Treadmill vs. Trail: Which Gives You the Ultimate Running Experience?

August 6, 2023 | 


Joanna Newman



Running has been a cherished form of exercise for centuries. While many have been pounding the pavement for decades, others have sought the convenience of treadmills. This has led to an ongoing debate: is running on a treadmill as effective as running outside? Let’s dive deep into the facts and settle this debate once and for all.

1. Understanding the Basic Mechanics

a. Treadmill Running: When you run on a treadmill, the belt moves beneath you. This means you’re not propelling yourself forward in the same way you do when running outside. Instead, your primary role is lifting your feet off the belt and maintaining balance.

b. Outdoor Running: Outdoors, you use your forward momentum to propel yourself ahead, pushing off the ground and overcoming various resistances, such as wind and uneven terrains.

2. Impact on Joints

a. Treadmill Consistency: Many modern treadmills come with cushioned surfaces. These can reduce the impact on your joints, particularly your knees and ankles. For those who are concerned about joint pain or injury, this can be a big advantage.

b. Uneven Grounds Outdoors: Running outside exposes you to a variety of terrains, whether it’s concrete, grass, or trails. Hard surfaces like concrete can be more jarring on the joints, but they can also help increase bone density over time.

3. Resistance and Effort

a. The Wind Factor: Outside, you’ll encounter wind resistance. Even a light breeze can make a significant difference in the effort you exert. To mimic this effect on a treadmill, it’s recommended to set an incline of 1-2%.

b. Natural Inclines: Outdoors, you’ll inevitably face hills and slopes. This can provide an intense workout for your muscles. On a treadmill, you can adjust the incline manually, but it lacks the unpredictability of natural terrains.

4. Mental Stimulation and Well-being

a. Scenery and Exploration: Running outside offers changing views and the chance to explore new places. This can keep your runs exciting and mentally stimulating, potentially making you more inclined to stick with the exercise in the long term.

b. Treadmill Consistency: While treadmill runs can sometimes be labeled as monotonous, they offer consistency. This means you can have a controlled workout, and for some, watching TV or listening to music without external distractions can be appealing.

5. Weather and Safety Concerns

a. Treadmill: The All-weather Friend: Treadmills allow you to run regardless of the weather conditions. Be it a stormy day, extreme cold, or sweltering heat, you can stick to your routine.

b. Outdoor Challenges: While running in various weather conditions can be a challenge, it can also train you to adapt and build resilience. However, certain conditions can pose safety risks, such as icy roads or extreme temperatures.

6. Real-world Training

If you’re training for a race or marathon, running outside can offer a more realistic training experience. This is because you’ll face conditions similar to race day, from the changing terrains to navigating turns and more.

7. Cost Factor

a. Investment in Treadmill: Buying a good-quality treadmill can be a significant investment. However, once purchased, there are no additional costs, and it can be used by multiple family members.

b. Running Outdoors: It’s free! However, you might spend more on outdoor-specific gear, especially if you run in varying weather conditions.

Conclusion: The Verdict on Treadmill vs. Outdoor Running

Both treadmill and outdoor running have their unique advantages. Treadmills can offer convenience, controlled conditions, and a joint-friendly surface. On the other hand, running outside provides mental stimulation, real-world training, and the benefits (and challenges) of varied terrains.

Ultimately, the choice comes down to personal preference and goals. Some runners may choose to mix both to get the best of both worlds. Whatever you decide, the most important thing is to keep moving, enjoy the process, and relish the countless benefits running brings to your life.