Is there a fundamental difference – running on a treadmill vs running outside? This is the question that divides runners into two camps: most runners tend to prefer one over the other. Some people love the freedom of running outdoors and dislike the monotony of treadmill running. Others prefer the structured workout that a treadmill can offer, with the ability to control speed, incline, calories burned etc. with the touch of a button. If we discard the romance of outdoor landscapes and focus on studies and research data, running on the treadmill is actually not much different from running outdoors. There isn’t really a definitive answer about which type of running is best, however in this article we’re going to take a look into the similarities and differences, as well as the advantages of these two training methods.
Why running outside is great
A good treadmill costs money but its free to run outside. The simplest mechanical model will cost as little as $100, an average treadmill costs about $500 and a high end model can cost up to $3000. To this amount, you’ll need to add regular maintenance, occasional repairs, and belt replacement. You could go to the gym, but you still have to buy a membership. Outdoor running is free – parks and paths are open to everyone.
More fun, less boredom (for some)
Many fans of outdoor running feel that they can’t run as far on a treadmill as they can when running outside (one mile on the treadmill can feel like 10 miles outdoors!). It’s more interesting to see the scenery and be able to watch the world going by as you run, free from the constraints of the 4 walls. This is a psychological benefit, but boredom can easily set in when running in the same place looking at the same spot in front of you for a long period of time. Treadmill training can feel like running on a “hamster wheel” if you prefer running outside. On the other hand, some runners prefer the treadmill just because they can stick on their favorite TV program, Netflix or Audible on a run and have no interest in seeing what’s outside! It’s all down to personal preference.
Variety of terrains
Running outdoors doesn’t have to be harder on the joints and muscles depending on the terrain you choose. Concrete pavement is the hardest to run on, but you can choose to run on dirt trails, at the beach, on a running track, or on short grass to minimize the impact.
Mental health benefits
Research from the University of Exeter found that running outdoors in the natural environment can have a greater effect on mental wellbeing than running indoors. Being out on the open road and getting fresh air can result in a greater boost in energy, and drop in levels of depression and stress.
When treadmill running, you’re running in one place at the same pace using the exact same movement. Outdoors you have to learn to adapt to your running conditions and elements that are outside of your control. Turning, maneuvering, and stepping over things on the ground are all important parts of being active. If you’re training for a race, experiencing the constantly changing terrain and weather will prepare you better, both mentally and physically for race day or outdoor running events.
Benefits of running on a treadmill
Bad weather won’t stop you
The treadmill is indoors, which means that you don’t need to use the three-layer rule for winter training, and you can safely run in your favorite shorts. Your training plan is no longer dictated by the weather, which can be anything from scorching heat to a frost or snow, depending on where you live. You can hop on a treadmill to get a short workout any time that’s convenient and not be affected by the conditions outdoors.
When it comes to injury, there are fewer hazards to running on a treadmill. On the treadmill you can get into a rhythm and get into “the zone” because you’re doing the exact same movement repetitively. When running outside you are constantly correcting yourself which can easily lead to twisting an ankle or other injuries. Also, treadmill vs running outside (particularly on street pavements) lowers your chance of developing nasty shin splints which can ruin your progress and set you back weeks. Most good quality treadmills should be less “jarring” as they have a softer surface (often with cushioning) which produces less impact on connective tissue, joints, muscles and bones.
Burn more calories (probably)
Although there are a lot of different factors which determine how many calories you burn, it has been suggested that on average, people tend to burn more running on treadmill. It can be easier to run faster by increasing speed increments using the treadmill controls. Also, interval training tends to be easier on the treadmill and you can focus more on calorie burn compared to running outside due to being able to control your speed, interval times and workload better.
Treadmill vs Running Outside – They’re the same (almost)!
Many people believe that running on a treadmill is different (and not as good) in that it doesn’t take into account air resistance. Also on a treadmill you’re being propelled forward by a moving belt, so technically it should be easier, right? Running outside FEELS harder with a higher perceived rate of exertion, so are you getting a better workout and will you burn more calories than you would on a treadmill?
Scientists researched this issue in a study that shows that running with an increase in track incline of 1 percent and at a speed of more than 7 miles per hour solves this effort problem, minimizing any potential differences. So by setting your treadmill to a 1% gradient you are offsetting the effect of the air resistance and the belt moving under you, to make your workout just as effective as running outside.
Another study examined VO2 max – this is the maximum amount of oxygen used during exercise, and is regarded as the best indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness. The differences between running on the treadmill and outside were so slight that we can’t take it into account, meaning that both outdoor and indoor running workouts were equally good. As the physical fitness improves with either form of running, this indicator will grow equally.
The bottom line: treadmill or running outside, which is best?
As we’ve seen above, studies have shown that when compared, treadmill running is pretty much the same as running outdoors. You just need to make a few simple adjustments when running on the treadmill. So neither really is any better than the other, and it mainly comes down to personal preference. Some people will always prefer running indoors – others will always prefer to exercise outdoors to feel the fresh air on their faces and experience the variety of terrain on their runs. Both have their pros and cons, but you’ll get roughly the same physical health benefits either way. Running will improve your strength, help you get fit, and increase energy.
To get the best of both world’s many people choose to use both treadmills and outdoor running, alternating between the two depending on the weather conditions and the runner’s goals for the workout. If you’re trying to improve performance, the treadmill is the most accurate way to go, as you can increase your speed and Vo2 max incrementally. The occasional outdoor run though with its natural hills and undulations will help you to develop your own natural sense of pace, which is especially important if you’re training to race.