Treadmill vs.Outside Running

Is a treadmill as good a workout as running outside?
Is a treadmill as good a workout as running outside?. AAGAMIA/Stone/Getty Images

Treadmills are one of the most popular pieces of cardiovascular exercise equipment both at home and in the gyms. Treadmills make it easy to put in a fast, effective workout in less than ideal weather, and many people find it safer and more appealing to run or walk indoors. In fact, the majority of standard health clubs have row upon row 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 even elite athletes will turn to the treadmill on occasion, although it's more likely they will do the vast majority of their training miles outdoors on tracks, trails or pavement.

The debate over which is the 'better' workout isn't new, but the question remains: Is outdoor running better than the treadmill? Well, it's not a simple answer because depending upon the type of athlete you are, there can be pros and cons to each.

Does It Provide the Same Workout?

In general, athletes can get a similar workout on a treadmill as running outside as long as they maintain the same effort level. And this is where there can be a big difference in indoor vs. outdoor running. You can usually judge effort level based upon your heart rate or your (rating of perceived exertion). If, however, you run the same pace on the treadmill as outside on the 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.

Who Should 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 every day.

    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.

    Continue Reading