The Pros and Cons of Treadmill Running Versus Outdoor

by Sally O'Sullivan on Jul 01, 2024

The Pros and Cons of Treadmill Running Versus Outdoor

Anyone who loves running has probably asked themselves at some stage whether it’s better to run outdoors or on a treadmill. If you’re all about getting out in nature, you might love the sun on your face and the fresh air in your lungs, but what about avoiding potholes and traffic, and staying safe if you’re running alone?

When it comes to a treadmill, convenience and safety are big draws. But what if you’re preparing for an outdoor race – does a treadmill have any place in your training?

Both modalities have their benefits, so in this post we’ll consider the pros and cons of each to help you decide how to strike a balance in your programme.

First up, let’s look at treadmill running.


  1. It’s incredibly convenient

Starting with the most obvious one. If you’ve got a treadmill at home, you can keep to your own schedule entirely and run at any time of the day – or night – that suits you. It can make a huge difference to how well you adhere to your training, because (injury or illness permitting) you never have an excuse not to train!

  1. You’re not affected by the weather

Even if you’re well prepared for it, running in extremely hot or cold weather is uncomfortable. Aside from simply temperature, you need to consider sunscreen, hydration, making sure that your phone has a waterproof cover and how the ground is underfoot (running on slippery surfaces has obvious risks).

  1. You can train on inclines even if you don’t live near any

You’ve signed up to a hilly race, but you don’t have easy access to an outdoor training route with hills? With a treadmill, no problem. If you know the approximate times during your race when you’ll encounter them and the rough gradient, you can easily include them at the appropriate times in your treadmill run.

  1. You’re in easy control of your pace and distance

Treadmills are brilliant for maintaining cruise control. Outside, it can be difficult to maintain a consistent pace without constantly having to check your sports watch, but a treadmill gives you an easy way to track it.

They’re also great for doing speed work at a certain pace, without having to dodge pedestrians/dogs/other runners. Short, tough intervals interspersed with recovery periods will improve your ability to maintain fast speeds for longer.

The last thing to say on this point is that if you’re aiming to build up the miles or kilometres, treadmills give you a way to increase your distance incrementally and the option to stop when you want or need to. You can of course do this outside but it’s less precise, and you have to know when you’re halfway so that you can circle back round. Otherwise you’ll accidentally do an extra-long route!

  1. It's a little easier on your joints

Some of the joint tissue hardening that occurs with road running doesn’t happen with treadmill running, because a treadmill belt is softer than the road or trail, and ‘gives’ slightly when you land each stride. You do still need to train outside so that you’re somewhat conditioned to harder surfaces, but incorporating some treadmill runs will aid longevity in your running for this reason.

  1. It’s safer

This point is magnified in the winter, when the days are short, but you still need to get your training done. It’s not just the fact that you’re safer from dangers posed by other humans, but also the from the traffic and trip hazards that dark can sometimes mask.


  1. You’re not able to train downhill running

If you're training for a race with lots of elevation changes, you'll want to train for downhill portions of the course as well. If you’re running inclines, then ideally you want to balance it with declines so that you strengthen your anterior tibialis muscles at the front of your legs. However, many treadmills don't have a decline feature that elevates the back of the belt to enable you to do this.

  1. You can’t train agility in the same way as you can outdoors

You can’t turn or make sideways adjustments on a treadmill, which means that you won’t be improving your lateral (sideways) agility. Even as a runner, where all your motion is in the sagittal (linear) plane, it’s still a good idea to train lateral and rotational movements, purely from an injury prevention standpoint. If you trip and fall, being strong and mobile in all planes of motion is going to make you much less likely to suffer a bad injury.

  1. You may get bored!

Without landscape or a route to distract you, treadmill running for a long period of time can be tedious – even with music or TV. While treadmills may be great for short interval runs or speed training, they can be very monotonous for your long runs.

At first glance, it’s easy to see that the pros of treadmill running generally outweigh the cons. So, let’s look at outdoor running now.


  1. It costs nothing

Simple point to start: running outside is free and you aren't restricted by opening times or availability.

  1. You reap the benefits of nature

Running in the fresh air and nature offers benefits over and above improving fitness. Natural light doesn’t just feel good – it can help both mental health and the regulation of your circadian rhythm, especially if you train in the morning. This means you’ll sleep better, and that leads to a whole host of positive benefits, including improved recovery, better mood, and a more resilient immune system.

  1. You’ll be properly conditioned

If you run outdoors your muscles and joints will become used to the deviations of the pavement or trail, and this will naturally cause them to adapt and strengthen. If you’re training for a race, you’ll want to include as much running as possible in the conditions you’ll be racing in, so do get outside as much as you can.

  1. It’s harder work

Running outdoors is harder than running on a treadmill, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the treadmill belt assists leg turnover, propelling you forwards and making it easier to run faster. Because of this, you might find that your pace on the treadmill doesn’t always correlate to your road running pace.

When you’re running outside, you also have to work against wind resistance and variations in terrain, which means a greater energy expenditure. So, if calorie burn is a motivating factor for you, you’ll be better off outside.


  1. You're more affected by the weather

You can run in any conditions, of course; you just have to be more prepared for them. Waterproof clothing and sunscreen will see you through, it’s just more preparation and faff!

  1. There is a higher risk of injury

When running outdoors on uneven terrain, you’ll need to adjust your strides more than you do on a treadmill, which can mean a slightly higher risk of injury.

If you want to run on the softest outside surface, head for a trail. Dirt trails are generally easier on the body as they allow the soft tissue structure to absorb more, so there’s less impact on your joints and ligaments.

  1. You need to consider safety

As mentioned previously, we don’t just need to consider dangers posed by people. Other hazards include trips and falls, darkness, cars, cyclists, and dogs - ever noticed how they seem to have zero spatial awareness?

The best takeout for most of us is that there is a place for both outdoor and treadmill running in your training. You could train outside for your long runs and do speed work on your treadmill, or simply choose the method you fancy on that particular day. Or even better; the one that makes it easiest for you to commit to your routine! So, if you have space for a treadmill at home, do check out some affordable options.

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