The Outside Blog

Adventure : Running

Why Fighting for the Treadmill With a View Is Worth It

From the bio-mechanical to the metaphysical, the inherent benefits of exercising outside come as no surprise to the outdoor-lover.

Indeed most of us can agree that we just feel plain better in the dirt than we do in the gym. But to back up our instincts, science also suggests a variety of benefits, from improved gait on a trail versus a treadmill to more calories burned per time spent on a bike outdoors versus indoors.

But then, of course, comes the inevitability that afflicts even the most avid outdoorsman. Blame winter, a business trip, or just plain inconvenience, there are always those times when going outside just isn’t feasible.

Even when we’re trapped inside, new research from the University of Coventry’s Department of Applied Sciences and Health suggests that perhaps by simply by changing our environment indoors, we can glean some of the benefits of outdoor exercise.

The study measured something that’s well established in exercise, known as the hypotension effect, or a drop in blood pressure that occurs from 15 minutes to up to 48 hours after exercise. Health practitioners agree lower blood pressure leads to less risk of developing cardiovascular and other health problems.

Researchers set out to determine if a simulated green space environment—in this case, a video game-like experience shown to children while they cycled on a stationary bike—would result in a further beneficial drop in blood pressure compared to exercising without images of green space. The children who were shown images of nature while exercising did indeed show a significant drop in their blood pressure.  

Dr. Michael Duncan, Associate Head of Applied Science and Health and lead researcher on the study, explained why the researchers chose to study the effects of simulated nature on children. Similar studies have been done in adults at rest and have established that looking at images of green space result a similarly beneficial hypotension effect.

“Partly because the weather is so rubbish in the UK, some children don’t get access to quality green space often enough,” Duncan said. “So we wanted to see if we could simulate the same [beneficial] effects of real nature in an indoor environment, and if it would augment with exercise.”

Beyond British schoolchildren, Duncan’s results have practical applications for those of us stuck on a treadmill. The reason green exercise, whether real or simulated, has this added bonus is simple: As humans, nature soothes us.

“What’s happening when you look at that image [of a tree, an ocean, or a mountain],” Duncan explains, “is that the nervous system takes its foot off the accelerator so to speak and puts its foot on the break—that actually physiologically brings everything down to a lower level.”

While Duncan expected the result of similar experiment conducted in the actual outdoors would be “the same or stronger,” he did not say that all simulated images of nature would be equally effective. For example, watching the Tour de France while riding a stationary bike might include too many distractions and stimulations that would counteract the calming effect unlike, say, a more hypnotic and repetitive option like a surf film.

“The theoretical basis is that, like actually being outdoors, simulated green space is a distraction technique that’s calming,” Duncan said. “The idea is [the exerciser] becomes more immersed into what’s going on.”

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How (and Why) to Flex Your Hips

Your running regimen isn’t going to make up for your workday nine-to-five. All that sitting causes serious problems with hip mobility, which are only exacerbated by the repetitive movements of endurance training.

“Running and cycling combine to make some of the tightest, shortest hips on the planet,” explains Kelly Starrett of MobilityWod.com. And it's not poor form that's causing the problems. The repetitive movements of endurance training—coupled with the sedentary lifestyle most athletes lead outside of their sport—restrict range of motion.

Forget about posture: This is bad news for any athlete hoping to maximize efficiency and avoid injury, Starrett says.

For runners, tight hip flexors prevent full rear extension of the leg. To compensate, stiff runners achieve extension by arching their back and tilting their pelvis forward; this shifts the foot strike forward, in front of the runner’s center of mass, and creates an inefficient braking force, as well as a heavy foot strike that takes its toll on ankle, hip, and knee joints, explains USA Triathlon performance adviser Bobby McGee.

The upside? If you get away from compensating, great things will happen.

“At times, I’ve been able to run better than my fitness level should allow, simply because I have great stability in my hips and glutes and can keep up good form even as I start to get tired,” says 2013 U.S. ultramarathon champ Matt Flaherty.

Here’s how to follow in Flaherty’s footsteps:

Warm Up for Efficiency

An active warm-up is essential to achieve good form and maximum efficiency, especially if you train in the evening, advises Jason Fitzgerald, founder of StrengthRunning.com. A series of dynamic, prerun movements will lubricate the joints, improve your active range of motion, and wake up muscles that have been dormant all day, helping you to stay upright and extend out the back. For this, try Gary Gray’s celebrated lunge matrix.

Cool Down to Prevent Stiffness

A post-run stretch, followed by soft-tissue work with a foam roller, will help further loosen the hip flexors. This is especially important if you exercise before work, says Fitzgerald, because scar tissue and muscle adhesions form quickest when exercised muscles are suddenly held in a compressed position (i.e., your office chair). Walking breaks throughout the day will also help prevent these adhesions.

Make Time for a Couch Stretch

If you can set aside time apart from your workouts, try Starrett’s couch stretch: In front of a couch or wall, sit on all fours. Place the shin of one leg parallel against the wall or couch, then bring one leg up into a kneeling position with your knee above your foot. Straighten your torso and fire your glute, as if to slide your two legs together. Hold for two minutes per side, contracting and releasing as you wish.

“If people did the couch stretch, their lives would change,” says Starrett.

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The Best Skirts for Active Women

Even though hiking pants have gotten much more stylish, sometimes you just want to show off a bit of leg. We’ve curated an array of the best active skirts (and skorts) on the market, all ready-made for a day hike or that pickup game of Ultimate Frisbee.    

Columbia Anytime Casual Skort ($40)

Its flattering cut and stretchy fabric make this a versatile skort, while side cinches elevate it to something a bit flirtier. The Anytime Casual Skort is rain- and stain-resistant, comes with UPF 50 protection, and has a mid-rise, thick waistband for optimal comfort. The only downside? The two front pockets aren’t very large, so if you’re headed out for a hike, you’ll need a jacket with pockets or a pack. $40; columbia.com 

Merrell June Bug Skirt ($49)

Slip into this just-above-the-knee skirt, and the soft, stretchy fabric will have you begging for a summer night when the beetles that inspired its name are out. There’s a buttoned stash pocket at the waist, but the length options are what make this a standout: you can leave the skirt long, or button up both sides for a sexier look. $49; merrell.com

Outdoor Research Expressa Skort ($60)

The Expressa Skort captures the active-casual style outdoorsy types demand—it’s not too sporty, but won’t restrict your movements when you go exploring. This skort is flattering, breathable, slightly stretchy, quick-drying, and offers UPF 50+ protection. This is the perfect piece for a sweaty hike that, ideally, ends at a lake. If you can’t try the Expressa on in a store, consider sizing up when ordering online—the Expressa runs a touch small. $60; outdoorresearch.com

Lole Cassyope 2 Skort ($80)

Yes, the Lole Cassyope 2 Skort is technically golfing gear, but it’s way too flattering and comfortable to relegate to just one activity. This 17-inch-long skort has a rounded hem and a mid-rise, regular hook-and-loop waist. You’ll be comfortable and dry since the four-way-stretch fabric wicks moisture well. We predict this will be your go-to skirt when it comes to active, see-the-sights-then-hit-the-trail traveling—the fabric is wrinkle-free, gives UPF 50+ protection, and has a back zipper pocket for valuables. $80; lolewomen.com

Athleta Denim Northpeak Skort ($50)

Perfect for hiking and stylish enough for après, the stretchy Denim Northpeak Skort is semi-fitted with a superthick mid-rise waistband that won’t dig into your skin. Two rear zipper pockets are perfect for your cash and Chapstick, and no matter how much of a sweat you work up, the Denim Northpeak aims to keep you cool with exceptionally breathable fabric. Bonus: the shorts underneath have silicone leg grips so they won’t slide up during an intense hike. $50; athleta.com

Athleta Voyage Skort ($50)

Whether you’re heading to the trail or just want a sassy, comfortable skirt for summer, the Voyage has you covered. This relatively long, flared skort won’t restrict your movements, while its breathable PowerMesh shorts below deck will keep you cool. You’ll be fully covered in this semi-fitted, lightweight skort. A thick, elastic waistband is supercomfy, and a zipper pocket on its lower back will hold a smartphone, ID, or small tube of sunscreen. Beach volleyball anyone? $50; athleta.com

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Inside Meb's Win at the Boston Marathon

A month ahead of the Boston Marathon, we asked Meb Keflezighi what it would take for him to win the race where he had finished third in 2006. At first, he was coy. And then he answered: "If they let you go, you gain confidence, spread the gap, and you’re going to be home free."

Monday, against all odds, he did just that—during a mostly-solo effort that culminated in a victory and a new personal best time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds (just two weeks before his 39th birthday). In the wake of his win, we caught up with Keflezighi to discuss exactly what was going through his head during his momentous run.

OUTSIDE: Did you plan from the outset to make a huge gap that would be impossible to close?
KEFLEZIGHI: Absolutely not!

How did you build your 80-second lead? Did you hammer or were you running steady?
Five miles into it, the pace slowed down. I said no, I’m going to make it an honest pace. Josphat [Boit of the U.S.] and I broke away after eight miles. I knew what was coming but I don’t know if he did, so—l decided to go.

How did you finally drop Boit?
4:31 or 4:30! [laughs] And he was probably slowing down. I could sense his breathing. He hit me once on the back of the foot. He apologized, but I knew that when people get tired they can’t really concentrate effectively.

You ran solo for most of the race. Is it as hard as everyone says?
Very difficult. Especially in a marathon. I’ve done it before, in a 15K, and the San Jose Half. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to go, or they miscalculated that they’re dealing with a silver medalist, a New York City champion, and fourth at the [2012] Olympic Games. At about 21 miles, I started looking back because I had no idea what was going on.

When you didn’t see anyone, did you think "Yay!" or "Uh oh"?
Both. "Yay" I think I can win it and "Uh oh" because I don’t know how many of them are will work together to catch me. My pace wasn’t outrageous. If I’m healthy, I can maintain it, but things got a little doubtful at mile 22, 23, down the hills when my quads were hurting. At 24, I felt like throwing up. Then I’m like: collect yourself. To my surprise, I was still running fast. At that point, I didn’t know if [Wilson Chebet of Kenya] was going catch me, but I thought about plan B. I kept extending the lead. Going toward Boylston, I used the curves to surge and tried to use the crowd to help me push.

Since Monday, have you talked to anyone else who was in the elite pack? Any idea why they let you get so far ahead?
I really haven’t. I talked to Nick Arciniaga [the top American finisher who placed seventh behind Keflezighi]. Nick did say something about the group—and I don’t know who was in the group. I can’t say. I wasn’t there. Abdi [Abdirahman] called me.  He said there was talk about this and that. But he just said congratulations. You did the work. If they did [try to help], I will say thank you.  At the same time, I was not in my comfort zone by any means. I was trying to extend the lead as much as I can, and trying to push the pace constantly to get to the finish line. They made a mistake and let me go early on. Racing is racing. If somebody wants to go, you can’t really them to wait.  So I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.

From what I’ve read, Ryan Hall was telling the Americans not to surge or pace a chase. But do you really think the Africans would care about it if Americans with non-threatening PRs surged?
It doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up. I don’t know.  As a competitor, you can’t tell them to go this pace or that pace because there are so many guys who might say, you know what? I’m going to surge. They probably miscalculated who’s up there, and misjudged who I am. Guess what? It doesn’t matter any more.

Did you know you ran a negative split by five seconds?
I didn’t see what our halfway split was. I missed it. I asked Josphat Boit. He didn’t know. My Garmin watch said I was 13.79 or something. I was trying to do the math in my head. I just kept the same pace and said don’t worry about it—just go for the title.

What about your PR? Was that your aim?
My goal was to win the race, goal number one. Goal number two was to be on the podium.

Has anything unexpected since the Monday? Has your old sponsor Nike called?
No, I don’t think they will. But President Barack Obama called on Tuesday. He said you made America proud; it couldn’t have come at a better time; job well done. We talked for about three or four minutes.

He was president when you won the New York City Marathon, so it was his second call?
He never called me in 2009.

Have you had time to run since Monday?
I haven’t gone running yet. I can’t even walk right now. The wound on the ball of my left foot is so deep from 2007 at the Gate River Run and in 2011 the Breathe Right aggravated it. [In 2011, he ran the entire New York City Marathon with a Breathe Right strip in his shoe.] To this day, I’m still draining the blood blister and water blister. A couple doctors from the Red Sox drained it, and a doctor in New York drained it.  Coach Larsen drained it. I drained it at least seven times myself [since Monday]. I was hurting bad going through those downhills. I had to dig deep to make it happen. I’m paying for it now, but it’s such a great honor to come in first.

Are you walking around in flip flops?
I can’t do that. I have to have a cushion. I’m not stepping on it. I’m more walking on the sides. Today’s the only day, with a cushion with a hole in it, I’m walking somewhat normal. Other than that, everything is OK, I think.

Do you have another marathon in you?
[Laughs] Eh, yeaaaaaaaah, yeaah, I think there is, but I haven’t run yet.

Given the way you won Boston—planned or not—would you ever run solo for half the race again? Is that your new thing?
Why not? If I’m fit and healthy. It was a calculated, good decision. I thought a few people would go with me but they didn’t and it worked out to my advantage.

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