Running outside vs treadmill: Which is better? This debate has been going on for years.
Avid runners will very likely pick outdoor running over the treadmill due to the perceived level of difficulty involved in outdoor running. However, the increasing availability of treadmills means no matter our fitness levels, we can run at fast and vigorous intensities without leaving the warmth and comfort of our homes.
These two running options are different, but the impact and running outcome can be the same. Yes, you might not agree with me, but scientific research has shown treadmill running to be about the same as running outside with a little adjustment to your treadmill settings.
When it comes to the debate of running outside vs treadmill, there is no right or wrong option. Both options have their pros and cons. The best option at a particular time depends on the runner’s health, fitness level, goals and training needs. Depending on whether you are training for a race, cross-country running or looking to work on running speed, the best option should be the one that suits your training abilities and needs.
Let’s now take a look at the pros and cons of both treadmill and outdoor running:
The treadmill is arguably the No.1 piece of cardiovascular training equipment in both our commercial and home gyms. Treadmill running is generally perceived to be easier and less satisfying, compared to running outside. This perceived ease of treadmill running is due to the presence of a moving belt underneath your feet. Unlike outdoor running, the presence of the moving belt helps the runner to maintain a steady pace and requires less effort with each taken stride.
To compensate for the difference in effort level and calories burnt between treadmill and outdoor running, the treadmill’s incline will have to be increased by 1%. Scientific research has proven that setting the treadmill’s incline to a 1% gradient accurately reflects the energy exertion associated with outdoor running.
- Helps to maintain pace: With treadmill running, the belt of the treadmill enables the trainer to set a pace and maintain it. This advantage enables a runner to specifically do more speed work and train for a race. Due to the difficulty in maintaining a consistent pace when running outdoors, the treadmill is ideal especially for the injured or those recovering from a recent injury. With outdoor running, you are likely to unconsciously reduce your speed when fatigue sets in, whereas with the treadmill, the rotating belt underneath your feet helps you to keep going even when you feel like giving up.
- Provides a constant and controlled environment: With treadmill running, there are no temperature and weather constraints. Your running environment is safe, constant and controlled with no need to worry about any inclement weather. Any risk associated with running in snowy, icy or hot weather conditions is completely avoided. Even if you are properly kitted up, running in inclement weather is very uncomfortable, so having a comfortable and controlled running environment is always a plus.
- Can help to simulate some race conditions: Thanks to the treadmill, certain race conditions can be simulated to help with race preparations. Thanks to the myriad of advanced treadmills on the market, a runner is able to create a personalised and unique course profile. This allows runners to simulate exact courses being trained for. Hills can be simulated to help runners train for hilly stretches of a race course. Due to the controlled environment treadmills provide, runners are able to try out different types of running gear before the actual race.
- Provides variety: Yes, one of the arguments against treadmill running is how boring it can be, but interestingly, the treadmill provides a variety of running profiles with different end-goals. The runner simply selects a running profile depending on his/her end-goal. Running profiles include, cardio, fat burning, hill and manual profiles. With the exception of the manual profile, the speed and incline of the treadmill automatically adjusts whiles you are running in order to achieve the end-goal of your chosen profile.
- Provides instant running statistics and feedback: The treadmill provides the added advantage of displaying data on your distance, speed, incline and burnt calories. The accuracy of these statistics can be contentious but that can be negated when combined with a motion tracker. This gives runners much more control on the effort exerted and track any progress made. Seeing how good you are progressing is on its own a good source of motivation!
- Provides less impact on joints: The cushioned surface of the treadmill belt offers far better shock absorption than roads and concrete pavements. The shock absorption, coupled with the running gait on the treadmill means there is less impact and stress on knees, hips and ankles. If you are an avid fan of regular outdoor running, swapping some outdoor runs with the treadmill will reduce the impact on your joints and in the long run, reduce the risk of injuries.
- Provides flexibility with workout schedule: With treadmills, workout sessions can be carried out on any day and at any time. Having a treadmill at home gives you the added luxury of squeezing in a workout session within your daily busy schedule and or parenting duties. You also get the added advantage of avoiding the hazards associated with running outside alone and in the dark.
- It is less challenging than running outdoors: With outdoor running, you use your leg muscles to push yourself forward and combat any wind resistance you may face. With treadmill running there is no wind resistance. You are basically running on the spot. The treadmill’s belt assists the runner with pace and stride pattern, therefore the requirement to propel your weight forwards is reduced. At a set speed over the same gradient, you will burn more calories running outdoors over ground than on a treadmill. The difference can be negated by setting the treadmill at a 1%i incline….but there will still be a tiny difference. This tiny difference is believed to come from wind resistance and how runners propel themselves and negotiate around obstacles.
- Despite being in a controlled environment, you can still get hurt: When it comes to running outside vs treadmill, the latter is widely considered the safer option, but several reports indicate there are 1000s of treadmill related injuries each year. Some of these injuries include cardiovascular issues, head injuries, falls and sprains.
- Treadmill running can deceptively feel harder: When running on a treadmill, you can deceptively feel you are running faster than you actually are. Even though outdoor running is much more challenging, a lot of runners tend to rate treadmill running as more difficult.
- You can’t run downhill and can’t make turns: Downward inclines strengthen the tibialis anterior muscle, mostly located near the shin. Most treadmills do not provide the downward incline feature. Also, treadmill running does not provide the ability to negotiate turns. This limits the runner’s ability to work on improving lateral agility. Lateral agility is the ability to quickly change direction and move from side to side while maintaining your balance.
- It can provide fewer health boosts: Running has been proven to boost mental health. Treadmill running, unfortunately, does not give the same boost as outdoor running. Experts are yet to give a definitive answer as to why this is the case, even though factors such as outdoor sunlight and fresh air have been suspected to play a key role in this.
- It can be boring: Most runners will agree with this. The scenery that outdoor running provides often takes your mind off your run. With the treadmill, your are likely to be constantly glancing at the displays only to be discouraged by how ‘not-so-far’ you’ve travelled. Also, the fact that you can’t visualise your finish line while running on the treadmill, maintaining focus and concentration can be difficult, especially when tiredness sets in.
For most runners, especially those training for a road race, outdoor running is a popular option. Despite the sometimes uncomfortability and inconvenience associated with outdoor running, its popularity among athletes and casual runners cannot be questioned. There is indeed a significant physiological difference between running outside vs treadmill. There are several upsides to outdoor running that the treadmill will struggle to match.
- Uses more energy and burns more calories: Outdoor running uses more energy per footfall than treadmill running. Yes, the treadmill can equal this advantage by setting a minimum 1% incline, but its never exactly the same. When it comes to running outside, each footfall is met with wind resistance and slight changes in terrain. Even though several studies have shown the runner’s outdoor biomechanics to be the same as indoors, the lost energy associated with both options are never the same. Outdoor runners propel themselves forwards while the treadmill runner is assisted by the fed belt beneath the runners’ feet. The constantly changing surfaces, making sudden turns and stops to avoid obstacles, and fighting against wind resistance, lead to a higher caloric burn when compared to treadmill running.
- It builds more muscle: Outdoor running increases the workload on your core, glutes and entire legs. With treadmill running, the workload on your legs is less since the belt assists your legs to go backwards underneath you. With both outdoor and treadmill running, you use your quads to push yourself forward, but the slight difference lies in how the stride cycle is completed. Outdoor running relies on the hamstrings to finish off the stride cycle and lift the legs behind, while the belt’s propulsion does much of the work for the treadmill runner. This added leg workout for the outdoor runner build more leg muscles for the runner.
- It improves bone density: High impact exercises like running on hard surfaces enables the body, in the long run, to build more bone density. Bone density is a measure of how strong bones are. The shock absorbing effect of the treadmill prevents the body from triggering processes that lead to better bone density. Improved bone health is especially useful for runners over a certain age and female runners. Outdoor running has been shown to be more effective at building bone density than both resistance training and cycling.
- It improves heart and mental health: Yes, your heart gets as much out of a running workout, whether you are outdoors or on the treadmill, as long as the treadmill has a 1% incline and the runner puts in the same level of effort. Outdoor running gives you an added mood and mental boost which in the long run improves heart health. Outdoor running exposes runners to fresh air, natural sunlight and great scenery which have been proven to boost mood and mental health in most runners.
- It prepares runners for race conditions: Almost all races are held outdoors. So it is important to train and prepare your body, both physically and mentally for what it could face on race day. By running outdoors, you are able to condition your muscles, joints and in fact, your entire body for the varied terrain, obstacles, wind resistance, curbs and weather conditions you could face on the actual race day. Treadmill running does not give you the ability to mimic all these potential outdoor race conditions.
- Runners have variety in running routes and surfaces: An added advantage of running outdoors is that runners have an almost endless number of routes to choose from. Runners have the luxury of choosing a route to suit their moods and training goals. Beside the variety in running routes, runners have different running surfaces at their disposal. Running surfaces such as roads and pavements, cross-country and sand, come with different challenges and require different levels of effort. These different running surfaces challenge the runner’s balance and coordination. The variety available to the outdoor runner ensures boredom is kept at bay.
- No need to worry about cost: With outdoor running, all you need to do is to get are a pair of comfortable running trainers and clothes. There is no need worrying about the cost of gym membership and expensive treadmills. You are also not restricted by a gym’s working hours or the availability of running machines.
- The weather: This is an obvious disadvantage when it comes to running outside. Running can be fun and invigorating under perfect weather conditions, but when the weather is not friendly, you’ll most likely not be looking forward to slogging it out in heavy rain, heat, extreme cold or icy conditions.
- There is higher risk of injury: Compared to treadmill running, running outside poses more risk of injury. Some common injuries associated with outdoor running include foot and ankle injuries. Outdoor running also comes with a lot of hazards such as dogs, dog poos, cyclists, cars and falls, just to mention a few.
- You have less control on what you come across: Unless you are running a course you’ve used before, sudden terrain and incline changes can hit you by surprise. Such sudden changes in terrain can make it difficult to maintain your pace.
- Health and safety concerns: Outdoor running is not particularly the safest when one has health concerns. Injured runners plus those recovering from an injury are far better off running in a controlled and safe environment indoors. With outdoor running, there are also safety concerns to consider when it comes to running during high-traffic times and at night. The treadmill provides a more assured, safe and convenient training environment.
Which option wins?…..
In the end, a strong argument can be made for both options. There’s no clear cut winner here. When it comes to running outside vs treadmill, it is up to the runner to decide which option to take depending on their fitness goals.
If your fitness goal is to just improve and or maintain your cardiovascular fitness, then the treadmill will just be ok for you. On the other hand, if you are training for a race, then your best option is outdoor racing.
Alternating between whichever suits you best on a daily basis is arguable the way to go. Combining your running workout routine with a good strength training schedule is always a winning combination. Stick to this combination and your fitness goals will not be too hard to achieve. Commitment and perseverance is key!
Are there other pros and cos of running outside vs treadmill that I failed to touch on in this article? Please feel free to leave comments, questions and suggestions in the comments section below. I hope to see you hear again soon!