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Treadmill vs. Outside Running: Which Is Best?

Is Running on a Treadmill As Good As Running Outside?

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Updated May 29, 2014

Young woman running on treadmill
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Treadmills are one of the most popular pieces of cardiovascular exercise equipment both at home and in the gyms. Most health clubs have rows of treadmills all lined up, two- or three-deep, like little soldiers, typically facing a similar row of televisions.

For the thousands of health club runners and walkers, the treadmill is a good friend. And while I've been known to use a treadmill when the weather turns dark and cold, I generally prefer to do my running workouts outside on trails or pavement. Is outdoor running better than the treadmill? Well, there are pros and cons to each.

Treadmill vs. Outside Running - Is It the Same Workout?

In general, you can get a similar workout on a treadmill as running outside as long as you maintain the same effort level. You can usually judge this based upon your heart rate or your (rating of perceived exertion). If, however, you run the same pace on the treadmill as outside on flat pavement, you will expend less energy on the treadmill. This is due to the lack of wind resistance, terrain changes and because the treadmill belt helps propel you along. In order to compensate for the treadmill's momentum, studies have found that simply raising the treadmill incline to at least one percent will better simulate the energy expenditure of walking or running on flat pavement outdoors.

Treadmill vs. Outside Running - Should You Train on a Treadmill?

If you are training for an outdoor running or walking event, obviously, you will want to train for the race conditions, which means getting outside. It's fine to do some of your training on the treadmill, but try to do at least 60 percent of it outdoors in order to train your body for the real deal. You'll be much more prepared for the demands on your muscles and joints by running on varied terrain if you run outdoors. You'll also become accustomed to running in varied weather conditions and learn what to wear for different temperatures. Another important consideration is that the treadmill doesn't have any way to simulate downhill running, which is essential if you are running an event that has uneven, or varied terrain. Similarly, there aren't turns on a treadmill, which is another important adaptation your body needs to make if you plan to run outside.

There are, however, a few great reasons to use a treadmill as a part of your training.

Treadmill Running Pros:

  • No weather, temperature, or terrain issues.
  • Can stop anytime you need or want.
  • Can workout while watching tv if you like.
  • Smooth, cushioned surface is easier on the joints .
  • No concerns about personal safety.

Outdoor Running Pros:

  • You can run anywhere.
  • It's much more functional for daily activities.
  • You get to enjoy the scenery, get fresh air, notice changing seasons, weather, and enjoy nature.
  • It's generally more challenging and you expend more calories.
  • It's likely more motivating. You must complete a distance goal and can't just stop & get off.
  • Most people report a greater feeling of accomplishment running outside.
  • You can take new routes and see something new everyday.

Source
A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running.A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. Journal of Sports Science, 1996 Aug;14(4):321-7.

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