For strength athletes, running is about more than catching your bus or just generally getting from point A to point B faster. When you’re in the market for an effective form of cardiovascular training to boost your work capacity and cardiovascular fitness, it’s tough to go wrong with running.
The most common types of running for the purpose of fitness are outdoor running and treadmill running, and both are superb methods of cardio training. However, if you could only choose one method of running, can the benefits of the best treadmill workouts fairly compete with running outside? The option that’s best for you may be more than just a matter of personal preference.
- Running Outside Pros and Cons
- Running on a Treadmill Pros and Cons
- Thoughts From a Professional Running Coach
- Frequently Asked Questions
Even if you have a treadmill with a screen that offers simulated running environments, nothing can compete with the great outdoors for true nature immersion during a workout. Still, not every aspect of nature is advantageous when it’s time to exercise.
Running Outside Pros
Certainly, the controlled environment of an indoor setting has its appeal, but there is no substitute for road running. The improvements to your mood and increased muscle activation are benefits that strength athletes won’t want to ignore — especially if you spend most of your training time in a dark, windowless gym.
Mental Health Boost
No matter where you’re doing it, running overall has a tremendous capacity to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. (1) However, research suggests that running outdoors may have a particularly powerful impact on mental health. Even a 10-minute jog outside can help enhance your mood, and even one outdoor run can improve depression scores. (1)
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Prepared for Anything
If you run outside for long enough, you will encounter all sorts of environmental obstacles, from inclement weather to wind resistance. Many serious outdoor runners embrace these features, as it prepares them for the broad swath of uncontrollable circumstances they might encounter on race day.
“You have to train in the heat regularly for your body to be able to regulate and become efficient in that particular weather,” Daniels explains. “The same goes for cooler weather and running in conditions that are windy or rainy. It’s good to experience it all!”
More Muscle Activity
There’s a reason it’s impossible to undertake serious marathon training in an exclusively indoor setting. Not only do you need to be prepared for the varying temperatures and conditions of the outdoors, but your muscles need to be prepared as well. This means they need to adapt to a diverse range of terrains during your training runs.
Research backs this up, with studies showing that grass and concrete runs generate higher peak muscle activity than treadmill running. (3)
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“It is a plus to get to experience running on all the uneven terrain that outdoor running provides,” Daniels tells BarBend. “When you are running on varied terrain and surfaces, you use little stabilizer muscles and tendons that you may not use on a treadmill.”
Running Outside Cons
Running outside brings a lot of anomalies into structured training. Many of them can be overcome, but you may not want to have to worry about mosquito bites and the like when your goal is simply to get in a morning run.
As beneficial as it can be for a competitive runner to encounter everything the outdoors has to offer as they train for a half marathon, training in bad weather may be entirely unhelpful to you. If you got into running solely for the standard health benefits, you can achieve all of those while training indoors while keeping your running shoes clean.
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“Running outside can cause issues if you are an individual who thrives off of consistency,” explains Daniels. “Being able to run inside is easier from that standpoint. You don’t have to worry about weather or anything like that.”
Running outside is frequently associated with fresh air, but that attribute falls by the wayside if you live in an environment where the air quality is poor. As such, you could be exposing your lungs to harmful toxins every time you take to the streets for a run that is going to prompt you to inhale deeply.
“If you are training outside during wildfire season, then you run the risk of lung damage due to air pollution,” Daniels says. “The same can be said for running in big cities. If you use a gym with a filtered air system, then that can be a much healthier environment to train in.”
A treadmill is a pure running track with no surprises. Its rearward moving belt provides you with a consistent pace, allowing you to maintain perfect running form as you complete your distraction-free workout. Certainly, there are some advantages to this method of training, but there are a few drawbacks as well.
Running on a Treadmill Pros
While running outside offers clear natural advantages, treadmill training is no slouch in the effectiveness department.
You may not know exactly how fast you’re running outdoors from moment to moment, but a treadmill eliminates all of the guesswork. You know your speed at every second, meaning that you can easily get a sense of what your desired pace feels like, and the effort required to maintain it.
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“The best thing about running on a treadmill is you are forced to move at that pace of the belt or else you will fall right off the machine!” says Daniels. “It’s a great tool to use for consistent pacing and getting in the work at a particular pace without having to think too much.”
One of the foremost benefits of a treadmill for competitive runners is the ability to set them for a steady — and often extreme — incline. Using this tactic, you can condition yourself to endure artificial challenges so demanding that many of the natural obstacles you encounter will pale in comparison.
“I like the treadmill for being able to train for runs at certain inclines,” Daniels explains. “That way, I can practice being efficient at running at those inclines before going outside and tackling a big mountain run.”
Easier on Your Joints
Treadmills are designed to absorb shock. The ground, especially with all its uneven surfaces, is not. Research suggests that treadmill running produces less impact on your joints than the potentially jarring impacts of outdoor workouts. (4) So if you’re aiming to be extra gentle on your feet, ankles, and knees, you may want to opt for a treadmill.
Running on a Treadmill Cons
Treadmills make it easy for new runners to ease their way into consistent cardio training, and that’s to their credit. However, just because you can safely pass your training time while watching your favorite TV show, that doesn’t mean your time on a treadmill is as beneficial as you think.
Running on a treadmill means that you are confined to the same setting at all times without enjoying any stimulating changes of scenery that can potentially boost your mental health. (3) In this case, treadmill runners arguably trade increased physical comfort for a reduction in mental engagement.
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“Treadmills can become monotonous,” admits Daniels. “You are stuck in the same place looking at the same thing, with the same weather conditions. On a treadmill, you don’t get the beautiful scenery or fresh mountain air.”
False Sense of Speed and Ability
Treadmills offer a pristine environment for interval training to your favorite music playlist and a layer of cushioning that can mitigate the conditions that may cause shin splints to develop. (5) Despite this, no matter how strong you may feel after crushing a treadmill workout, not all of that perceived awesomeness will translate directly to your outdoor runs.
“There are negatives to not getting to run on different terrain,” says Daniels. “One of them is that your muscles don’t develop to be as strong and capable as you need them to be to run well outdoors. Treadmills can also sometimes give you a false sense of your speed and pacing, as not all treadmills are calibrated the same.”
Collegiate running coach Dennis Ozan is partial to running environments that directly resemble the environments athletes will face during their meets. This makes him very partial to training methods in competition settings, like outdoor track running, indoor track running, or outdoor running in natural surroundings.
“Outdoor running is an amazing experience,” Ozan says. “Whether you run 100 miles a week or are a casual jogger, outdoor running can be exhilarating. There is nothing like fresh air! Depending on where you live, you can have plenty of different options with regard to terrain, scenery, and distance. The health benefits are huge as well. It can lower blood pressure, build strong bones, and activate various muscle groups.”
A preference for outdoor training doesn’t mean that Ozan never advises using treadmills, though.
“There are plenty of good benefits for people,” Ozan says. “It is at times easier on the body. Also, if it is too hot outside, the treadmill is a good option to get running and exercise in.”
You Don’t Always Need to Pound the Pavement
In the battle between running on a treadmill versus running outside, it will largely come down to why you’re training and your personal preferences and needs.
If you endeavor to race, running outside is an essential ingredient of the race-day-preparation formula. However, if a treadmill inspires you to improve your general well-being, advance your heart health, and get you moving, then it’s as effective as it ever needs to be.
If you still have questions about whether running on a treadmill or running outside is better for you, we’ve got some valuable answers for you right here!
All things being equal, it may be harder to run outdoors than it is on a treadmill. This is because the firm and unpredictable surfaces you will encounter outdoors require increased muscle engagement. (6) This combines with the varying weather and environmental conditions to increase the discomfort associated with outdoor training.
The main difference between running on a treadmill and running outside is the variability of leg muscle engagement that accompanies outdoor running. This makes the legs of runners who train outdoors generally stronger than treadmill runners. (6) Another huge factor is simply being outdoors in an uncontrolled environment versus being indoors in a very controlled setting.
The benefits of running outside include natural running conditions that can improve mental health and mood, exposure to fresh air (depending on the environment), and engagement with unstable training surfaces. It also provides competitive runners with the ability to prepare for races by training in the setting in which those races occur.
The advantages of running on a treadmill include access to a safe, consistent environment and the ability to control the pace, incline, and duration of each training session. Moreover, the movement pattern of treadmill running is, for the most part, the same as that of outdoor running. (7)
- Oswald F, Campbell J, Williamson C, Richards J, Kelly P. A Scoping Review of the Relationship between Running and Mental Health. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Nov 1;17(21):8059.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Vitamin D Fact Sheet. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health.
- Yaserifar M, Souza Oliveira A. Surface EMG variability while running on grass, concrete and treadmill. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2022 Feb;62:102624.
- Colino, E., Felipe, J. L., Van Hooren, B., Gallardo, L., Meijer, K., Lucia, A., Lopez-Fernandez, J., et al. (2020). Mechanical Properties of Treadmill Surfaces Compared to Other Overground Sport Surfaces. Sensors, 20(14), 3822.
- Brown DK, Barton JL, Gladwell VF. Viewing nature scenes positively affects recovery of autonomic function following acute-mental stress. Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Jun 4;47(11):5562-9.
- Bhusari N, Deshmukh M. Shin Splint: A Review. Cureus. 2023 Jan 18;15(1):e33905.
- Singh G, Kushwah G, Singh T, Ramírez-Campillo R, Thapa RK. Effects of six weeks outdoor versus treadmill running on physical fitness and body composition in recreationally active young males: a pilot study. PeerJ. 2022 Jul 27;10:e13791.
- Van Hooren B, Fuller JT, Buckley JD, Miller JR, Sewell K, Rao G, Barton C, Bishop C, Willy RW. Is Motorized Treadmill Running Biomechanically Comparable to Overground Running? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cross-Over Studies. Sports Med. 2020 Apr;50(4):785-813.
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