Fitness Articles

Are You Cheating Yourself by Choosing the Treadmill?

What's Better: the Treadmill or the Open Road?

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When it comes to running (and walking), you have two types of people: those who adore the outdoors and those who would rather have their try at the treadmill. I've heard countless reasons from each type of runner on exactly why they choose to run indoors or out, but for the newbie runner, it can be confusing. Which is better? Is there really a big difference between the treadmill and the sidewalk? Which offers a higher calorie burn? What are the pros and cons of each option?

In order to clear up confusion and settle this debate once and for all, we're pitting treadmill running vs. outdoor running. In this head-to-head match, we'll rate indoor and outdoor running's pros and cons on different and important variables. Read on to find out which type of running reigns supreme for you!

Surface
On the treadmill, you run on one surface: the treadmill belt. This is good because it's flat and has some give for your knees, as long as the belt is properly waxed and cared for. On the other hand, the treadmill is flat and, even with an incline, doesn't give your muscles the same variability or challenge that you'd get outside.

Running outside gives you greater variability and challenge because of the changes in terrain and slope, but if you're running on the cement sidewalks or asphalt, running can be very jarring on your knees and joints. When it's wet or icy, it can also be quite risky. Running on a trail or track is best on your body for outdoor running, but depending on where you live, may not be available.
Tips: For those with bad knees, the treadmill or a cushioned running track is probably best. And for those who love the treadmill, don't forget to use that incline button every once in awhile to add some hills into your workout.
Climate
When you run on a treadmill, you pretty much know that the temperature is going to be in the upper 60s or lower 70s. You know what to wear to regulate your body temperature, and there's no wind, rain, snow to battle. But treadmill runners miss out on the sunshine (and the vitamin D it provides) and outdoor experience that so many people crave.

When the weather is a perfect 68 degrees and the sun is shining, it's hard to imagine wanting to run indoors. But when it's dark, cold, rainy or windy, the weather can really play a factor in your comfort level, performance and safety. In the winter, if you're not properly prepared, you can get frostbite, get dehydrated, slip and fall on ice, or even pull a muscle and be stranded miles away from home. Extreme heat also has its risks. And for people suffering from seasonal allergies, outdoor exercise isn't even an option sometimes.
Tips: For carefree running year-round, it's hard to beat the treadmill. For those outdoor runners, be sure to always dress in layers, and carry your ID, cell phone and some change just in case of emergencies. And to treadmill runners, don't be afraid to get out there and enjoy it when the weather is beautiful.
Feedback
What's great about the treadmill is that you always easily know exactly what's going on with your run. You know how far you've gone, how many calories you've burned (or at least an estimated count) and how fast you're moving and the steepness of your incline. The treadmill is perfect for doing interval training because it's so easy to watch your pace and speed up or slow down your speed accordingly. But for those who are discouraged by watching the clock or seeing these stats, they can be hard to avoid on the giant console right in front of your eyes.

Running outdoors obviously doesn't have the bells and whistles of the treadmill, but it can be a nice break from technology. Many of us spend so much time in front of the computer that being outdoors in nature is a great and rejuvenating break. For those who want it, there are plenty of portable gadgets that can give you all of the same real-time running stats (pace, distance, time and more) for a fraction of the cost of a treadmill. So whether you want the solitude or the data, there's an outdoor option for you.
Tips: If you're a treadmill runner and find that you're always watching the clock tick by, throw a towel over the feedback display. If you’re outdoors and want more feedback, invest in a running gadget (such as the Nike+ sportband or the Garmin Forerunner) to track your speed and distance.
Fun Factor
Although many treadmill runners swear by watching TV or listening to music to keep them motivated, on the whole, most people find the treadmill to be a tad boring—especially if you're always at the gym (or you can't nab a treadmill by a TV). Let's be honest: It can be boring (and a little odd) to put in all that work but not really go anywhere. However, most treadmills also have workout programs that automatically change up your incline or speed, which can shake things up a bit.

There is just so much more to look at and think about when you're running outside, thanks to the changing scenery. If you're in a park, the people watching alone can keep you entertained for miles. Many outdoor runners have no qualms about running without their iPods or external motivation sources because the scenery alone is enough to entertain them. And by varying your route regularly, it never gets boring. Plus, you can run outdoors in a purposeful way: to the bank, to the post office, or to work, while a treadmill run will always be running in place.
Tips: Whether you're running inside or out, run with a buddy! That always makes the time fly.
Functionality
Even with the programs, feedback and incline changes, treadmill running is a stationary movement on a motorized belt. No matter how much you enjoy it, it's kind of a one-hit wonder. The best workouts will improve your ability to do everyday things—like play with your kids or get to first base faster in that softball game. While treadmill running is a fantastic workout and will improve your fitness level, it doesn't mimic how you will walk or run in a real-life situation. Even a seasoned treadmill runner in great shape will have a harder time running the same speed or distance when outdoors—because outdoor running is more challenging and uses your body differently. On the flipside, the general safety and stability of a treadmill will allow you to do lateral movements and even backwards walking, which are great ways to cross-train that you might not attempt outdoors.

Running outdoors is extremely functional. Even when you think you're running on flat ground, the ground is never completely flat. This means your foot, leg and core muscles are constantly making small adjustments to contend with the varying surfaces. These small muscle movements are important for your coordination, balance and ability to do everyday things. It may not sound significant, but it really makes a difference: The more muscles you can recruit in any given movement, the more calories you will burn and fitness you will build.
Tips: If you're a hardcore treadmill runner, do not be afraid to take that run outdoors occasionally. Even if you can't run as far as you can on the treadmill, know that you're doing your body good by running outside. But outdoor runners shouldn't fear that the treadmill will decrease their fitness level. As long as you're getting a balance of outdoor running, you're golden.
Difficulty Level
Treadmill workouts are generally less intense than outdoor workouts. By using a treadmill instead of running on outdoor terrain, you utilize fewer muscle fibers, coordination, and balance and the belt actually helps propel you forward so that you do less work. In addition, there are handles for support (if needed), making a treadmill a great way for a beginner (or person with joint or balance issues) to get fit. But not every treadmill workout has to be easy. By bumping up the incline, you'll counteract that propelling motion of the belt and by increasing your speed, you can get a great workout. Ultimately, treadmills offer a lot of variety in difficulty level.

Outdoor running and walking doesn't have to be hard, especially because you have so much control over how fast you choose to go. Flat, paved paths will be easiest for beginners and people with balance issues, but they're not always easy to find. Overall, outdoor running is more functional, uses more muscle fibers and burns more calories for the same amount of work when compared with a treadmill.

Tips: By selecting the proper terrain, incline and speed, you can cater an indoor or outdoor workout to your fitness and ability levels.
Safety
In general, your chances of slipping, falling, encountering extreme weather conditions or being attacked are probably a lot lower when you're indoors on a treadmill. For people who exercise alone, in the early or late hours, or in an unsafe area of town, the treadmill can provide a lot of peace of mind. Although there are many things to consider when picking your workout mode, you should never skimp on safety. That said, a treadmill is no guarantee that you won't injure yourself. Plenty of people can lose their footing, trip or overheat when exercising indoors.

Because of the changes in weather and terrain, mixed with traffic and other parameters, outdoor running is riskier for most people. While you can take a lot of precautions to stay as safe as possible, there is no guarantee that they'll work out in your favor.
Tips: Use your best judgment and always be aware of your form, footing and surroundings, whether you're indoors or out. Many accidents and injuries can be prevented just by paying attention and keeping safety at the forefront of your mind.

As you can see, both types of running have their pros and cons. At the end of the day, running—on whatever surface you and your body enjoys the most—is the best pick for you because that means you're going to stick with it. And don't forget, variety is the spice of life, so don't be afraid to run outside some days and inside on others. Life is too short to suffer through boring workouts, so enjoy yourself and make every stride count!

This article has been reviewed and approved by Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer.

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Member Comments

  • I prefer to walk or jog outside when possible. Love the fresh air and sunshine whenever possible
  • I like both places but I walk more on the treadmill.
  • ANNE-IN-GTX
    So much right in this article is offset by so much that is wrong with it!!!
  • I am all for running outdoors but no longer have a safe haven where I can do it - think school cinder track. I'm deaf now and cannot hear traffic noises so running outside isn't the best choice. Since I'm deaf I also can't listen to music using the treadmill. I could use suggestions for making it less boring.
  • I'm all for outdoors and that is where I walk whenever the weather alllows. I'm fortunate to have the treadmill choice when the weather is too cold or too wet!
  • Good article - running/walking outdoor is preferable in my mind, but bad knees, asthma, and allergies make that untenable. Besides, my part of Pennsylvania has some of the narrowest roads I've ever seen, making it dangerous. I stick to my treadmill, and listen to favorite CDs.
  • I love to walk outdoors but because I live in New England, the weather changes greatly day to day. On the days I can't walk I use the elliptical. That way I also get a little variety from time to time. Also good to use the elliptical in winter when the snow comes.
  • SMITHNANCY
    For me going for brisk walking is sufficient, running on treadmill sound boring as you are running in a room with no feel of nature. Yes, in nasty weather it will be a good choice to use treadmill.
    "wellbeingart"
  • I'm primarily a treadmill runner, BUT I actually find that my pace is slower on the treadmill than outside. My pace on the treadmill is usually 5-6 mph with a 1 incline. However, the last 5k I ran was about a 9:45/ml pace, and I think I'll easily do a 9:30 pace with my next race.
  • ETHELMERZ
    It's fine for people to use their treadmill, at least they are doing something! We ride an exercise bike in our living room. Do what you can, when you can. Depends on your lifestyle during that part of your life. Only a certain percentage of people can exercise anyway they want every day, with no family or job restrictions. It ain't a cutesy perfect world!
  • I love walking outside but my allergies/asthma does not allow me to do so. I have had asthma all my life. I know my allergy triggers and pollen is one of them. So I use the treadmill. I have a love/ hate relationship with it. LOL. If I want some sunshine I can have a 10 minute sun exposure on my patio. Or take a vitamin D supplement. You have to know and figure out what works for you.
  • I run outside because I like to enjoy the weather and because I have a very SEVERE problem with my attention span. I can't sit in a room and just run and stay there. I need the scenery to change.
    Also... If I'm halfway done with my workout, if I'm out on the city streets, I'd still have to make it back home! There's less chance of giving up on yourself which in the beginning I find very helpful :D
  • NordicTrack X9i or X11i is the answer for all you indoor treadmill runners. Its awesome!!! A little expensive but if you are looking for a treadmill in your home, go with this one. It's worth it!. Why? Because it inclines to 40%! Talk about a hill workout!. And it has an android screen which allows you to watch screenshots from areas all over the world. You are not just staring at a countdown timer or miles completed screen (which they have). You can even custom make your own running map. I have a hard time running outside because I have bad knees. With the cushioned platform my knees hardly ever ache. Here is a link for more information: http://bit.ly/1Df
    yfXy
  • Up front, I completely agree with the article.

    That being said, I don't use a treadmill, I use an elliptical. That reduces some of the "negatives" given for the treadmill.

    I don't enjoy running distances; with exercise-induced bronchospasm, the bouncing my body does when running triggers some rather unpleasant symptoms when I run more than about 2/3 of a mile or so. Further, if the temperature is below about 35 degrees F, it's too cold for me to run; cold affects me more than it does most people. I don't have either problem on an exercise machine.

    Finally, I am very interested in the outdoors, and there's nothing I like more than a hike. The difference between walking / hiking and running is this: when I see something interesting, I want to stop. When "running for fitness", stopping breaks the rhythm of running, but it's all part of the program when hiking or walking. Indoors, that's not a problem; there's no reason to stop, so I go for the proper amount of time, no more.

    So really, the point is, do what works for you, as long as you're doing something.
  • I've used both and there is no mention of the fact that, on a treadmill you're basically running by lifiting your body up and down and the ground is moving your feet backwards, whereas when you're running outside, you are having to shift your own weight along by pushing yourself forward. This to me seems to be the fundamental difference and it's only reffered to obliquely by the 'you won't be able to run as far outside as on a treadmill' This is why, it's Harder!

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.

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