There’s no disputing the benefits of running.
But when it comes to optimizing those benefits, where are you best off running?
Is it better running on a treadmill or outside to lose weight? To build muscle? To build consistency and stick with your new running habit for good?
In the race of running on a treadmill vs. outside, who wins?
Here, we explain exactly how outdoor and treadmill running compare, and how to balance the benefits of both outdoor and indoor running for the best results.
Effectiveness of Running on Treadmill vs. Outside
Your body is going to work slightly harder when running outside as opposed to running on a treadmill.
“Outdoor running will get more muscle activation because your feet actually have to grab the floor to propel you forward, whereas some of that work gets done for you as the belt moves underneath you with the treadmill,” says Chicago-based trainer Jumha Aburezeq, CPT.
(This is true unless you’re running on a manually powered treadmill like the Assault AirRunner or WOODWAY Curve.)
Meanwhile, factors like wind resistance and winding routes also make outdoor running more taxing on the body.
- When running indoors or out, you aren’t necessarily running at the same pace and incline. “Treadmills help you maintain your pace,” Aburezeq says. “You have no choice but to run at the speed the belt is going at with a treadmill, whereas you can slow down with outdoor running and not realize it for several minutes.” For running newbies or anyone who has difficulty self-pacing, the treadmill can be a great way to ensure you’re staying at the intended speed — and maximizing your results.
- Increasing the treadmill incline will increase a workout’s difficulty, caloric expenditure, and muscle-building potential, even if you live in the flatlands, he says. Most experts recommend setting a treadmill incline at 1 percent to best replicate the demands of running.
- “You might be more willing to run longer outdoors since there are more distractions to get your mind off of the total run time,” explains Cody Braun, CPT, assistant manager of fitness at Beachbody. Do that, and you’re most likely going to get more out of running on treadmill vs outside.
Injury Risk When Running on Treadmill vs. Outside
In the short term, treadmills come with a lower risk of injury in the short term.
A treadmill provides a softer running surface compared to the pavement, reducing overall impact on the joints and bones.
For runners with existing joint issues, or anyone just getting started with running, that’s a good thing. (Learn how to start running with these nine running tips for beginners.)
The unpredictability of outdoor terrain, paired with downhill runs (not possible on the treadmill) may also increase the risk of hurting your knee, ankle, and foot while running.
- When properly progressed to, the impact of running on hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt may help build bone mineral density even better than resistance training, according to research from the University of Missouri.
- Running on uneven or winding surfaces, “you use different stabilizing muscles around your hips, knees, and ankles to keep you balanced, which improves your proprioception and joint stability to lead to a lower risk of injury over time,” Aburezeq says.
Enjoyment and Adherence When Running on a Treadmill vs Outside
The best type of running is the one you actually enjoy doing, right?
When it comes to the fun factor, there’s a reason that many people call the treadmill the “dreadmill.”
After all, when it comes to running on treadmill vs outside, moving al fresco tends to cary a lower rate of perceived exertion. No matter how much more difficult running outside actually is, it often seems like the easier way to run.
Research also shows that outdoor exercise tends to be more enjoyable than indoor exercise, and is linked to greater feelings of physical and mental wellbeing, which makes it more likely you’ll stick with it.
- heatwaves and blizzard advisories When the outdoor elements aren’t conducive to a run, treadmill running takes the lead as the way-more-fun option.
- Many newer treadmills, such as the NordicTrack Commercial and T Series, come equipped with on-demand video classes and virtual outdoor routes, making indoor running a lot more fun than it used to be.
The Bottom Line
In the competition of running on a treadmill vs outside, your best bet is neither one nor the other — it’s both.
Take advantage of the strengths of each type of running, and you’ll have a more effective, safer, and more fun running routine than would be possible with a strictly inside-or-out approach.