Running on a treadmill versus running out of doors, which is better? That's the question we're going to try and answer here today
As is often the case in life, the answer to this question depends on why you are running in the first place .........
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If you want to race
If you want to race, then you are going to need to do at least some of your training on the specific terrain on which you plan to race. This is particularly important for off-track running, especially road-running.
If you’re planning to run any distance on a hard surface, like a road, you absolutely must condition (or harden) your soft tissues and basically this can only be done by running on a hard surface rather than on the more forgiving surface of a treadmill. In an ideal world, you also want to simulate other race conditions such as start time, (likely) weather conditions and elevation.
Having said that, anyone who wants to race will almost certainly benefit from running on a treadmill as well due to the particular benefits it offers, which we’ll talk about in more detail later.
For health and fitness
This is another scenario where you probably want to mix up outdoor running with using a treadmill. Outdoor running, by definition, gets you outdoors and being outside in the fresh air (or at least the open air if you live in a city) has all kinds of health benefits.
At the same time, it can be a challenge to fit in outdoor runs safely and conveniently, particularly on work days and especially if you have childcare commitments.
With access to a home treadmill, however, it’s much easier to find time for running, you can even do it while keeping an eye on the kids.
Hence, if running is your main way of keeping healthy and fit, then again, you probably want to mix up outdoor running with running on a treadmill so you get the best of both worlds, the health benefits of being outdoors and the fitness benefits of treadmills, which we’ll get onto shortly.
For fitness and fun
Let’s say that you get outdoors a fair percentage of the time anyway, so you don’t need to go outdoor running just to make sure that you get some fresh air.
You’re running purely for fitness and fun. In this case, you can be guided purely by your own tastes.
Some people find outdoor running to be a hassle due to the need to find routes which are both safe and effective and with so many of us now living in cities, it can be a real challenge to find routes where we can run outdoors without having to make a path through pedestrians and/or traffic.
By contrast, some people find treadmills boring and would rather deal with the challenges of being outdoors just so they can be out of doors.
In fact, we’ve heard stories of people going to extreme lengths just to avoid having to hit the so-called dreadmill. In our experience, that’s often because people don’t actually know the right approach to using treadmills effectively and we’ll talk more about that later.
To lose weight
If you are overweight, then we would strongly recommend that you focus on treadmill running to begin with.
This is because it offers a number of safety benefits as compared to outdoor running, in particular it is much easier on the joints.
Once you have shed at least some of your excess weight, thereby making life easier on your body, especially your joints and heart, then you can start to incorporate outdoor running, if you wish.
Understanding the basic difference between treadmills and outdoor running
Treadmills are easier on body and mind than outdoor running. This is because they are in a controlled environment.
To begin with, treadmills have running decks, which are designed to be gentle on the joints, in fact as you move beyond the entry-level treadmills, the quality of the running deck and the protection it offers frequently becomes a major point of competition between the different manufacturers.
Even the most basic treadmills have basic safety features such as shut-out keys, so that the treadmill will automatically stop if you fall, which is a whole lot safer than running in traffic, even pedestrian traffic.
This means that, if you want, you can switch off your mind in a way which would be highly unwise when running out of doors.
Many people enjoy treadmills because they can just put on their favourite music and literally run to the beat without having to worry about missing out on sounds which could have alerted them to danger.
When you’re in the gym, you can just stick on your headphones and shut out the world. When you have a home treadmill, you can play your music through speakers and enjoy it at its best.
In short, treadmills are a much more beginner-friendly option than outdoor running.
Of course, sooner or later, people come through the beginner stages and those who are serious about fitness may start to feel concerned that they are doing themselves a disservice by using treadmills rather than getting outside.
As is often the case, there is a certain degree of truth in this but you need to look at the situation a bit more closely to understand what it means in practice.
Treadmills and the wind
The first reason why running on a treadmill is more comfortable than outdoor running is the running deck, the second reason is the wind, or absence thereof.
Running with the wind behind you can make your Strava figures look impressive, but running into a wind places increased strain on the body to the point where it can become mentally challenging.
Just how difficult it is depends more on your speed than the speed of the wind.
If your running speed is below 8MPH, then the wind is going to make very little difference to you.
Between 8MPH and 11MPH using a 1% incline on your treadmill will induce the same level of exertion as wind resistance and if you go above 11MPH, you will need to use a 2% incline on your treadmill to simulate the impact of wind resistance.
This means that if you want to use treadmills for race training, you can programme in the elevations for the course and add on 1% or 2% depending on your intended speed at the relevant sections.
Alternatively, if you’re just running for fun, you can simply accept the fact that your times on a treadmill are going to be slightly better than your real-world times would be.
If you do start outdoor running, remember to set your expectations accordingly and be realistic about what you can do.
Why treadmills are better than outdoor running
You can focus on quality
This may seem like a bit of a strange analogy but stay with us. When musicians give performances, they play whole pieces, often without even looking at the music.
Before they give that performance, however, they not only practice the piece again and again in private, they spend many hours practising scales and arpeggios, so they have the technicalities absolutely right without even thinking about it.
Your treadmill is your opportunity to practice racecourses if you want to race and it’s also your opportunity to work on the technicalities of your running without any distractions in a way you simply can’t do outdoors because your brain is too busy processing countless pieces of information just to keep you safe.
Treadmills are the ideal “safe spot” to focus on the mechanics of running such as stride, arm-carriage, cadence, and breathing and they are absolutely perfect for the likes of progression runs and fartleks.
In fact, if there is one, single reason to use a treadmill, it’s to train yourself to strike the ground with your forefoot rather than your heel. Learning this on hard surfaces such as roads can be painful (literally) and lead to injuries.
The far more forgiving surface of a treadmill will keep your joints safe until you have got into the habit of making the correct movement without even thinking about it (which can take quite a bit of practice).
If you have a home treadmill, you can invest in a mirror so you can see your running action as it really is (rather than as you’d like to think it is).
If you don’t like watching yourself in a mirror while you run, set up your smartphone (or a regular camera) to capture your movement and then make time to look at the footage.
You can make the most of virtual reality
We admit we wrote that headline to get attention, but it’s actually true. Formula 1 has used virtual reality for years to prepare drivers for races, particularly on new race courses.
Now the technology has become mainstream enough to filter into sports which can be enjoyed by people on lower budgets, like running.
At the present time, you can already buy DVDs which allow you to run famous courses from your treadmill (and it’s up to you if you set the elevation to match reality), we suspect it won’t be that long before runners start wearing headsets for a totally immersive experience.
It’s easier to get the most out of technology
We know that wearable technology can be used out of doors, but we also know that the real world doesn’t necessarily work the way it should in theory.
You may have a plan of how you are going to approach each section of your run and a carefully-selected playlist of music with just the right beat for each section, but if you find yourself having to negotiate your way around a tour group when you should be keeping a smart pace to Eminem’s Lose Yourself, there’s really not a lot you can do about it.
Likewise on a treadmill, apps such as iFit Coach will reflect your performance, rather than the circumstances in which you find yourself.
You can split your runs
There are two reasons why this is a major benefit. First of all, it’s a weird but true fact of life for many people that it can be a whole lot easier to find 15 minutes twice a day than half an hour once a day and the longer you wish to run the harder it becomes to find a single block of time in which to do it. Secondly, if you split up your runs throughout the day, you’ll keep your resting metabolic rate higher for longer.
That’s two wins for treadmills already, to this we’ll add the fact that if you go for an outdoor run, a lot of the time (for city dwellers at least), you’ll need to travel to somewhere you can run and/or work around other people’s use of the same space.
With a home treadmill, you just hop straight on as and when it suits you.
You can get organized
If you run an organized race, there will be fuelling stations with water and snacks. If you run outdoors yourself, the chances are you will have to carry your own water and snacks (or set them up in advance and cross your fingers they stay there).
This will obviously impact your time and, more importantly, it has the potential to impact your rhythm.
In other words, if you know that your race will provide fuelling stations every X miles, you want to train yourself to eat and drink every X miles, this can actually be a whole lot easier to achieve on a treadmill, where you can have everything set out in front of you, than on outdoor runs when you have to juggle what you should do with what is actually possible.
Treadmill mistakes to avoid
We hate to sound trite, but if you’re a treadmill-hater or even a treadmill-doubter, there’s a good chance it’s because you’ve not been using them properly.
Here are a list of treadmill mistakes you need to learn to avoid.
Getting on it wishing you weren’t
To be perfectly frank, if you get on a treadmill thinking you’re going to hate it and get nothing out of it, then you probably are, so you might as well not bother.
We’re not suggesting you have to dance a happy dance or hug your treadmill before you get on it, but seriously either give it a decent chance and see what you can get out of it or go and find something else to do.
Staying too close to the handles.
The gym-user face-planting on a treadmill has become such a cliche that Apple turned it into an advert featuring Taylor Swift, but in reality it’s highly unlikely.
Get back from the dashboard area and give yourself space to stride properly.
As we’ve mentioned before, treadmills are easier on mind and body than outdoor running, so, again, it’s perfectly understandable that you may get a bit over-enthusiastic, particularly when sprinting. Resist the temptation. Stride normally and remember to adjust for speed and incline.
Admittedly this is far from unique to treadmills, but it is still a common mistake among treadmill users.
Remember your running basics, keep your tilt and swing your arms in parallel to your body rather than across your centre line.
If you’re too tired to maintain good posture, then you’re too tired to run, so call it quits and try again later or another day.
That’s one of the great advantages of home treadmills, you can hop on them whenever you want.
Landing on your heels
This is also far from unique to treadmills but it’s still a mistake and treadmills are the place to correct it rather than reinforce it.
You can get away with heel striking when walking or jogging but if you do it when running on a hard surface you are going to wind up injured, so use the softer deck of the treadmill as a place to develop good habits.
How to get the most out of your treadmill
If you’re still tempted to think of a treadmill as the poor relation of outdoor running then have a look at our tips for getting the most out of your treadmill.
If you want to burn more calories
Do intervals - mix up running at a cruising pace with short bursts of sprinting, not only will it burn off more calories, but it will also build up your stamina.
Alternatively, increase the incline for short periods to give them same result while providing a bit of variation to your workout.
Increase your speed - once you’ve completed your warm up, aim to push up your speed every two to five minutes, until you’re running at five to eight MPH.
Do more runs and/or run longer - simple maths, the more you run the more calories you burn and one of the beauties of treadmills is that you can just hop on them whenever you have time.
If you want to increase your speed
Do it - seriously, the only way to learn to run faster is to start running faster.
One of the benefits of treadmills is that you will be able to see exactly what your comfort zone is, make a point of pushing yourself a bit beyond your standard limits each time you work out.
The treadmill will make sure you stick with this rather than just kidding yourself that you are.
For added benefit, do the faster part of your run at the end. This may sound counterintuitive but actually it has the benefits of teaching you how to pace yourself (and keep your energy for when you need it) and warming up your muscles, plus you have the mental benefit of knowing you’re on the home straight.
Ideally you want to work on a negative split, which is doing the first half of your run at a slower pace and then the second half at a faster one, but if that’s too much for you right now, just push yourself as far as you feel you can.
If you want to strengthen your muscles
Raise the incline - you know it makes sense, going up a hill works your muscles (a whole lot) more than being on the flat.
Do walking lunges - let’s be honest, you can get some funny looks doing these outside, on a treadmill, however, it’s just you and the running deck.
Move away from the handles - just letting go of the handles will tone your core because you’ll have to balance unassisted.
Take it up a level by pumping your arms while you run to tone your biceps, triceps and shoulders as well.
We don’t see there as being an “either/or” between outdoor running and treadmills, both have their benefits and both can be fun and enjoyable.
What we do think is that treadmills offer clear advantages in terms of safety and convenience and are therefore great investments for anyone interested in running, regardless of whether or not you’re purely interested in the fitness aspect or if you want to run competitively.
If we had to single out one particular benefit, it’s the opportunity to develop your running stride so that your strike automatically with your forefoot rather than your heel, for the simple reason that this last habit leads to a lot of injuries.
We do, however, see this as just one of a huge range of benefits offered by treadmills.
Bonus Workout Routine
45 minute interval workout
|*Incline stays at 1%
20 minute workout for speed and stamina
Katie is our resident Editor and extremely is a well-respected voice in the world of fitness. Katie has a first-class Hons degree in Journalism and is proud to say that she has written leading entries featured in the biggest media outlets including Vogue, Women Health Magazine and CoachMag. Great outdoors and animal lover and always on the go