Running on a Treadmill vs. Running Outside - Which is Better?
What are the pros and cons of running outside vs. running on a treadmill? While some swear by one or the other, let's see what the studies say.
Every runner you ask will have a different opinion on the best way to run, where you should run, and how you should train.
But is it better to run inside or outside?
The running experience is different for everyone, and all runners have preferences -- running is a staple in my training.
Some will say that it’s much easier to run faster and longer on a treadmill in a controlled environment, while others will say that you can’t compare the beauty of an outdoor run with the boredom of running on the spot.
Despite what you might believe, there’s no right way to train -- both running on a treadmill and running outside have their place.
If you’re wondering which is the best way to go for a run or train for a race, let’s have a closer look at what the studies show and the pros and cons of each.
What Does the Science Say for Running?
Looking at the different studies done on treadmill running vs. running outdoors, there seems to be very little difference between the two.
Another factor that is also worth looking at is that people also tend to run slightly differently on a treadmill compared to outdoors. But the overall pattern shows that the movements are similar enough that you don’t need to worry about the differences.
Running on a Treadmill
If the science says that the outcome is similar, whether you’re running on a treadmill or outside, then it comes down to personal preference. Here are some pros and cons of running on a treadmill:
- Treadmill running is easier than running outdoors as the belt of the treadmill assists leg turnover.
- There is no air resistance, so the faster you run, the more you benefit from running on a treadmill.
- There is less hardening of the soft tissue as the base of the treadmill has more give than a road running surface.
- You set the pace and can track your mileage accurately (without a fitness tracker); this is particularly important if you’re building up strength and fitness after an injury.
- You can multitask by listening to podcasts or music or watching TV while you run -- score!
- You can get on a treadmill and run at any time of the day or night, regardless of weather conditions, and you can do it alone.
- You train yourself to run faster through carefully controlled speed work.
- If you’re training for a marathon, it can be challenging to learn how to pace yourself as you run according to what you’ve set on the treadmill.
- You can’t make turns, so you can’t develop your lateral ability -- this is critical in training to avoid injury.
- You can’t go downhill, which is essential for strengthening your anterior tibialis muscles.
- It can be very dull as there is no change of scenery, and you can’t visualize the end of the run.
Whether on a track, pavement or trail, most professional runners would say they prefer running outside, hands down, but does it make sense for the rest of us?
Let’s break down the pros and cons:
- There’s no need for a gym membership -- running outside is completely free and can fit into your schedule, and you won’t have to wait for a free machine at peak times.
- It's convenient; you can step outside your home and start running immediately.
- It’s a great way to explore your neighborhood or, if you’re traveling to a new area, to get out and explore while you exercise.
- It’s better preparation for race conditions as your muscles and joints will be more used to the varied terrain, and you can adjust to changes in elevation and weather conditions.
- It builds bone mineral density which can help to guard against osteoporosis.
- You can vary your runs with different terrains, such as roads, trails, bike paths, and more.
- It helps you get outside to enjoy fresh air and nature, with studies showing that exercise outdoors is more enjoyable and that time in nature is good for your health.
- There’s a higher risk of injury (although treadmill running can also lead to injury) -- have you ever fallen off a treadmill or lost your footing? I have!
- It can be dangerous (especially for women) depending on the neighborhood you run in, as well as the dangers posed by various other hazards such as falls, dogs, cyclists, and cars.
What Do I Think?
The best choice will depend on your preferences and goals. This sounds rather obvious, but it's often overlooked.
If you’re just looking to improve your cardio fitness and already have a gym membership, treadmill running might be the right decision for you. You’ll be able to monitor your pace and distance accurately and even catch up on your favorite TV show at the same time.
Although the studies seem to show that treadmill running and running outdoors have similar measurable benefits, it’s the intangible advantages of outdoor running that gives it a slight edge, in my opinion.
From being able to visualize an end goal to spending time in a more natural environment, the psychological benefits, in addition to the physical benefits of outdoor running, make this a more appealing option for many runners.
For most of us, though, the answer lies somewhere in between. A quick treadmill run a couple of times a week before or after work (or even during a lunch break) helps to reset and re-calibrate.
This then leaves the weekend where you can schedule a longer run, meet up with friends on the road, and spend time outdoors to get the maximum benefit from your run.
If the weather permits, I prefer running outside. However, I do have a treadmill that I utilize often. If you're looking for a great option, take a look at this treadmill buying guide.
The issue here isn’t actually where you run but rather that you make the time to run.
Whether you jump on the treadmill or head outside, you need to get your body moving, your heart rate up, and your blood pumping.
Because, in the end, the fact that you went for a run is what’s important.
Maybe the best option is running on a treadmill with a view outside...? That sounds excellent!
Tony Lee, MS, RD
Tony Lee, RD, MS, is a highly qualified and accomplished Registered Dietitian with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Sciences from Arizona State University. Tony brings over two decades of experience in dietetics, specializing in sports nutrition. Interests include studying all aspects of wellness, fitness, genetics, and peak health performance.