The question about which is better between a treadmill and running outside is a debate that has been going on for years.
If you ask any runner the same question, you will meet mixed and conflicting opinions.
Some love the accuracy and the manual controls on treadmills while some can’t stand the monotony of running indoors.
As we will see later, both modalities have their good and bad sides. Some factors may also dictate that you use one particular method of running- (treadmill or outside).
For a well-rounded routine, however, you should have a mix of indoor and outdoor running.
Sometimes also getting to know your goals and the driving force is what matters not the method of running.
Personal goals differ from one person to another, and the same applies to the form of running, making it impractical to brand one approach better than the other.
Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each method coupled up with some useful bits of information will enable you to choose the perfect running style fit for you.
Pros and Cons of Running on a Treadmill
Running on a treadmill has no disadvantages when it comes to your fitness, health and weight loss. Calories burn at the same rate they would burn when running outside.
Your cardiovascular fitness also improves in the same way it would while running outdoors.
However, running on a treadmill comes with its upsides and downsides. They include:
Treadmills come in handy when the weather conditions outside become unfavorable for running.
If you had planned a 10-mile run and heavy rain, snow or strong winds suddenly starts, running on a treadmill within your house or gym is the only option at hand.
Presence of snow or ice outside will also make running on a treadmill a better workout than running outdoors as you are likely to slip and fall in the snow or ice.
Running on a treadmill takes the weather factor out of the equation.
A treadmill enables you to set specific speeds and periods. You can set the pace on a treadmill, and you will be sure that you will be running at that speed throughout your session.
It doesn’t allow you to speed up or slow down, forcing you to maintain your target pace all through.
When you begin to get tired while running, you will most likely slow down. You may not realize it, as you will believe you are still running at your target speed.
On a treadmill, the speed that you had set remains the same unless you manually reduce the pace on the controls.
Repeated training gives your body endurance giving you the ability to run for great distances without slowing down.
You can’t run fast and hard all through your workout. Your muscles need some time to recover and rest.
Without some breaks in between your workout, you won’t be able to complete harder sessions, and in turn, your performance won’t improve.
Easy runs are essential in allowing your muscles to regain from long, hard and intense sessions.
It may be difficult to maintain a pace easy enough to allow muscle recovery. It may feel slow though you may find yourself making easy runs at a slightly faster pace not giving your muscles a chance to regain.
Using a treadmill will enable you to set and run at speeds ideal for easy runs.
Hill training is among the best and most efficient method of building running economy and strength and improving running performance.
However, most runners live in areas that have few hills, if any. Most treadmills come with an ingenious option of elevating you from 1-12% giving you the hill running experience.
Great for Beginners
A treadmill is an ideal beginner running tool enabling them to set running speeds that they are comfortable with, at the same time allowing them to make rests in between running sessions.
By this, they gain confidence and build lean muscle and strengthen their tendons over time for more intense running sessions.
Most beginners start with walking as the treadmill is great at incorporating the first steps into a training program.
Heart Rate Monitoring
Your heart rate while training is a popular method of monitoring and determining your running intensity.
Most treadmills nowadays come with inbuilt heart rate monitoring capabilities whereby some monitor your heart rate using a belt that is strapped around your chest while others use monitoring pads located on the treadmill’s handle grips.
Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation
You may fall off the treadmill in case the speed set is higher than the speed you are running at explaining the use of the red safety clip. However, it’s never that dangerous.
There are several injuries that you avoid by using a treadmill. When running outside, you may get hit by motorists, twist your ankle given the uneven ground, be mugged or even suffer sunburns.
Treadmills also offer the injured a great place to start and recover, given their stability and a more forgiving and comfortable surface to run on.
When using a treadmill, you will always find various running options and combinations of distance, speed, and incline.
It enables you to design a run that you desire. When running outside, you don’t get these kinds of running combinations under one session.
While running on the treadmill, its surface creates less impact on the joints that carry your weight- (knee, hip and ankle), leading to less injuries or issues like knee problems unlike when running outdoors where you find uneven grounds and rough terrains that may cause injuries due to greater impact especially when running at faster speeds.
Among the general rules of training is the law of specificity that dictates that your training should mimic your training goal.
This means that if you are training for like a marathon, you should train outdoors to come to me into contact with the various factors and conditions like wind resistance and changing terrain that you are likely to face during a real marathon.
No Wind Resistance
When you are running on a treadmill, you maintain the same position-you don’t break the air. But when running outside, you run through air-which creates resistance.
The faster you run, the greater the resistance. However, you can cover for the wind resistance by elevating the treadmill by one or two percent.
Along with wind resistance, some treadmill runners have been observed to spend greater periods of time on their support leg compared to outdoor running, decreasing their efficiency.
Experienced runners also tend to make longer strides than when running outside whereas the less experienced ones tend to make shorter strides.
Some runners also have the tendency of changing their posture while running on a treadmill by leaning less forward.
This leads to their energy being was on the up and down instead of focusing on forward momentum.
Even though a treadmill’s surface bears lots of benefits, running outside on different surfaces and terrains has its upsides.
Running on these surfaces improves the ability of your neuromuscular system to be aware of the effects of these surfaces on your muscles and the position of your joints and body parts. This, in turn, improves the runners’ power, balance and running economy.
Acquiring a treadmill for your home may be a relatively costly investment. While you can run or walk outside for free, the cost of somewhat cheap treadmills ranges from $300 to $800.
However, most budget treadmills are not durable and will fail in no time. High-end treadmills cost between $2000 and $9000 excluding maintenance costs, electricity among others.
Running on a treadmill quickly gets boring especially if you keep repeating the same workout routine over time.
The scenery remains the same which in turn affects your psychological satisfaction that you get from running in new locations and routes.
Additionally, treadmills generate rather monotonous and loud noises which soon get annoying. This is among the reasons many treadmill owners eventually lose interest and quit working out.
Most treadmills are designed to mimic a flat or uphill terrain. Very few have a platform that descends-mimic downhill running.
Not everyone is capable of running downhill challenging the body to fight against gravity. Running downhill requires a greater contraction of lower leg muscles and quadriceps and a different skill set and form compared to flat grounds.
To master downhill running, you have no option but to go outside and practice descending hills.
Lack of Visual Awareness
When running outside, you face various obstacles like cars, people and buildings enabling you to be more aware of the surrounding and improve your reflexes. On a treadmill, you don’t have the visual cues that denote movement.
Pros and Cons of Running Outside
Although most prefer to make their runs on a treadmill, running outside has been proven to have various physical and mental benefits.
Running indoors is practical during the cold and snowy winter months or during the blistering summer heat.
Running outdoors has its benefits, and as with anything that has an upside, it also has its downsides.
Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of running outside, to help you decide which is better between running on a treadmill and running outside.
Boosts the Immune System
Research has it that the percentage of green space in your environment has a positive impact and association with your health.
Exercising in a natural environment is a great way to boost your immune system. Your body acts differently when you are in nature and is stimulated to protect itself from diseases.
Along with the benefits of the physical activity itself, your body also boosts its defenses against diseases.
Studies reveal that grass, trees, fresh air and colors of the natural environment have a positive impact on our physical and mental health.
Other studies also revealed that spending 30 minutes in nature led to increased physical activities and reduced high blood pressure prevalence and depression.
Get Vitamin D
Going out for a run while the sun is shining is a perfect way of getting Vitamin D. When the rays of the sun hit your exposed skin, your body is, in turn, triggered to generate more Vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency is increasingly becoming common especially among the elderly, children and people living in the northern hemisphere.
Vitamin D deficiency may lead to osteoporosis, rickets and weak bones. Additionally, the deficiency has been linked to metabolic syndrome, increased cancer risk, depression, heart disease and an increased risk of autoimmune diseases.
Burns more Calories
More calories are used while performing an exercise outdoors than they are burned while completing the same workout indoors.
Working out in a controlled environment doesn’t stress your body the same way it would in an outdoor environment considering factors like higher and lower temperature and changing terrain.
Research conducted by the University of Exeter revealed that road runners burned more calories as compared to treadmill runners mainly due to the wind resistance that they face.
Releases more Feel-good Hormones
If you need to brighten up your day and boost your moods, then you should try running outside.
Research has it that people that exercised outdoors felt more energized and happier after a workout due to the feel-good hormones such as dopamine that are released by your body.
The University of Queensland, Australia conducted a study and found that people who regularly exercised outdoors had higher levels of serotonin- (a hormone that regulates mood), as compared to those that exercised indoors.
Also, they had higher levels of endorphins -which is the rush you feel after exercising outdoors, mostly in green environments.
Motivates Long and Harder Runs
Running indoors may lead to fatigue and boredom. Picture yourself running on a treadmill staring at the same point your wall for miles at a time.
However, when running outside you see new and different sceneries, see new people, and you will be enjoying your run. By this, you will find yourself running more miles.
A study conducted whereby participants were asked to make two walks- one outdoor and one indoor.
The individuals were observed to walk faster and harder during self-paced indoor walking than indoor walking on the treadmill.
Another study on older adults revealed that physical activity increases when in an outdoor environment that when indoors.
People feel more enthusiastic and energetic and as a result will workout harder and longer, with decreased levels of anger and tension.
A major advantage of running outdoors is that it’s cheap to start and does not need any specialized equipment.
Quality treadmills are expensive along with some costs involved. Additionally, you don’t need to pay for any gym membership.
To begin running outdoors, all you need is a nice pair of running shoes, and you are good to go.
Increased Muscle Activation
As you might notice, running on a treadmill feels physically easier than running outdoors. When running outside, more muscles are used especially your posterior chain that works to push your body forward.
When running, you engage your hamstrings, quads, glutes, calves, stabilizers, hip flexors among others.
On a treadmill, you run on a moving belt that is pulling your legs behind. Since you don’t need to propel yourself forward, there is a greater focus on your quads, hip flexors and calves, and less activation on your hamstrings and glutes. Consequently, lower energy is required when running on a treadmill than running outdoors.
Variations in Terrain
Running outside often comes with variations on your running surface. This may include uneven grounds and inclines and declines like hills. These variations force your body to make bio-mechanical changes that use more energy.
Additionally, there are obstacles that you come across during your outdoors run that compel you to take smaller or bigger strides, side-step, pivot or jump.
You are forced to make little adjustments and to move in different directions or ways, providing mental stimulation and more variety as compared to the normal running on a treadmill.
Supports Bone Growth
Even though the soft surface of a treadmill generates less impact on connective tissues and bones, it also means that not as much bone growth will be stimulated.
In the long run, a lack of bone growth will lead to injury because of bone loss-happens when old bones are broken down at a faster rate than which new bones are made.
When running outside, you are not restricted on the route to use. You have unlimited locations to explore and routes to choose from. This gives you the freedom to select a particular route depending on your moods,
Excessive Sun Exposure
Even though exposure to the sun helps your body in generating Vitamin D, excessive exposure to the sun can cause damaging side effects.
Exposing skin to the sun for long periods of time increases the risk of developing certain types of skin cancer.
Wearing protective clothing and suitable sunblock may help prevent you from developing such ailments.
Increased Risk of Accidents and Injury
Running outside presents an increased risk of getting involved in an accident especially in busy locations.
Without keeping a keen eye on motorists and pedestrians, running into someone or getting hit by a car can easily happen.
You can alternatively avoid areas with heavy traffic and avoid using your earphones to ensure all your senses are in play.
You are also likely to slip or fall and get injured when you are running on icy and wet roads.
Dictated by the Weather
As much as some researchers say that running in the rain can be therapeutic, some extreme weather conditions make running outside virtually impossible.
Cases like storms, extremely high or low temperature and snow will in most cases force you to miss a run.
When you should Run Indoors
When Seeking to Control all Variables
Training on a treadmill is an excellent choice when you need to run under conditions that you can control.
A treadmill allows you to exercise under your preferred settings thanks to the manual controls that will enable you to set variables like speed and incline.
It brings you an opportunity to take advantage of a more controlled environment.
When it’s too Dark Outside
Weather is not your only major concern. If it’s too dark outside and your street lacks street lights, it’s always a good time to hit the treadmill to avoid running into trouble or possibly falling and injuring yourself due to low visibility.
When you want to Minimize Leg Stress
You may reduce the risk or straining your legs by using a treadmill. It has a soft surface, unlike the uneven outdoor surface.
Additionally, when running on a treadmill, you may also adopt a more efficient form with flatter landings, shorter strides and less surface contact time.
When you should Run Outdoors
When Training for a Road Race
While treadmills can minimize stress on your legs and help in building-up aerobic capacity, when training for a road race, you should prepare and train your body and legs for specific outdoor stressors by running outside.
When Seeking to Perfect your Pacing
A treadmill plays a significant role in building lean muscle and endurance, but when perfecting your pace, you can’t rely on a steadily moving belt to achieve this. You need to train outside and follow your internal speed monitor.
When you need a Nature Reset
Nothing beats the feeling of exercising in nature. It reduces boredom, boosts your moods and decreases anger, tension, depression, and confusion.
Running on a treadmill and outside running both have almost the same advantages of running like they both improve cardiovascular health and aerobic fitness.
But breaking them down separately, you will find that they differ in many ways. Understanding both methods of running will help you decide which one will suit you best.
However, I find outdoor running to be slightly better than running on a treadmill given that it’s cheaper, more fun and better for physical and mental health.
Combining both methods in your training will however be more rewarding and will increase your flexibility.