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Are You Cheating Yourself by Choosing the Treadmill?

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

-- By Jennipher Walters, Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Instructor
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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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • When I was younger, I HATED the treadmill & preferred an elliptical machine. Walking outside (especially with a dog) is great, but I would never run outside due to safety issues. As I aged, I discovered the interval program on the treadmill. I can burn almost 600 calories in 60 minutes. With good jams on my iPod, I'm a happy, sweaty old camper! - 4/7/2014 5:20:51 PM
  • Don't trust the calories burned info on the treadmill - grossly overestimates! - 1/12/2014 1:45:55 PM
  • While I prefer running outside, doing so messed up my knees a few years back while I doing a Couch to 5k program. Between physical therapy and pain medication I'm able to run again with only some pain, but I'm doing as much on the treadmill as I can because the surface doesn't stress my knees as much. That said, once spring comes around I'll start trading one of my treadmill runs for an outdoor run each week to see if I can build up enough "outdoor fitness" to participate in charity 5ks again. That way I'm not stressing my knees too much, but I'm also training a bit for outdoor 5ks. - 1/5/2014 11:29:50 AM
  • Right now I primarily do treadmill walking with speed and incline adjustments throughout my workout. I don't think I'm cheating myself at all. While walking / running outside can be invigorating, it takes more preparation and effort to do so. The more time it takes me to get into the workout, the more excuses I sometimes make and the less likely I am to actually complete the workout. At home everything I need for a safe, healthy workout is right in arm's reach. I find myself heavy-laden with stuff when I attempt to do my walks outside though...water bottle, phone, ID's (in case there is some kind of emergency) and dog's leash (because as a woman, I don't think it wise to go walking alone no matter the time of day).

    Perhaps I'm not getting the fresh air or sunshine that I could be getting, but I can get those doing other activities. During my workouts though, I want to be truly focused on what I'm doing and not a lot of different things at once (i.e. traffic, the dog, what's going on around me or who's around me, whether the weather is holding etc.).

    I think the main thing to remember is that you can't expect to do the exact same thing on the treadmill each day and continue to see progress. You still need to change it up. I sometimes start off at super steep inclines for a few minutes, then drop down for a quick rest before going up to a more moderate incline. I change my speeds up randomly. Sometimes I do things in a progression. But I never stay at the same speed or incline for too long, and certainly not for the entire workout. I usually manage to burn between 400 and 500 calories in less than an hour (I use monitor's other than what are on the treadmill itself for accuracy's sake). So if burning as many calories as possible is the ultimate goal for my treadmill session, then I feel I'm hitting the mark. I don't know if that would be the case walking outside. For me there are just too many distractions and uncontrollable circumstances, and when I'm distracted I don't usually have the focus to give my all. That's just me though. I... - 12/15/2013 10:53:22 PM
  • I live to walk outside. When it raining really hard I walk in the house. If its drizzling outside I put my coat on and go walking. Cold and hot weather. It's the smell you get and all the beautiful things that god made. - 11/11/2013 7:34:38 PM
  • I enjoy running/walking/j
    ogging both indoors and out. I switch it up constantly (pretty much every other day), mostly because I do every other day focused on cardio and every other day focused on strength training. On a cardio day I just go outdoors for my work out, on a strength day I like to use the machines and weight at the gym, so I hop on the treadmill for about 10 mins at a high incline, then hit the weights. - 10/16/2013 12:14:22 PM
  • I like to run outside as much as I can. It's beautiful where I live and we have a woodchip paved walking trail very close to my house. I've been using that to train for my first 5K. It's a beautiful place to run, and the surface is great for my knees. When the weather is awful, and our winters get ugly, I love the treadmills at my gym.

    Do what works, do what you love, be safe and have fun always. - 10/16/2013 8:44:30 AM
  • My walking preference is outside for sure. I have used a treadmill at hotels, but that is about it. Heat, wind, rain, snow, ice, cold, you name the weather and I am out walking in it. I get bored on the treadmill, even if I watch tv while on it. We have just moved to a new location, so now I have new territory to explore too! Another benefit for walking outside for me is all the golf balls I find! I have found well over 30 in the last 3 weeks. My husband and sons enjoy the benefits of that! lol - 8/6/2013 12:51:49 PM
  • I prefer to run outside if the weather is nice. Usually my only other concern about running outdoors is snakes. I ran on our local Greenway and saw one the other day, and I never run at the Botanical Gardens during hot weather because I've seen snakes there, too. The treadmill offers a workout, but it is boring by my standards and I never feel as accomplished at the end as I do running outside. When the weather turns cooler, I will be right back at the Bot Gardens running those lovely trails feeling like I'm the only one out in the woods. - 7/31/2013 6:52:22 PM
  • Great views, I've never really given it much thought. I just which ever was readily available to me at the time. It's hard to get out the house with a 9 year old, 6 year old, and 3 month old, so I would just stay home and get on the treadmill. I would do the occasional walk around the block with stroller in tow.

    I will now consider challenging myself more. - 7/20/2013 5:04:40 PM
  • After working out at home for nearly two years, I've decided I'm totally fed up with being plagued by everpresent constant niggling injuries caused by over training and also too much running outside on hard surfaces. Hence I have re-joined my gym, so now at least I'm able to have access to more equipment that is kinder on my body: such as the elliptical, rowing machines, cycles, and also the vast array of weights that the gym has. Also, running on the treadmill works for me - I am now injury free for the first time in months and am loving the feeling of being able to go through day to day life without any aches or pains! - 7/9/2013 10:45:52 AM
  • I used to run on a treadmill and I loved it. I wish I had access to one now. But, I run outdoors now. It is true that you use different muscles. When I ran exclusively on a treadmill and then signed up for a 5K, it was exhausting. I was in shape, but wow! I felt like I was running under water. Now, I run outdoor, I wonder how I will feel if I ever run a 5K again. - 7/8/2013 5:40:52 PM
  • AZURE-SKY
    The better option is the one that gets you off the couch. I don't exercise outdoors because of the extreme heat in the Southwest in the summer. For the month of June, temperatures were 100+ every day, and are still over 100.

    Allergies also limit my outdoor activities, as does pollution. I used to live in a very small, rural town back East, where the roads were 2-lane, winding with no shoulders. It wasn't safe to run, or even walk on those roads. - 7/8/2013 11:45:55 AM
  • ELEKTRAONFIRE
    There is also the aspect of fresh air outdoors, not just the weather... - 7/8/2013 8:42:10 AM
  • SARAGEDWARDS
    I prefer the treadmill for several reasons. The biggest one is that I'm a single mom to a 6 year old, so getting out of the house alone for a good run is just about near impossible. I have a treadmill in my basement that I use after the kiddo goes to bed. I also have a significant amount of weight to lose and have unfortunately spent the past several years pretty sedentary. I think it's probably better for my joints if I use the treadmill to lose a decent amount of weight before I attempt running outside. Also, I just actually enjoy it - I kind of go into a "zone" on the treadmill while I think running outside would distract me a bit! I know that if I want to enter an actual 5K race though when I'm done that I'll need to do some training first outside, maybe for a couple of months. I doubt I'll be ready for an outdoors 5K after I run my first one on the treadmill :) As long as people know that though, and they don't go straight from treadmill to Race Day, there shouldn't be any issues with starting on a treadmill! I know I'm getting a good workout and have been feeling fantastic lately - getting better with each run - so I'm happy! :) - 7/8/2013 8:31:08 AM
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