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Running on the treadmill vs. running outside: Which is more effective?

By Larry Carroll

In theory, it makes perfect sense: Treadmills are made to mimic the open road, your feet don’t have eyeballs, so running on one should be just as good as sprinting along with the real thing. In practice, however, it isn’t always so clear cut. With technology improving in each passing year, to the extent where a treadmill from a decade ago would be laughed out of today’s gym, the question is one both timeless and continuously asked: How effective is running on a treadmill vs. running outside?

To address the question, it may be best to make a list of pros and cons. Naturally, every runner will decide on their own which factors extract the best results from them, and which others are unimportant. Much like running shoes themselves, one size does not fit all. Read on and see which points strike a chord with you – then lace up and act accordingly.

The Road

Pro: Being Outside – For many runners, nothing beats being outdoors, exploring your neighborhood and having run-ins with nature and neighbors in their natural habitat. As complicated as competitive running can sometimes get, there is something beautifully basic about the concept of a runner, a pair of sneakers, and a road stretching off into the horizon. How far will you run? Where will you go? At moments like this, you are truly free.

Con: Being Outside – When you get right down to it, how free are you, really? If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you’re turning around early. If you have a bad encounter with a car, a bike, an animal or an uncooperative surface, you might be limping home – or worse. 

Pro: The Unpredictability of the Course – When it comes time to race for real, the only thing you can predict is that your track won’t be one smooth, looping surface. In real life, you’ll have to deal with rocks and curbs, slopes and sudden drop-offs and in a word: Unpredictability. Whether you realize it or not, training outdoors is not only good for your body but also good for honing the instincts you may need to someday rely on at a moment’s notice.

Con: The Unpredictability of the Course – On a treadmill, you can worry less about a sudden potential injury and focus instead on measuring your metrics. You are in complete control of the pace, intervals, recovery time and incline. On the road, you have to hand some element of your workout over to chance. Control freaks, beware.

The Treadmill

Pro: Better Long Term – Have you ever seen an older runner, struggling to simply walk around, and then considered all the hard miles they’ve put on those muscles and joints? When it comes to race day, they had no choice; still, it’s hard not to think about how much better off they’d be if a higher percentage of their practice runs had been on a treadmill. According to one study (Aerobic requirements of overground versus treadmill running), the amount of oxygen your body uses during physical activity is the same whether you’re on a treadmill or outside; according to another (Biomechanics Expert Debunks Treadmill-Running Myths), if you’re running at a pace of at least 7:09 and set your treadmill to a one percent grade, it accurately re-creates an outside run. In short: What’s going on inside your body is identical under those conditions, but the cushioned belt is much easier on you.

Con: Monotony – Too many runners, being on a treadmill is the human equivalent of being trapped on a gerbil wheel. Run and run all you want, but you’re not getting anywhere – and when you’re talking about multiple hours per week, treadmill running can get old real fast. That’s why it’s essential to distract yourself – be it music, television, a podcast, etc. That can create a problem, however, if you then try to run a race without those distractions at the ready. 

Pro: Technology – Yes, there is something beautifully basic about being on the road. But not everyone wants to be basic, and some would rather play with a fancy new toy. If you can afford it, something like the NordicTrack Commercial x32i Incline Trainer/Treadmill will scratch that itch quite nicely. You can incline to 40% (giving you up to 5 times the calorie burn!) or decline to 6%; interactivity speeds up and slows down the machine; a 32” screen keeps you entertained, while a Bluetooth chest strap monitors your heart; there are even fans to keep you cool. Just be sure you don’t get so spoiled that you’ll never be able to run without it.

Con: The Tendency to Overdo It – Even among people who’ve run outside for years, there’s a temptation to get on a treadmill and immediately press all the buttons you can to get up to immediate speed. It’s crucial to remember that each and every treadmill session should begin with appropriate stretching, then a brisk walk, followed by a few minutes of jogging before you ramp-up to full speed. The same goes for the cool-down period – which is a natural when running outside and you need to walk back home, but not so natural when you’re in the middle of your garage and the couch is just one room away. 

Ultimately, the tug-of-war between outdoor and treadmill running is one that can only be decided by the runner. Like most things in life, however, the answer may exist in perfect balance between the two extremes.

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