Are You Cheating Yourself by Choosing the Treadmill?

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 versus outdoor running. In this head-to-head match, we'll rate indoor and outdoor running's pros and cons on different and important variables. 


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 maintained. 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 a while to add some hills into your workout.


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.


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 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.


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 flip side, 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 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 easier 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.


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.