Last week, I guiltily swam laps on a sunny Wednesday at noon. If you have lived in the PNW for at least one winter-spring season, you can probably relate. As Northwesterners, we are uniquely positioned to wrestle with the question of indoors or out more than our friends to the east and south. Each rain-free moment begs to be savored - especially in May - so indoor lap swimming on a 75-degree day sent me spinning around in a confusion of sun-inspired shoulds: I really should be taking advantage of the sunny day. I should go for a run instead. After one too many guilty flip turns, I set out to put my shoulds to the test with this question: Is it really better to exercise outdoors?
Thankfully, I’m not the first person to ask the question. A group of researchers compared the effects of indoor vs. outdoor exercise on physical and mental well-being of more than 800 adults in this systematic review. They found that exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy levels. Surprisingly, the results suggested that feelings of calmness may be decreased following outdoor physical activity. Those who exercised outdoors also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with the activity and said they were more likely to repeat it at a later date. Their findings serve as a good reminder to identify our specific workout goals - including psychological ones - when facing the inside/outside dilemma.
But, what about performance? Are there training benefits to running outdoors, riding on actual pavement and open water swimming? The basic Principle of Specificity suggests that if the race is in a lake, you need to train in a lake. And numerous studies outline the physiological differences between running, riding and swimming inside vs. out. For example, researchers at the University of Nebraska report that outdoor cycling allows cyclists to train at higher intensities as compared to indoors. When comparing treadmill and outdoor running, one study found that a 1% treadmill grade is needed to approximate the energy cost of running outdoors. And the differences between open water and lap swimming are perhaps the most obvious: no breaks in stroke for flip turns, attire, underwater visibility, water temperature, and more. However, the truth about inside vs. out is complicated: choosing the sun is not always best. Technique workouts – focusing on running or swimming form – are best reserved for the controlled conditions that lap pools and treadmills provide. And science often overlooks fundamental, practical factors athletes must consider such as time and convenience – a drive to the lake for a swim is just not always feasible. Finally, our bodies are a lot like our minds – repetition with variation is the most efficient way to learn and grow. This means that running the same 5-mile loop in the neighborhood over and over again is not better than mixing things up with a treadmill workout here and there. To grow faster and stronger, muscles need new and varied stressors that may be best introduced indoors.
Like most difficult questions, the answer to the indoor/outdoor dilemma depends on your goals. Start with considering how you want to feel during and after your workout, then step back and take a look at the bigger picture of your overall training: Is it time to work on technique? Are you in a rut or in need of a change in scenery? Finally, whatever we choose on a given day, we must remind ourselves of this uncomplicated truth: the sun will come again, even when it’s May in Seattle.
Is a nagging ache or pain keeping you out of the sun? Call an Outpatient Physical Therapy clinic near you for a free injury assessment (no referral needed). Visit www.outpatientpt.com for location and contact info.