Treadmill vs. Running Outside: Which Is the Better Workout?

What's the best way to get out (or in) and log your miles?

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Running's simplicity is a big a big part of its appeal. Still, there are some questions that pop up that can cause some debate amongst running's faithful followers.

Discussions on which shoes to run in or which smart device is best for tracking mileage can get heated at times, but no running question sparks more debate than: "What's better, outdoor or treadmill running?"

Any running scenario, regardless of an indoor or outdoor environment, can be great for getting in a cardio session, and each discipline definitely has its perks. Let's lace up and head out — err in — to settle this dispute once and for all.

Running Outside — The Pros

There's endless variety.

Running outside requires a lot more navigation than running on a treadmill. Instead of running straight ahead for a set amount of time, if you run any route — on a track, on a trail or simply on the road — you will undoubtedly need to turn or change direction at some point along your route. Additionally, you're more likely to traverse varying terrain, inclines, declines and structures like cars, fellow runners and other obstacles.

While these variables can feel like a negative, but they're actually good for training purposes. Navigating turns, changing lanes and passing oncoming obstacles can better work your lateral stabilizers in the knees, hips and ankles. This can help strengthen your stride more so than simply running straight ahead. Additionally, you can work on other factors like pace management, stride change, footstrike and other skills to make your runs more efficient — and beneficial if you have an upcoming race or marathon on your calendar.

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Being outside is good for your brain.

When you run outside, you're not just benefitting from a great cardiovascular workout — you're also reaping the health benefits that come from nature. Fresh air and vitamin D from the sun can improve your overall well-being, and there's plenty of mental aspects that one can improve with a simple outdoor jaunt. A 2017 study published in Frontiers of Psychology states outdoor training may help reduce anxiety, relieve stress and improve cognitive function.

Running outside can also be a great excuse to escape your everyday grind. With enjoyable scenery — and the occasional animal encounter — you're able to unplug for a little, disconnecting from the world for as long as your route takes. For those of us working from home, it can help to get out for a while, instead of just changing views from the computer monitor to the treadmill screen.

Outdoor running may burn more calories.

There's no concrete evidence saying outdoor running objectively burns more calories than running on a treadmill, but if you think in terms of perceived exertion, you're likely to favor the outside. For one, you need to deal with things like wind resistance, temperature and changing terrains, which require a little more effort to push through than the controlled environment of running indoors. These elements can force your body to work harder, and they're less avoidable than, say, toggling your treadmill's settings or changing the thermostat.

You're also more inclined to run further outside than you are indoors. You're essentially exploring as you train, looking around at newfound sights and scenery — or taking a wrong turn and adding a mile to your route. When you run on a treadmill, you can be less motivated about what's ahead since your scenery never changes, focusing more on hitting a mileage or time total without that sense of intrigue.

Running Outside — The Cons

Weather is an issue.

As you probably expected, the weather and time of day can be huge influences on your interest in outdoor running. While there are plenty of running jackets and footwear options to help you navigate less than ideal conditions, the thought of trudging through a rainstorm or pacing through snowfall isn't appealing to most, especially when you can comfortably train indoors.

Additionally, unless you're comfortable with your route and have the proper equipment, you need to plan your outdoor runs in accordance with daylight. While nighttime running is possible, you're less visible to oncoming cars and other passers by. Plus, you're probably more comfortable with pre-planned routes when seeing them in the daytime — think about how easy it is to drive around your neighborhood during the day as opposed to the evening.

It's harder to control your pace outdoors.

Because you're changing directions, stopping for traffic, dealing with the elements and other factors, it can be difficult to maintain a desired pace when running outside. While you can monitor your stats through a smartwatch, fitness tracker or other device, your data points aren't directly in front of you like they are on a treadmill. If you're not constantly monitoring these numbers, it can be difficult to maintain a desired speed or heart rate without plenty of practice and route knowledge. Even then, especially for athletes running in a city environment, it's near impossible to plan for a rogue red light or packed sidewalk.

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Road running can be harder on your joints.

Running is a load-bearing workout that can put a lot of stress on the body, and the surface you run on plays an important role in just how impactful those stresses can be. While running shoes have come a long way, providing comfort and cushioning underfoot for a more enjoyable running experience, you're still pounding the hard, solid pavement or uneven trailway with each step. This impact can put more strain on your knees, ankle and hips, causing discomfort especially for those unaccustomed to running or those taking on longer routes. While you can alleviate some of this joint stress by running outside on softer trails or grass, not everyone has access to these surfaces.

Running on a Treadmill — The Pros

Hot? Rainy? No problem.

The best thing about treadmill running is that is can be done at any time of day without fear of overcast or inclement weather. You're able to comfortably log your miles from a well-sheltered room — no running jackets or headlamps required. You even have the power of setting the temperature to your liking if running on your at-home treadmill, giving you complete control of your running conditions.

The convenience doesn't stop at just the weather, though, when it comes to treadmill running. Because you're not off on a distant trail or blocks from your home base, you're able to multi-task, in a sense, without needing to set aside separate time for your training. If you're treadmill running at your local gym, you're able to pair your miles with a solid strength training or CrossFit workout without making separate trips or planning multiple training sessions. When treadmill running at home, you can get dinner started, monitor the kids, keep track of work duties and more chores that would otherwise need rescheduled to accommodate an outdoor run. Is it full-blown multi-tasking? No, but hopping off a treadmill to answer an email or stir a pot is much easier than re-routing your outdoor jog.

Controlling your pace is a breeze.

When you run outside, you need to consider how the elements affect your pace. If you want to run an unbroken length without any stops or changes, you need to choose your routes wisely — and pray you don't hit a stoplight.

All those variables go out the window when running on a treadmill. You're in full control of the belt's speed and incline, allowing for unbothered pacing throughout your entire jog. If you want to speed up or slow down, all that's required is a few toggles of the settings.

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Treadmills are easier on your joints.

The vast majority of today's top treadmills feature cushioned running decks that are better suited for absorbing the shock and impact of each footstrike. This can create a softer landing under each step, taking away some of the discomfort you may feel in your joints.

While you can't eliminate all of the load-bearing movements of running, these softer running decks can help lessen the blow, which is why treadmill running is favored by those with sensitive joints, as well as those coming back from an injury. The constant deck surface is also great for newcomers, since you don't have to worry about uneven terrain or changing direction.

Running on a Treadmill — The Cons

There's limited variety in your routes and training.

While running on a treadmill is a great way to tally your miles indoors, it's just that — running indoors. You're locked into straightforward strides without any deviation or change of direction. If you're just wanting to get a run in, this can be more than suitable, but if you're training for a road race or want some sense of lateral movement, you're often left wanting more.

Additionally, treadmill running doesn't give much variety in terms of ascensions and descents. Most of today's treadmills allow you change the incline of the deck, which gives some sense of options, but the change takes a little while to set and is certainly not as smooth as conquering a rolling hill or angled sidewalk outside. Also, unless you have a premium treadmill, you're unable to train downhill running on the popular fitness equipment.

Treadmill running can get boring quickly.

An easy way to describe running outside vs. treadmill running is to see it through the eyes of your pet. Outdoor running is like a trip to the dog park — plenty of room to roam and a lot of ground to explore. Treadmill running, on the other hand, is a hamster wheel — the same track, the same spot. Round and round until the training has ended.

The lack of scenery and changing environment can begin to lose its luster when treadmill running, despite the convenient nature of running at home. Even if you try to dress up the experience with your favorite music or television show in the background, the monotonous process without forward progress can begin to turn stale. There's a sense of excitement that comes with running outside, especially when trying new routes, but to get that same sense of interest from treadmill running, you need to be really focused on your motivation — or prepare to start moving your treadmill from room to room to shake things up.

Treadmills are an expensive, large, and occasionally dangerous.

Running is a simple activity that doesn't require a lot of investment. Yeah, premium running shoes and apparel can begin to add up, but you're more than capable of building a well-rounded setup for less than a few hundred dollars. If you wan't to try your hand — err, foot — at treadmill running, though, expect to invest a lot more. Most treadmills can cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, racking up quite the costs for a workout that's essentially free by normal standards.

Another factor to consider with treadmill running is the footprint of the equipment itself. Treadmills can be large, cumbersome structures that take up a good chunk of space in a room. If you desire to run indoors, this is another factor to consider. Some models do fold up for easier storage, though, which alleviates some of the headache.

Lastly, while you don't have to deal with safety factors like visibility and oncoming cars when treadmill running, they're still some risks associated with the discipline. Because of the moving belts and motors, you need to pay attention to the device, especially with pets and children in the household. Treadmills can pose serious risks — more than 22,000 individuals were treated for treadmill-related incidents in 2019 alone, according to The Washington Post.

caucasian adult man running on a treadmill in the gym next to a large window
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Running on a Treadmill vs. Outside — The Verdict

There's no right or wrong answer to this debate. The best running discipline is the one that you're most comfortable in. If you like to explore nature, get away from your day and don't mind the occasional change of direction, running outside is the way to go. If you want to just get your miles in without having to plan according to the weather, or just want a new cardio-related training tool for at-home workouts, consider investing in a treadmill. For me, outdoor running has too many benefits to ignore, no matter the convenience treadmills offer.

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