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When it comes to the treadmill and outdoor running debate, every runner has an opinion. Both options certainly come with pro’s and con’s, so one should use these observations to decide which method of running is better for his or her goals.

Location

  • The treadmill can be convenient because you do not have to leave the home. If you have kids, this is particularly important.
  • You are guaranteed to find more challenging terrain outdoors. On varied terrain, the body is constantly making small muscle adjustments, which engages various muscle groups throughout the body.
  • Running outside allows you to change up your route. You may even run into friends or neighbors along the way.
  • A downside of running outdoors is that you have to be aware of cars and people. Running outdoors demands a type of focus that the treadmill does not require.

Pace

  • When it comes to pace, the treadmill with have a huge effect. Some people love that a treadmill allows you to choose a specific pace that the machine will keep consistent.
  • This can be very useful if you are trying to do runs that require specific pace changes, such as intervals, but it also means that the machine is pushing you rather than your own mind
  • On the other hand, many treadmills can’t reach an effective sprint because the highest speed caps off before a typical sprint pace. If you are trying to get sprints into your workout, the treadmill isn’t likely to be very helpful.

Hills

  • Another helpful aspect of the treadmill is that the incline feature allows you to get a hill workout without actually finding a long hill.
  • This is particularly useful if you live in a flat area where hills are hard to come by. Unfortunately, you can never practice running downhill on a treadmill because the inclines only allow for an upward grade.
  • If you are training for a race with notable downhills, you are going to want to get some real downhill training in.

Injury and muscles

  • Treadmills don’t engage all the muscles that road running does because the belt moves beneath your feet. Because the belt is moving while you step on it, your hamstrings don’t get used as much as they otherwise would. This will leave them weaker than they would be if you ran on the roads instead.
  • On the other hand, the treadmill is often padded, so it can help you avoid joint injury. If you are prone to injury, the treadmill may be more protective than road running.

Climate

  • If you are running on a treadmill, you control the lights and the temperature.
  • While running on a treadmill inside, you will lack the fresh air that you would find outside.
  • Wind resistance, which can only be experienced when running outside, can aid your workout by making it a bit more challenging.
  • The weather outside can be unpredictable. Snow and rain can pose slipping dangers, and extreme heat can leave you dehydrated and sunburned.
  • Daylight may limit your ability to get out for a run if you plan on running outside.

Enjoyment

Beyond just those pro’s and con’s, there are a few enjoyment-based points to look at. Unsurprisingly, the treadmill can get boring. In fact, it is often compared to a human hamster wheel.

Running outside is much more interesting and full of distractions. Studies have shown that most people find running outdoors to be more interesting, and those people say that they are more likely than treadmill runners to participate again.

Calories

  • For the average person running at 5 to 9 mph, some research shows that outdoor running burns up to 5 percent more calories, while other studies show no difference. But if you're running at a quick pace -- faster than 10 mph (6 minutes per mile) -- you may be burning up to 10 percent more calories when you run outside, compared with running the same speed on a treadmill.
  • Running on a treadmill is somewhat easier physically because the ground is being pulled underneath your feet and there's no wind resistance, so that may explain the difference in the amount of calories burned.
  • The faster you run outside, the harder you're working against wind resistance. If you want to better simulate outdoor running conditions on the treadmill, you can set your treadmill at a 1% incline.

My opinion: Run outside

  • I personally prefer to go outside for a run. Seeing the daylight is a boost of motivation, and the changes in terrain and surrounding keep your run interesting.
  • If you are training for a road race (or a trail race) runs outside become especially important because you want to train in the environment in which you will be competing.
  • At the end of the day, where you run is really up to you. Mixing it up and doing a few days of each may even be your best bet.

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Written by Katie Carsky , B.S. in Medical Humanities from Boston College | MD/MPH candidate at Tulane University School of Medicine
Katie runs everything from road 5K’s to trail 50K ultramarathons, and she is the captain of Eagles Club XC at Boston College. She enjoys using research to make comprehensible articles for readers.

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