June 04, 2019
Seeing someone zip past you on their morning jog, standing on the sidelines of a marathon, or even waking up early to a beautiful day can be enough to consider putting your running shoes on. But what if you don’t have them? Being a first-time runner takes commitment and patience, and it’s hard to know where to start. Plenty of first-timers have the same questions, and even some more experienced runners aren’t so sure of running’s best practices. One question appears especially frequently in the running community: “should I be running outside or on a treadmill?”
The answer isn’t one size fits all. There are benefits and disadvantages to both, but understanding the differences is the key to discovering what’s best for your body.
If you’ve ever been to a gym, you’ve probably tried a treadmill. They’re one of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that over 50 million Americans use a treadmill each year. This number is up 40 percent from the year 2000, begging the question: what’s all the hype?
The most talked about benefit of running on a treadmill is the drastic reduction of impact on the knees, ankles, and back. Because treadmills have a soft (but durable) surface to run on compared to the flat cement or roadway, the joints aren’t placed under so much stress—often preventing long term pain or injury.
Additionally, treadmills give you the freedom to choose your own running schedule, without having to worry about a muddy path, personal safety, or ominous storm clouds. This brings a certain level of freedom that many people find empowering, and the increased convenience minimizes the external circumstances that make it tempting to bail on your run.
It’s not without a cost, however. Treadmills can be exceptionally pricey, some costing thousands of dollars and requiring professional maintenance. Treadmills also take up a good amount of space—without a designated workout room, it can be difficult to integrate a treadmill as a piece of home décor. Lastly, although treadmills provide more freedom around scheduling your run, they don’t provide much more. Because running is the only exercise that can be done on a treadmill, some people find them more restrictive than liberating .
Unless you’re constantly shifting the incline of your treadmill, outdoor running builds more muscle (especially in the glutes). This is because the treadmill actually does some of the work for you, supplementing that backwards motion of the legs the glutes are usually responsible for. So, when you run outside, the body has to make these movements on its own. Not only does this build and shape the glutes, it also helps strengthen the legs and core.
Whenever more muscles are being used, more calories are being burned. Running against natural forces like wind, hills, and changing surfaces all contribute to the increased caloric exertion that happens during outdoor running, along with the calories naturally burned with the body’s temperature regulation.
While the shock-absorbing benefits of a treadmill attracts tons of runners looking to decrease impact, some experts say this can backfire. Less impact also means that running won’t stimulate bone growth, as it takes about 1/10 the force required to break a bone to trigger bone growth. This could mean that running outside, and the extra impact it causes, might actually make your bones stronger and less vulnerable to injury.
There’s no right or wrong when comparing outdoor running to treadmill running. It depends entirely on the individual, what their needs are, and what they prefer in an exercise routine. What’s important is getting out there, moving the body, and always making sure to use exceptional form and safety precautions —regardless of being inside or outside.