Treadmill vs. Outdoor Running: Which Is Best?
I was training for my first ultramarathon and had to do a cardiology exchange in Cairo, Egypt when I was first introduced to the treadmill. I had seen hundreds of them in the gyms where I used to do weight training, but I had never run on such equipment. It was the summer of 2014.
High Intensity Interval Training
Due to safety reasons and extreme traffic, I was forced to find a local gym and do a long run inside. I paid 30 Egyptian pounds (approximately $4) to run a 35k at 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) and hate the treadmill forever. There was no air conditioner. My first ‘date’ with a new ‘friend’ that was supposed to help me run faster, or at least maintain my fitness, was a total disaster. Since then I used it occasionally to do some key interval workouts, but I’d still prefer to run at the North Pole instead of being on that hamster wheel.
Now I have a friend who is training both on a treadmill and outside to qualify for Boston, the runners’ Mecca, and the idea of such an article popped into my mind.
What are Treadmills?
Treadmills are extremely popular pieces of cardiovascular exercise equipment both in the gyms and at home. The vast majority of health clubs have rows of treadmills all lined up, like little soldiers, facing a quite similar row of TVs.
The current technological progress in indoor running machines has led to a reduction in cost for treadmills and other fitness devices. This has subsequently resulted in an increased number of people using treadmills at home or at the gym instead of running outside. There are a number of factors which runners should be aware of when deciding on the specifics of their running routine and whether they want to run indoors or outside. There are numerous advantages and disadvantages for both types of running and this article will attempt to highlight the basics of these issues.
Treadmill vs. Outdoor Running – Science
It is a very common question and despite many conflicting opinions, scientific research has shown that running on the treadmill is roughly the same as running outdoors.
In fact, there are a few types of workouts you can actually do better on a treadmill than you can outdoors. However, doing your workout on a treadmill does have a couple of disadvantages, and for some runners (myself included), a mile on the “hamster wheel” feels like five miles outdoors.
Studies like this one1 show that setting the treadmill to just a 1% incline reflects the energy costs of outside running more accurately. Hence, you can easily offset the lack of wind resistance to make treadmill running almost the same effort as running outside.
On the same note, studies have been performed and shows that VO2 max is actually the same when doing a workout on a treadmill compared to outdoors2, demonstrating that many runners might be wrong.
Furthermore, another study3 shows that biomechanical patterns did not change when test subjects ran outside versus when they ran on a treadmill.
Why Treadmill Running?
Changing up the pace
Running outside makes it harder to keep constant track of your speed and level of intensity (however, wrist devices are becoming more and more common). Treadmills have the advantage of speed and body monitors which allow you to keep track of the intensity of your workout. More importantly, you can increase the speed of the running band on the treadmill which will force you to increase your pace. This feature is very advantageous as it allows you to concentrate purely on the physical struggle of increasing your pace rather than the mental struggle to increase your pace.
Moreover, you can try out interval training on the treadmill with a level of precision that can’t be achieved from running outside. Interval training has many benefits, as it stops you from getting bored and it can help you burn more calories in less time by pushing yourself. An amazing way to interval train is to run at a heightened difficulty level for about 45 seconds then walk or jog at a lower difficulty for 30 seconds. Adding this to your training can improve your endurance and cardiovascular fitness while also making your workout breeze by.
Alternate your incline
If you’re fortunate enough to be using one of the newer types of treadmills where you can simply adjust your running gradient then you can vary up your treadmill routine by creating a challenging uphill run. Whether you desire to sprint up a steep mountain or create the impression of rolling hills, it is quite easy to break up the annoying monotony of a classic flat course by pressing the magic incline button. Personally, I like hill running and enjoy increasing the gradient every three minutes as it helps me really focus on what I’m doing and break up the tedium of running on the flat treadmill band.
An added benefit about being in control of the gradient is that if it feels too steep you can just run flat again. You definitely can’t do that when you are running outside. In saying this, I believe that outside incline runs are far more enjoyable, atmospheric and strenuous on my body and mind. This leads me to push my body harder during outside runs than I would if I were running on a treadmill.
Sometimes, people can find runs lonely, tiring and ultimately off putting. Rhythm and harmony can be hard to find if you are outside in the heat, dodging cars, people and potholes or indoors, surrounded by sweaty, grunting people in an artificial exercise station. However, treadmills have the advantage of a stationary position allowing you to watch TV or chat to the person next to you.
If you can’t seem to focus on mindless programs, why not plan your treadmill sessions at the gym or at home around your favourite programs? I have friends who prefer to watch casual shows that they can enjoy without having to pay too much attention. Furthermore, as most TV programs are 30 minutes to an hour in length, it means that they can also function as a more exciting measure of time progress for people running on the treadmill. It’s important to remember that entertaining yourself isn’t hard if you prefer outside running. You can run in a group, listen to some upbeat music or run on an exciting track in the great outdoors.
It can help you concentrate on your running form
Often, the last thing that people think about while on the treadmill is, well, running. The flat even surface and monotonous pace can become tiresome and boring, leading to a lazy running gait. However, you can stave away boredom and make your time fly by really analyzing your running form.
Concentrating on your form will mean that you will be able to identify flaws in the way you hold your neck, posture, shoulders and position on the treadmill as well as any imbalances in your gait and stride in your knees and upper legs. You’ll find yourself so caught up in self-analysis of your running style that time and boredom will cease to be a concern on the treadmill.
While your running form can undoubtedly suffer when you are outside, however, the increased concentration required for road and track running means that your mind and body are more engaged with the task at hand. Nevertheless, one should know that several experiments and studies have pointed towards an increased risk of running related injury for people who run outside in comparison to those running indoors on the treadmill4.
Why ditch the treadmill?
Well, there are a number of reasons, but I’ll stick to the most important ones.
You can’t learn how to pace correctly on a treadmill
When running on the treadmill, it is extremely easy to “set it and forget it” and just run with a target pace. Bad news, this method does not teach you how to properly find and maintain pace on your own. The consequence is that you stop the development of pacing instincts your internal effort. On race day you will not have developed that fine sense of pacing that is extremely crucial to running a negative split and finishing strong.
You can’t replace the feeling nature gives you
I could have easily said that running on a treadmill is boring, but I remembered that I run to enjoy the scenery. When I travel to various destinations, I usually go out for a run to “feel the surroundings”. When I study for five hours in a row, I go out to refresh my mind in the nature. The wind, the cold or warm air, the sun, the clouds, the pavement, the trails, the old man from the grocery who always smiles…you can’t replace that.
In a Nutshell
- Treadmill Running Pros:
Can stop anytime you want or need.
No terrain issues.
No weather, temperature.
Smooth and cushioned surface, easier on the joints.
Can workout while watching TV.
No big concerns about personal safety.
Research shows there’s practically no difference in comparison to running outdoors.
- Outdoor Running Pros:
You can literally run anywhere.
You get fresh air, get to enjoy the scenery, notice changing seasons and the weather. You enjoy the nature.
It is much more functional for daily activities.
It is generally more challenging and you expend more calories. (The human body burns more calories when the temperature is low.)
Most runners report a greater feeling of accomplishment doing their workouts outside.
It is likely more motivating. You promise yourself to complete a distance goal and can’t just stop and get off.
You can explore new routes and see something brand new everyday.
Running should never be something that causes us to feel demoralized whether it be outdoors or on the treadmill, there will always be something you can do to enjoy your run and increase your fitness. Running on the treadmill is very easy to do especially at work and can greatly improve your productivity and allow us to recharge for the day ahead.
Running outside can be a highly enjoyable and therapeutic experience. Ultimately, you shouldn’t neglect running outside or running on the treadmill as they each have their own unique benefits and disadvantages. You can avoid the rain, hail or boiling heat by using the treadmill to maintain your fitness conditioning from the comfort of your own home. Alternatively, you can brave the elements and be alone with your own thoughts, away from the rigours and stresses of our technology crazy society. It’s up to you.
Running is a solitary sport and should make you pursue one ultimate goal: exploring your limits.
1. Jones AM, Doust JH. A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. J Sports Sci. 1996 Aug;14(4):321-7.
2. Bassett DR Jr, Giese MD, Nagle FJ, Ward A, Raab DM, Balke B. Aerobic requirements of overground versus treadmill running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1985 Aug;17(4):477-81.
3. van Ingen Schenau. Some fundamental aspects of the biomechanics of overground versus treadmill locomotion. GJ. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1980;12(4):257-61.
4. Ferber, Reed, Alan Hreljac, and Karen D Kendall. Suspected Mechanisms in the Cause of Overuse Running Injuries: A Clinical Review. Sports Health 1.3 (2009): 242–246. PMC. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.