Treadmill vs Outdoor Running

woman runner training for marathonIf there’s one debate that I hear over and over again, it’s whether treadmills or running outdoors is the better option.  It seems to me and this is totally scientific based upon my twitter and Facebook feeds that there is no in between.  Either you are an indoor runner or an outdoor one, and when forced to run in an environment that is not your favorite, you are usually NOT a happy camper.

Is one method really better than the other?  I’m honestly not sure.  Any Google search of “treadmill vs outdoor” will get you about a million hits and you are certainly free to make your own opinions.  You will probably get a similar workout with either provided you focus on your perceived exertion versus running the exact same pace indoors and outdoors.  Most studies suggest raising the incline on the treadmill to 1% to help mimic the changes in terrain and wind resistance that you would encounter outdoors.  Obviously, if you are training for a race, you should do at least a fair amount of that training in conditions you will be running in.  Last I checked, most races don’t occur on treadmills, so make sure you at least do a few training runs outside before race day.

While it comes down to personal preference for many runners there are pros and cons to both methods.

Treadmill Running Pros

  • no worries about safety
  • you can run any time of day or any season without needing extra gear
  • softer surface may be easier on your joints
  • you can watch TV if you are so inclined
  • no weather, temperature, or issues with the terrain to contend with
  • you can run faster/complete speedwork when outdoor conditions might not be safe

Outdoor Running Pros

  • peace and focus on nature that you can’t get on the treadmill – awakens the senses because you need to be focused on what’s going on around you
  • you can run anywhere – at home, on vacation, on a business trip, during your kid’s soccer game
  • more functional and realistic in respect to body mechanics and race-day
  • generally more challenging because of changes in terrain or weather
  • you need to finish your run if you want to get back home – you can’t just stop
  • you can find new routes if you get bored

Treadmill Running Cons

  • some people find treadmill running to be boring
  • your gait is different – more quads and less hamstrings which can lead to injury
  • most people don’t up the incline, thus making the workout too easy
  • lack of fresh air and Vitamin D you would get if you were outside
  • it isn’t free – you either need a gym or to fork over the dough for your own treadmill at home
  • no ability to practice running downhill

Outdoor Running Cons

  • risk of falling, jarring on joints from uneven and harder surfaces
  • may be difficult to get outside to run with family commitments
  • until you learn what gear you need, running outdoors in extreme temperatures can be difficult or dangerous
  • safety concerns related to traffic and, sadly, people who may wish to harm you

Bottom line – whether you choose to run on the treadmill or outside, you are benefiting your health in many ways.  The key is to find which method is the one that you will use, but make sure you get outside and do some running in an environment that will mimic any races you have coming up.  Also, give yourself time to adjust if you are switching methods.  Make sure to set the incline to at least 1% (and some sources even say 2-5%) to help reduce the risk of injury and give yourself a better workout.

So, which method do you prefer?  Any pros or cons I might have missed?


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  • Michelle

    I go between the two. I don’t like running outside in the dark because I fear the “unknown”…and traffic…and people who might want to do harm (there’s no one around that early to hear me scream!). So, if that is my outdoor option…I’ll usually hit the treadmill. However, the treadmill has been wreaking havoc with me by stopping suddenly mid-run and throwing me into the console, so I’ve been doing more outdoor running (during daylight hours) lately. I’m not sure how I’ll feel as the daylight decreases and the snow arrives.

    • Bari_F

      The treadmills at my gym are awful because they are programmed to shut off at 30 min. I’ve slammed into the console because of that. Now I just watch them & rest it every 2 miles.

  • stee

    Treadmill running frustrates me because it’s a totally different stride. I feel like I’m just picking up my knees in a fast manner to not be tripped up by the belt. If I try to run normal-ish, I end up too close to the console and then I’m too far away and afraid of falling off the end like George Jetson. Maybe if I knew ‘how’ to run on a treadmill I’d like it better?

  • Marissa

    As an asthmatic, I’ve found that outdoor running helps build up my lungs much more than being inside- while the cold air is hard at first, it’s better for me. Inside air seems stiff and thick, and doesn’t strengthen my lungs. Since I don’t have a treadmill at home, I always feel weird running with people looking at me at the gym, and I can’t quite focus. Trail running is so cathartic and peaceful, I would take that a thousand times over a treadmill workout.

  • Sara

    I am a beginning runner, translated as very slow, and also new to the whole running thing-started in May. What speed would you recommend for the treadmill? I’ve only ever run outside (usually around 4:30am), and it’s starting to get pretty cold in the mornings here so I know I’m going to have to hit the treadmill or I’m not going to run (jog very slowly) at all.

  • Deborah

    I prefer running outside and actually find it “easier.” Not because it is actually easier physically but for me it is much easier mentally. If I’m stuck inside I tend to be watching the time and thinking about the aching parts of my body. Running outside it’s easier to focus on my music, the running path and the beauty of the outdoors…

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  • Gidget

    I do both, I would rather go outside. I run faster outside for what ever reason, and it’s for darn sure more interesting out doors