at the glowing digital readout, dutifully reporting elapsed time, measured effort, and calories burned?

In every city and in every country on each and every day, they are there—corporate warriors, students, and working moms—logging "miles" under fluorescent indoor lights. There must be something behind this popularity of indoor, stationary training. Can this type of training make you a better runner? If you already follow and indoor regimen, is it the right one? Let's examine this phenomenon a little more closely and see if there is any benefit to you, the runner.

The Pros and Cons of Indoor Training:


Comfort: Lets face it—there is comfort in knowing that on any particular day you choose to exercise, you will not have to deal with the elements. No rain, no wind, no unbearabe cold or excessive heat and humidity. That makes running on a treadmill or pedaling on an indoor bike seem more appealing than going out to battle the elements. This is a big reason why many people choose an indoor workout, especially in the winter months in the East or Midwest, where training outdoors can present a significant challenge.

Convenience: Many gyms or health clubs are located very close by to where folks live or work. For many corporate types, a health club is located right in the building in which they work. So at the end of the work day, they need not even set foot outside in order to do their day's run or other aerobic workout. This is a major help to those who are motivationally challenged. There is no excuse for missing a run when it is two minutes from your desk. No going home, sitting down and reading the mail first. In my estimation, this factor alone has allowed many millions of Americans to become more fit.

Consistency: Given the variables that a runner can encounter outside, the distance or time of a run may be significantly affected by the weather conditions. The effort needed to complete a 10-mile run may vary widely in an outdoor run. On the treadmill however, you can gauge your day-to-day and week-to-week progress with amazing accuracy. Having ridden a Lifecycle on a regular basis a few years back, I was surprised to find how similar my daily rides were. I was able to feel even a minute increase in resistance from the flywheel. You are also pretty sure when you step onto the treadmill or the stair-climber for a half-hour just about exactly how much effort and energy you will be expending.

Cross Training: One can derive a nice, well-rounded cross-training workout in the health club by doing a short workout on a number of different machines. That will allow you to use a number of different muscle groups. Switching among different types of exercise is considerably easier to do in a health club or gym than it is outdoors.


Boredom: The big "B." This is a major downside for many regarding indoor aerobic training, the flip side of the comfort advantage. While the lure of the Boston Marathon or a bike ride through Europe has captured many imaginations, very few people (none that I know of) dream of running on a treadmill or riding the Lifecycle. Nothing changes—not the location or the scenery. At the end of the workout you will have gone nowhere, no matter how many "miles" the LCD screen indicates. Some folks love the feeling of exercising so much that the scenery is not important, but day after day, month after month, it can get a little wearing to be stuck in the same spot for every workout. Sure you can read a magazine or book, or you can watch people on the other machines, but it probably will not make the workout go by any faster.

Specificity: Running is running is running, right? You know, when you put one foot in front of the other and propel yourself forward? Well, not exactly, at least when it comes to the treadmill. Sure you can run on a treadmill, but it should really be called *running instead.

On an electronic treadmilll, although you must run to avoid falling off the back of the machine at certain speeds, the machine is running you as much as you are running the machine. As Jamie will talk about later, this factor makes it ever so slightly easier to keep a certain pace. You cannot automatically equate your treadmill pace with your normal running pace.

The upside of the treadmill as far as pace goes however, is that you can be forced to run a certain pace and not slack off, as you might outdoors, if you feel like slowing down. There is no fooling the machine—if you set the machine for 10 miles per-hour, it will keep on moving at six-minute pace until you tell it to stop. The bottom line is that if you are training for the Boston Marathon, a run on the heartbreak hills will probably be better and more specific training than a trot on the treadmill.

As for other machines, they are strictly cross-training devices. They can help improve your fitness, which will always yield positive results when it comes to running, but remember they are strictly substitutes. If you want to become a better runner, you must run, at least some of the time.

Ambiance: Still, stuffy air, no sun, no rain, no wind—ah, the joys of training indoors. Personally I'd rather run in a raging blizzard than on a treadmill. There is nothing "invigorating" about running indoors. No one running on a treadmill ever enjoyed the wonders of a breezy spring morning, the smell of the air after a summer rain, the crisp, clean oxygen filling the lungs on an autumn day. No one running on a treadmill ever crested a hill and saw the panorama of the city for as far as the eyes could see. No one on a treadmill ever ran from town to town, watching the machinations of daily life unfold. Oh, I could go on and on, but you get the idea. As long as you are set on doing that indoor workout, here a few tips from myself and Jamie Auciello, Cool Running fitness consultant and an exercise physiology professional at the Boston Raquet Club.

Let's Go To The Machines!

The Indoor Cardiovascular Machines

by Jamie Auciello

Given the choice (and the time and proper clothing) I will almost always runoutdoors rather than choosing to do an indoor aerobic activity. However, I have found indoor workouts very enjoyable for all of Don's aforementioned "pro" reasons and more. One icy day a couple of winters back while systematically training for the Boston Marathon, my plan required me to do a 16-mile run. It was just too icy outside to allow me get up to pace for an appropriate intensity, so I did the run on a treadmill. Looking back at the experience, I remember it as being very peaceful, almost therapeutic. The treadmill enabled me to complete my run at a pace that I just would not have been able to achieve on the icy streets outside on that day. I listened to some of my favorite music, with no fear of needing to stay alert for traffic, and the time and "miles" flew by. It was a great confidence builder that allowed me to stay on track with my training program without even one slip.

On an occasion or two I have had injuries that have kept me from running. I turned to the help of indoor apparatuses: stationary bikes, cross-country skiers, and rowers. These machines helped to keep my cardiovascular fitness up while allowing my injuries to heal. More often than not, I still cross-train once a week on a stationary bike, or on my own bike set up on a trainer, to allow myself some active recovery from running. This should also help come duathlon season!

Finally, I need to reinforce Don's comments on specificity, since this column is written primarily for runners. To run better, you must run. If you are training to run best in an upcoming race, you should be running (indoors or out) for at least part of your training. Remember, though, the four "C's" of indoor aerobic training (comfort, convenience, consistency, and cross-training). Use your best judgment when deciding if you will embark on a stationary journey or one that has a destination - and make the most of it!


Purpose: Cardiovascular fitness. Simulates running by allowing you to "run" on a motor-driven belt

Muscles worked: Mostly lower body: hamstrings, quadriceps, calves. You can emphasize the quadriceps and calves by elevating the grade. Elevating the grade also produces less impact on the body as compared to running with a zero percent grade.

How close is this to running? Very close, there are subtle differences, though. When running outside you are pushing off the ground to propel yourself while on a treadmill you are running on top of a belt that keeps the pace.

Technique tips: Run as you would outside. Let your foot go through its natural "heel to toe" motion as it contacts the belt; many beginners have a tendency to run flat-footed. Look straight ahead of you and not down at the belt. If it is your very first time on a treadmill you may want to get the basics from a fitness instructor who can get you started on the particular model that you are using. It could be the difference between a pleasant run and a conveyor belt-like exit that might be seen during an episode of the cartoon, The Jetsons.

Workout ideas: A favorite treadmill tempo run of mine, is "in and outs". It involves a mile warm-up, two miles worth of quarter mile intervals switching the speed back and forth between 10-km and marathon pace, and then a one-mile cool-down. Also, utilizing the machine's percent grade can create hill workouts.

Don's Advice: Be careful of the treadmill. On most electronic models, runners with an imperfect gait (most of us) with a lot of side-to-side motion (me) can cause the belt to track all the way over to one side. This can end up putting pressure on your knees or ITB band. Running outside, you can always move across the road, but on a treadmill you are limited to the confines of the narrow belt.

Good news: Running on a treadmill (especially one with a mirror) can allow you to work on maintaining efficient form. Look at how you are running and decide if there is any wasted motion that is not helping you move forward. If so, refine your style to eliminate it. The net result will be faster running with less effort. That always sounds like a good idea.

If you are new to the treadmill, don't pay too much attention to the pace or miles-per-hour you are running. It takes a while to "get up to speed" on the machine, so at first that eight or nine minute mile you run outdoors will seem like a five minute mile. Eventually you will become more comfortable on the machine and indoor pace will equate to outdoor pace or even feel easier.

Stationary Cycle

Purpose: Cardiovascular fitness. May help those who have knee problems by helping to strengthen the area. Usually a non-weight bearing, and non-impact exercise.

Muscles worked: Primarily the quadriceps muscle group. Also the hamstrings if using toe straps to bring the pedals through the upstroke.

Technique tips: Knees should point forward, and have about a five-degree bend at the knee when the leg is fully extended. You should start at a level that may be on the easy for you and look to maintain a cadence that is similar to how your legs turnover while running - roughly translated to about 70 to 90 rpm.

How close is this to running? It is lower body intensive like running, but unlike running, it mostly focuses on the quadriceps. To simulate running on a bike, stand out of the saddle and continue to pedal. This takes a bit of practice; proper technique should have your hands on the handlebars primarily for balance, without much weight placed on them. The focus should be kept on fluent pedal revolutions.

Workout ideas: Warm-up for five minutes. For a twenty minute period alternate 2-minute segments of a fast cadence (80 to90 rpm) at a relatively easy intensity with two-minute segments pedaling out of the saddle at a slightly higher resistance. Cool-down for five minutes.

Don's advice: This is the only indoor machine on which you get to sit down while getting your workout in. But do not be fooled, a stationary bike workout can be as tough as you want it to be. Try mixing up your program; don't maintain a solid resistance. The hill programs that come with the Lifecycle are pretty good, as is the "random" program that changes the resistance level every five seconds.

Just like you Mom used to say, don't slouch! Leaning forward on the handlebars creates bad habits for your running, where too much of a forward lean is counter productive. Forget about reading. All that will do is to distract you from the workout and get your book or newspaper soaked with sweat. Speaking of sweat-wow this baby really gets the perspiration flowing! Make sure to bring a towel to dry yourself and the bike off, so you don't leave a pool of perspiration behind when you leave. Most gyms and health clubs maintain a cool temperature, so you should not be too uncomfortable; but with zero wind to whisk away the sweat, you will need the towel after a few minutes. If not, pedal a little harder! I heard that once a few years ago, that in order to simulate very hot conditions that he was expecting in an upcoming marathon, Alberto Salazar took to pedaling an indoor bike in a sauna. Sounds like fun!


Purpose: Cardiovascular fitness. A weight bearing, low-impact exercise.

Muscles worked: Mostly the quadriceps.

Technique tips: Stand up straight. The rails are for balance, don't hang on them. Stay up high on the pedals and don't let them sink too low so that they bottom out. Keep your heels down flat. You must raise your legs in order to do this exercise rather than push down upon the pedals.

How close is this to running? Lower body intensive like running. For a more running specific work out pick up the pace so that the rhythm is similar to that of running.

Workout ideas: Warm up for five minutes. Perform two-minute ladder segments, increasing the level to change the intensity. Progress through four or five different levels and then start the downward phase of the ladder, taking it back down in two minute segments. Finish it off by cooling-down for five minutes.

Don's advice: If you have a running injury that is directly related to pounding, this can be a good workout, because when done correctly, it does not pound your lower body at all. Those with Achilles problems however, beware! The stair dropping out can stretch your Achilles, which can equal pain if you are vulnerable in that area. As Jamie said, maintain good posture. Don't let your rear end stick out. It not only reinforces bad posture, it doesn't look very glamorous either!

Ignore those readouts telling you how many "flights" you have done. They give you a false sense of accomplishment in my opinion. If you don't believe me, try doing a stair climber workout, then on another day climb the same number of "flights" of stairs in a high rise building. No contest-real "flights" are much more difficult than stairclimber "flights".

Cross-Country Ski Machines

Purpose: Cardiovascular fitness. A weight bearing, low impact exercise.

Muscles worked: Mostly lower body: hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, hip flexors and extensors. Arm resistance unit also adds an upper body component into the workout.

Technique tips: There is a learning curve involved with this machine - stick with it, it's worth the time put into learning it. If you are a cross-country skier, you are starting off with a healthy advantage over your less experienced counterparts. Before trying to synchronize leg and arm movements, first learn the legs and then add the arms into it. Elevate the front end and/or increase the resistance to bring it to an appropriate level that makes things easier to coordinate.

How close is this to running? Very similar muscle groups are used to those of running, however the cadence is slower.

Workout ideas: Warm-up for 5 minutes. Find a challenging but manageable level and maintain it for 3 minutes, recover for 2 minutes. Repeat this pattern 4 times. Cool down for 5 minutes at an easy pace.

Don's advice: As a native New Englander, I'm always kind of embarrassed to admit I have never skied, downhill or cross country. Just to be consistent, I have not ventured onto this machine either. In 1992, Bob Kempainen had an injury and could not run. For six months, he did nothing but pool running and the cross country ski machine, then went out an ran a 2:12 marathon, qualifying for the Olympics Games. For those who know how to use it then, it must work!



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