Treadmill vs. running outside: What works best for runners?
August 25, 2022|By K. Aleisha Fetters
Treadmill and outdoor running each have their own unique advantages, and both can be great for you physically and mentally. It's not a matter of only running on a treadmill vs. outside, but which works best for you.
That's the thing about running on a treadmill vs. outside — they both rock. It doesn't matter if you're talking about crushing your workout goals, keeping your risk of injury low, boosting your mood, or just learning to run — however you prefer to exercise is the right way to do it.
What’s the difference between running on a treadmill and running outside?
Running is running, right? So there’s no point in debating running on a treadmill vs outdoor running? Well, not quite. While it’s great to get running no matter where you do it, there are some differences between the two.
One of the biggest differences is obviously the terrain. When running outdoors, particularly if you’re running on trails, your body needs to adapt to a changing terrain underfoot. That means your legs have to propel you forward, against the wind resistance.
On a treadmill, though, there’s a constantly moving belt underneath you, so you just need to keep moving one foot in front of the other - and you have the ability to control the speed with the dials in front of you.
Is treadmill running as good as running on the road?
Both types of runs are great - but there’s a lot of debate around treadmill vs road running.
The argument for running outside
Outdoor running enthusiasts claim that nothing compares to hitting the track, road or trails - whether because they can’t stand the monotony of running on a treadmill, they find it easier to run outside, or because they simply love being surrounded by nature.
The case for treadmill sessions
Treadmill lovers, on the other hand, believe that treadmill workouts are better, allowing you to sustain a speed that you might let drop away outdoors. Plus, if you have a treadmill at home it can be easier to fit in a run. No psyching yourself to get out there in bad weather - simply hop on for a quick 5k or speed session on your lunch break without having to leave the house!
There are pros and cons to both types of running, so when it comes to the question “is a treadmill as good as running?”, it’s really all down to personal preference.
Is running on a treadmill easier?
Many people find that running on a treadmill is easier, because their pace on the treadmill doesn’t equate to their pace outside.
That’s because the rotating belt on a treadmill assists your leg turnover - and, like we mentioned before, there’s no wind to contend with when you’re running on the treadmill, nor is there any variation in the terrain underfoot.
That means it can be easier to run faster on a treadmill - and it’s often said that setting the treadmill to 1% incline better mimics the conditions you’d find outside for a more ‘realistic’ run.
The boredom factor
Even though your pace might be faster on the treadmill, it can often feel harder than running outside. Ever felt like you’ve been running for 10 minutes on the treadmill, then glanced down at the screen and realised it’s not even been a minute? Yup, running in one place can have a big psychological impact and make your sessions feel much harder!
Why can I run on a treadmill but not outside?
If you are finding it harder to run outdoors than on the treadmill, it’s to be expected. You have to expend more energy outside, to account for the wind and any hills you’re running up (or down).
Focus on your breath
You can make running outside feel easier by focusing on your breathing. Aim to run at a conversational pace, meaning that you can hold a conversation whilst running. And if it feels too difficult to speak? Simply slow down. After all, running is supposed to be fun!
Different surfaces can be harder - literally
Running on pavements or trails can make your bones stronger over time, but if you’re used to hitting the treadmill, then pounding the pavement might feel harder at first. Try to mix up the terrain you run on to alleviate some of that strain on your joints - try running on trails, or if there’s a choice between grass and tarmac, go for grass where you can.
Wear the right shoes
And, of course, make sure that you’re wearing the right running shoes and running clothing. Dressing for the weather will help you run even when it’s windy or rainy outside, and shoes that offer adequate cushioning will make those tough pavements a little gentler on your joints.
When is running on a treadmill better than running outdoors?
The first treadmill was made to replicate OG outdoor runs. But modern treadmills can do so much more, making running even more convenient and fun.
Here are some of the benefits of running on a treadmill:
Rain or shine, the treadmill runs. One of the biggest benefits of treadmill workouts is that they aren't weather-dependent. The treadmill can keep you moving even if mother nature isn't playing nice.
You can program the treadmill to fit your needs. What incline or decline would you like today? Speed? Interval pattern? On a treadmill, you call the shots and set everything to match your goals, abilities, and style. Plus, if you need to switch things up (or end your workout), you just have to touch a button.
Treadmills are gentler on your joints. If you have cranky joints or knee pain with high-impact exercise, treadmills typically provide a softer running surface. This means less impact on your bones and joints, helping to prevent injuries. If you're in the market for a treadmill, look for models that advertise shock-resistant belts.
Many treadmills offer interactive workouts. Today's treadmills, whether you're in a commercial gym or outfitting your home gym, offer many ways to stay engaged, motivated, and have more fun with your runs. Check out live and on-demand classes or virtually explore running paths all around the world.
When is running outside better than running on a treadmill?
While treadmills are great for customizing your workouts to fit your body and needs, outdoor trails force you to adapt to nature.
Check out these benefits of running outside:
It's ready at a moment's notice. Lace up, warm up, and hit the road (or trail). The outdoors, barring severe weather, is always ready for you and doesn't require a treadmill purchase or gym membership.
You score mood-boosting outdoor time. For some, exercising in the presence of nature comes with greater feelings of mental and physical well-being compared to breaking a sweat indoors. Nothing like some Vitamin D and endorphins to boost your mood.
It preps you for race day. If you're training for a road race, running on pavement (at least some of the time) can help prep your bones and joints for race day. If you're venturing a trail run, running on grass, dirt, rocks, and through all sorts of curly-cue paths can help strengthen your joints so you don't twist anything along the way.
It spurs greater muscle activation. When you run outside, you're responsible for moving yourself forward. Although some treadmills are motorless, most have a motor-powered running belt — meaning the treadmill does some of the moving for you. Plus, when running outside, varied terrain and wind resistance can provide your muscles with additional (and beneficial) challenges.
Why choose one when you can enjoy both?
As with most either-or scenarios, there's a third option: do both! When switching things up, remember each works your body in a slightly different way. Don't pressure yourself to make your times and distances match up. Start slow and listen to your body, especially when transitioning from indoor to outdoor running.
When it comes to running on a treadmill versus running outside, you don't have to choose. You can reap the rewards of both, or stick with the one that's best for you.
I'm a quirky (aka nerdy) strength coach with a passion for science and sweat. I love to help people meet their body goals, but it's their mental and emotional gains that make me do a happy dance. My flirtation with running includes two half marathons and, someday, I will run 26.2.