Running: From Treadmill to Trail in 15 Short Years

[12 minute read]

For years, I was a total treadmill whore. I would run upwards of seven miles at a stretch, three times a week - at the gym, on a treadmill. It made sense. I was already in the gym up to five days a week lifting weights and/or swimming; why wouldn’t I run while I was there too? I endured a fair amount of ribbing for my lengthy treadmill trysts, especially from ‘real’ runners. (Real, in this case, defined as anyone who runs for any duration at any intensity exclusively or most commonly outdoors.) I didn’t mind. There was definitely something odd about doing that much running in a stationary position. I mean, when my shoes were ‘worn out’, they still looked brand new. And since most gym cardio machines these days have individual TVs permanently affixed at the top, which I always turned off, I was usually forced to stare deep into my silhouetted reflection for the duration of my run. The alternative - watching a show with a jarring bounce multiple times a second - was even less appealing. On the other hand, running at the gym was both convenient and time efficient. I lifted weights, I ran or swam, I showered, I went home.

I kept at this routine for a very long time, mostly in an effort to minimize the amount of time per day I sacrificed to exercise. It was only fairly recently that a confluence of factors managed to pull me off the gym treadmills and turn me on to outdoor running. It started with the slow, dull realization that I was becoming bored with my old routine. But that alone wasn’t enough. Far more significant was the persistent and not-so-subtle influence of my girlfriend and her sister (and - now that I think about it - her massage therapist as well) who collectively expressed no small amount of bewilderment at my indoor running habit. To be fair, when I thought of running outdoors, I imagined one of two scenarios: I’d either be circling a high school track over and over or be inhaling huge amounts of car exhaust as I ran alongside some urban road. Neither option struck me as particularly appealing. Oh poor, oblivious Nick, my girlfriend her gang of shamers said. There are PARKS with RUNNING TRAILS that are really nice! Still I resisted. Running at a park would be great and all, but there was one major problem: parks do not typically have weight rooms nearby. How was I supposed to squeeze in both a run and weight training on the same day? By going to the gym first then to the park? Unlikely. In my mind, a trip to the park logically meant skipping weight training altogether. But eventually, reluctantly, I gave in. My girlfriend’s sister - the most avid runner of the group - happened to be in town one weekend and convinced me to give it a try “just this once.”

I think I may have run indoors once in the year or so since - and then only because it was raining. Turns out the girlfriend and her cronies were right. Running outside is far more pleasant than treadmill whoring, provided you can find an appealing place to go that’s close to home. In central Houston, where I lived until recently, there was a large park with a well-maintained, circular jogging trail that spanned 2.8 miles. It was quite nice, but nothing compared to what’s available in Austin, where I currently reside. Here there is a beautiful, ten mile long dirt trail that runs parallel to a local lake - an offshoot of the Colorado River - canopied by expansive sets of trees and other delightful scenery. It feels like running into a scene from a postcard and is as far removed as possible from running on a boring, repetitive circular track or alongside cars on a busy street. And as an added benefit, running outside means I never get the stink eye from fellow gym patrons anxiously awaiting the liberation of my treadmill.

So now I suppose I’m a ‘real’ runner. Yay. But the transition brought with it an array of complications I didn’t quite know how to deal with at first. What follows is a list of the problems I encountered and the solutions I came up with. Minus the solutions, it reads much like the list of excuses I used to dole out for NOT running outside. Whether you’re like I was and have trouble seeing past all the hassle inherent in running outside, or you’re already an outdoor running enthusiast, this list is for you. Each item below has markedly increased the convenience factor for my trips to the running trail. One item - the temporary car seat covers - took a fair bit of googling before I found a good solution. In fact, this entire blog post was originally only intended to preach to the world the unparalleled virtues of those covers. (I’m that happy with them.) I guess I decided to expand somewhat. :) So, without further digression…

Dashboard Analytics

When you run on a treadmill, you have before you an array of constantly updated information about your elapsed time, speed, pace, and so on. Running without knowing exactly how fast I’m going at all times? Foreign concept. How am I supposed to know how far I’ve gone and when to stop? How do I know if this week’s average pace is faster than last week’s pace? With a stopwatch and a calculator? Pshaw!

I solved this grievance with a TomTom GPS Watch, funded by exchanging my $55/month LA Fitness membership for a $10/month Planet Fitness membership. The irony of this purchase is that I don’t look at watch nearly as often as I expected to while actually running, though I definitely rely on it to tell me when to stop and/or turn around. Still, I absolutely love all the data it collects from each run and the fact that I can keep this information forever, making it easy to gauge my progress toward whatever goal(s) I’m trying to achieve at the moment. The watch has a fantastic, highly readable display, loads of features, and isn’t nearly as expensive as a lot of other GPS watches out there. The software is a bit buggy - it’s frozen on me more than a few times - but TomTom is constantly pushing out updates with fixes and new features. For the price, I can’t recommend it enough.

The Car Key / Cell Phone Dilemma

At the gym, you throw all your stuff in a locker. On a treadmill, there are cup holders for your water bottle and little trays for your car keys. Easy. When you’re outside you have… pockets? Um, no. I don’t need anything dangling about in my pants while I’m running, unless - ahem - it’s physically attached. :) So what is one to do with your phone and car key? In my travels googling around for an answer, I found many suggestions including these:

  • Using a neck lanyard.
  • Tying your key to your shoe laces.
  • Using a portable lockbox to lock your key to a bench, pole, or other such thing near your car.
  • Holding the key in your hand. (Really?)

None of these met all my criteria for a satisfactory solution. I wanted something that wouldn’t chafe (rules out the lanyard), wouldn’t dangle (out goes the shoe lace idea), allow me to keep it on my person (nixed the lockbox), and if at all possible let me carry my phone too. Basically I wanted something that would allow me to completely forget I was wearing anything other than clothes, shoes, and sunglasses. Eventually I came across this waistpack by Amphipod and I was smitten. It’s perfect. It holds my car key and my phone with enough room to spare for something like energy gel packs, should I ever need any. It’s so comfortable that I forget I’m wearing it almost immediately after putting it on. And to top things off, the elastic band is reflective, which adds a bit of safety when running at night.

Keeping Your Sweaty Ass Off The Car Seats

Ewwwwwwww. Sweaty.

Gyms, conveniently, have showers. They may not be the nicest showers, but they get the job done and if you use them you’ll leave cleaner than when you arrived. Running outdoors generally deprives you of that luxury, which means you will very likely be driving home sweatier than Ted Striker in Airplane. At first, I just put a towel on the seat and changed into a dry shirt, which definitely helped but did not completely protect the seat from my sweaty ass. I didn’t even know what to google for a solution. “Sweaty car seats” and the like didn’t yield very promising results, but finally I started looking for some sort of temporary car seat cover and found this cover by Aries. Sooooooo much better than using a towel! They’re easy to put on and take off, heavy duty, lined with rubber, machine washable, and never once have they allowed a single drop of my sweat to come into contact with the car seat. Click here to see a picture of what they look like in my car. They’re a bit pricey at forty bucks a pop, but worth every penny as far as I’m concerned. My girlfriend and I both got one for ourselves. We affectionately refer to them as the ‘seat cloaks’ because, well, that’s pretty much what they look like.

(Not A Car Seat Cover)

Lugging All Your Sh*t Around

I suppose I could have just kept using my duffle bag to carry my gear back and forth to the car, but I wanted something different. Something smaller and lighter. I didn’t need to carry much in the way of bulky clothes anymore, so a duffle seemed overkill. What I wanted was the simplest backpack imaginable. Something pretty much exactly like this Sea to Summit Daypack I found at REI. It’s extremely lightweight, consists of a single zippered compartment, and can be folded up into a tiny pouch about the size of a tennis ball. I throw everything I need for a run inside, toss it in the car, and off I go to the trail. If I need to do any walking I can just slip it over my shoulders; it’s much more comfortable than the one-shoulder approach that’s standard fare on duffles. (This is the same reason I ditched my messenger bag for a regular backpack.) It easily fits my keys, wallet, phone, watch, towel, dry bag*, an extra shirt, water bottle, waist pack, and sunglasses - with room to spare. I also use it for cycling trips or anytime I need a simple, general purpose bag.

* I use a waterproof dry bag to store any sweat soaked clothing I shed before I heading home.

Keeping Sh*t Out Of Your Eyes

Whether or not this is an issue for you will depend entirely on where and when you run. I frequently run in the late evening, when it’s too dark for sunglasses, and found I had a real problem with BUGS flying right into my eyes. That was colossally annoying. A couple times it felt like I had a giant gnat carcass stuck to my eyeball for the entire duration of my run. It didn’t take long before I was on the hunt for sunglasses with clear lenses. I ended up buying a pair of Tifosi Podium’s which come with three interchangeable lenses ranging from clear to dark, so I could use them no matter what time of day I chose to run. I felt a bit geeky wearing clear glasses the first couple times, but they’ve served their purpose well because they’ve kept my eyeballs free of kamikaze bug debris. They’ve also proven a good defense against little bits of dirt flung into the air by passing bicyclers. The Podiums get extra awesome-sauce points for being extremely light, providing a wide, unobstructed view, and staying firmly in place throughout my run.

Now, all that said, if you only run during the day when the sun’s bright enough to necessitate wearing sunglasses, you’ll probably never experience this particular problem. Or if you only run where there aren’t many bugs - day or night - you’ll likely be exempt as well. In Houston, this was never a problem for me. The trail wasn’t surrounded by enough foliage or close enough to a body of water to attract many bugs. The trail I use in Austin, however, parallels a lake shoreline and has lots and lots of foliage. It makes for fantastic scenery, but has the consequence of making a happy home for a plethora of flying insects.


I’d like to say I managed to find a new routine that allowed me to fit in consistent weight training along with my outdoor running and cycling, but that hasn’t quite happened. Yet. These days I run three or four days a week, cycle two to three days a week, and head to the gym about as often as I find myself wondering, “Hmmmm, now when was the last time I lifted some weights…?” The reality is that making it a point to run outside - instead of at the gym - necessarily meant giving up at least some my weight training. However, I’m getting to the point where it doesn’t seem quite so horrendous to run at the trail, then swing by the gym on the way home once or twice a week. (Luckily there’s a gym near my house that’s barely out of the way.) A daily regimen of body weight training would also help save time.

It’s been a worthy sacrifice though. All other things being equal, I can run farther and faster than before, with far fewer injuries. Shin splints used to be a constant concern for me. Now, I barely even think about it. I can only surmise that the artificial boundaries created by a treadmill somehow deformed my gait. Once I escaped those boundaries, my form naturally improved, and shin splints disappeared. Even more importantly though, the pleasure I take in running has gone way, way up.