Which is More Effective? Running Outside vs. on a Treadmill?

The burning question is which is more effective? Running outside vs. on a treadmill? While running outdoors can improve stability by forcing you to navigate your way to your desired destination, a treadmill forces you to sustain speed and performance levels that might otherwise lag outdoors. 

Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer, both methods have their pros and cons based on your individual training needs and goals. 

Here is a breakdown of the both to help you decide which is more effective for you!

The benefits of using a treadmill include the following:
  • There are no weather and temperature constraints. Running in inclement weather is uncomfortable, even if you dress for it. And it's risky to run on snow and ice. In hot weather, there is a risk of dehydration or heat exhaustion. Running on a treadmill will help avoid these risks. 
  • You can control your pace. Outside, it can be difficult to maintain consistent pace. For this reason, treadmill training can be a good solution if you are coming back from an injury. The treadmill makes it easy to track your mileage and pace. 
  • You can simulate (some) race conditions. If you're training for a hilly marathon, you can run hills on the treadmill even if you don't have access to a training route with hills. 
  • The smooth, cushioned surface is easier on the joints. Treadmills offer better shock absorption than pavement, which means less stress on the ankles and knees. When you run at an incline on the treadmill, you build strength and endurance like you would running hills outside. But you don't have to run downhill, which can be harsh on your body. 

Outside Running

Benefits of running outside include:

  • You don't need a gym membership. Running outside is free and you aren't constricted by a gym's schedule or the availability of the machines. 
  • It allows you to enjoy and get your breath of fresh air. Some research has even shown that exercise is more enjoyable when it's done outside. Running outside will help you get some natural daylight that can also enhance your overall mood. 
  • It builds your bones. Weight-bearing, high-impact exercise like running builds bone mineral density, a measure of how strong bones are. One small study showed it to be more effective than cycling. 
  • It can be motivating to complete a distance goal outside. Even if you're not motivated, you still have to complete your route to get home.

What's important when reaching your end goal is perceived effort. Athletes can get the same workout whether running on a treadmill or outside as long as they maintain the same effort level. But “effort,” in and of itself, is a highly variable measure. 

Clinically speaking, effort is based not only on your heart rate but on a phenomenon known as perceived exertion. Perceived exertion refers specifically to how "hard" you consider an activity to be, in perspective of how your body responds to that activity.

Perceived exertion matters because we tend to give up sooner if something is perceived to be difficult. This psychological component can influence how much we get out of one exercise compared to the next. 

The Bottom Line

If your sole intention is to meet and maintain your cardiovascular fitness goals, a treadmill may be all that you need. On the other hand, when training for a race event, you will clearly benefit from running outside. While you can incorporate treadmill running to improve your cardio health, limit it to no more than 40% of your overall training.

Book a call with our Wellness Coordinator to learn more