The key differences between running on a treadmill and running outside, and how to know which is best for you

Microgen/ShutterstockRunning on a treadmill allows you to better control incline and pace.
  • Running on a treadmill is not very different from running outside, as you will still receive many of the same health benefits.
  • However, each type of running comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, and you may prefer one over the other.
  • Here’s what you need to know about the health differences between running on a treadmill and running outside.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Joey Thurman, CSCS, CPT, FNS, a Chicago-based fitness expert and MYX Fitness coach.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

While experts agree that running has many health benefits, the debate of whether it’s better to run on a treadmill or outside still looms large. There are benefits and downsides to a number of both types of running that are important to consider as you lace up.

The health benefits of running on a treadmill

In its 2016 survey, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) found that more than 50 million Americans said they used a treadmill at least once in the previous year. The treadmill’s popularity is no surprise when you consider the following benefits:

It’s easier on your joints

The belt on a treadmill is softer than most outdoor surfaces, so your knees, ankles, and back don’t undergo as much impact. When you run on a treadmill, you also tend to have lower stride lengths and higher stride rates – meaning you’re taking shorter, quicker steps – which also leads to less impact.

According to a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport in 2012, treadmill runners experienced less plantar (the sole of the foot) pressure and force during their runs compared to runners outside, indicating treadmill running may be useful in early rehabilitation of a foot or leg injury.

You can better control the incline and pace of your run

Want to enjoy a totally flat run? Need a hill workout? Want to keep a steady pace to increase your endurance? No problem. The treadmill keeps you in complete control of your pace and the incline as you work out.

Many treadmills even feature interactive workouts based on your needs. If you’re interested in purchasing one of these treadmills, our colleagues at Insider Reviews have put together a buying guide on the best treadmills for your home gym.

You don’t have to worry about the weather

When the weather outside is too hot, cold, rainy, or otherwise imperfect, treadmills give you the option to run from the comfort of a temperature-controlled space. This can help you stick to a regular running schedule regardless of the conditions outside.

The health risks of running on a treadmill

There are, however, some drawbacks to running on a treadmill.

You can lose agility

Running outside and encountering obstacles like potholes or uneven footpaths naturally improves agility in your leg and feet muscles – and you won’t get that on a treadmill. You also won’t work as hard to turnover your leg strides on a treadmill, because the belt is giving you a boost.

It can feel more difficult or boring

Running on a treadmill can also feel monotonous and taxing. In fact, the treadmill was originally designed in the 1800s as a torture device for prisoners. That may be why some people think it’s more difficult.

“[P]eople perceive treadmill running to be harder even when they run at exactly the same speed as outdoors,” says Bas Van Hooren, a PhD researcher and sports scientist at Maastricht University.

The health benefits of running outside

While it’s difficult to track the exact number of outside runners, Running USA provides a helpful metric. According to the organisation’s annual U.S. Running Trends report, 18.1 million people had registered for an outdoor race in 2018.

These tens of millions of Americans – and countless more – are enjoying the following benefits of running outdoors:

You get a mental health boost

When you take your run outside, you enjoy more than just fresh air. A 2011 study published in the journal Environmental Science Technology concluded that running outside was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, as well as decreased tension, anger, and depression, when compared to running inside.

You burn more calories

Running outdoors requires your body to work against wind and uneven terrain, which naturally require you to expend more energy. Factor in weather conditions, and you’ll burn even more calories to maintain your body temperature when you’re outside.

It builds your muscles and strengthens your bones

You’re likely encountering changes in terrain like hills and even making some turns on your outside runs. These changes help strengthen your muscles and bones, especially in your legs,as your body continually adjusts to navigate the outdoor environment.

The health risks of running outside

Just like running on a treadmill, there are potential risks to running outside.

You need to be on the lookout for hazards

When you run outside, you’re exposed to dangers like cars, cyclists, and uneven surfaces. This takes extra focus and attention to ensure you stay aware of your surroundings and safe.

Here’s how to stay safe when running outside:

  • If you run with headphones, keep the volume at a low enough level to hear your surroundings.
  • Run against traffic so that you can always be aware of cars and bicycles coming toward you.

You may be limited to daylight hours

Running in the dark isn’t always the safest option. You’ll be less visible to cars, and in some circumstances, your personal safety may be more at risk.

If you decide to run in the dark, there are steps you can take to do so safely:

  • Wear bright colours and reflective clothing so drivers can see you.
  • Run in well-lit, populated areas so that you can see your surroundings well, and so others can see you.

Takeaways

In 2019, the journal Sports Medicine looked at this very question, comparing treadmill and outside running. The study analysed performance, physiology, and perceived effort – and concluded that the two types of running were largely comparable.

“There are no major differences between the two at the speed where most recreational athletes run at, even though it is commonly believed they are really different,” says Van Hooren, who was a co-author of the study.

It might be helpful to run on a treadmill when the weather outside is too extreme to run safely or comfortably. Treadmill running also helps you control the intensity of your run, which is helpful if you’re recovering from an injury or just getting started and want to do so safely.

But it’s also a good idea to take your run outside from time to time, in order to get fresh air and enjoy a mental boost. Running outside can also help you get a more vigorous workout and strengthen your leg muscles as you run across different surfaces.

Whether a treadmill or outside run is more beneficial comes down to individual needs and preferences. Ultimately, the best type of run is the one you’ll actually do and make a regular part of a healthy lifestyle.

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