When it comes to treadmill versus outdoor running, it seems everyone has an opinion. Some runners prefer the control a treadmill offers — plus the fact they can catch up on their favorite show while they run — while others have nicknamed it the “dreadmill.” But is one running modality actually better than the other?
“Running is running, whether you’re on a treadmill, on a track or in mud,” says running coach Nicole Gainacopulos, owner of Momentum of Milwaukee. In this sense, neither running on a treadmill or running outside is a superior method.
That said, one method may offer more benefits if you have a specific goal you’re working toward.
KNOW YOUR GOALS
For example, if you’re training for a race, you’ll want to log plenty of miles on a surface similar to what you’ll experience during your race. As most races are held outdoors, this is where you’ll want to spend most of your time training. “This ensures runners aren’t surprised by the firmness of asphalt or how the mechanics of running outside feels,” says Jason Fitzgerald, USATF certified coach and owner of Strength Running. As Fitzgerald notes, your running mechanics change when you’re on a treadmill, “because you’re landing on a moving surface.”
However, running on a treadmill offers a few advantages over outdoor running, especially for runners who live in cold climates. After all, icy roads can be dangerous. “If it’s a difference between: you’re either not going to get out the door because you don’t want to run outside or you’re going to do a treadmill run, by all means do a treadmill run,” Gainacopulos says.
From a performance standpoint, running on a treadmill can make it easier to nail speedwork and otherwise intense sessions, because you have more control over the pace and difficulty of your run. “You get to just plug something in and whether or not your body wants to move, the treadmill’s going to keep going,” Gainacopulos says.
If you live in a relatively flat area, running on a treadmill can be a great tool for incorporating inclines into your training sessions.
IS ONE METHOD MORE DIFFICULT?
In general, running outdoors will be more challenging than running on a treadmill. For one thing, you’re more likely to encounter obstacles and uneven terrain outside, which recruits more muscles — namely, those in your feet and legs — to navigate.
In addition, running on a treadmill can feel slightly easier due to lack of air resistance. “You’re not running through air, you’re running in place,” Fitzgerald explains. That said, research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences shows a slight incline can help compensate for the lack of air resistance. So, if you want to make your treadmill run feel more like an outdoor run, try setting your treadmill to a 1% incline. Rest assured that as long as you’re running at an equivalent pace and incline, you’ll be reaping similar aerobic benefits, according to a study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
However, some runners find running on a treadmill is much harder than running outside, and many struggle to maintain their usual pace. Fitzgerald attributes this difference to the fact every runner has his or her own unique mechanics, which may make it difficult for some to run on a moving surface.
Regardless of whether you find a treadmill easier or harder than running outside, don’t blindly follow the pace indicated by the treadmill. In other words, if you typically run outside at 9 minutes per mile, don’t set the treadmill at a 9-minute mile pace and leave it at that. For one thing, paces can vary from one treadmill to another. What’s more, we’ve already established that your mechanics will likely change when you run on a treadmill, which can make your usual outdoor pace feel easier or harder. So, be ready to adjust your treadmill pace. “Calibrate the pace slightly slower or faster so that it feels the same as it should outside,” Fitzgerald says.