Treadmill vs. Running Outside

Is running on a treadmill the same as running outside? It’s a common question and despite conflicting opinions, scientific research has shown that running on the treadmill is roughly the same as running outside if you make a few simple adjustments.  In fact, there are some types of workouts you can do better on a treadmill than you can outside. However, running on a treadmill does have it’s disadvantages, and for some runners, a mile on the “hamster wheel” feels like ten miles outdoors.

So, in this article, I’m going to show you the potential benefits and negatives of treadmill running, how to adjust your workouts to make treadmill running equivalent to logging miles outdoors, and give you some tips to make treadmill running more “enjoyable” when it’s necessary.

Running outside vs. on a treadmill

The first thing we need to examine is whether running on a treadmill is the same as running outside.

On one hand, with a treadmill, the belt is moving under you and there is no wind resistance for your body to counter, so it should be easier to run. Theoretically, you could jump up and down on a treadmill and it would record that you’re running at whatever speed the belt is moving. Outside, your legs have to propel your motion forward while pushing through the resulting wind resistance (however minor it may be).

Luckily, scientific research has proven that setting the treadmill to a 1% grade accurately reflects the energy costs and simulates outdoor running. Therefore, by setting the treadmill to a 1% grade, you can offset the lack of wind resistance and the belt moving under you to make treadmill running the same effort as running outdoors.

Corroborating research has shown that VO2 max is the same when running on a treadmill compared to outside, clearly demonstrating that running on a treadmill is as effective as running outside. Furthermore, research reveals that bio-mechanical patterns did not change when test subjects ran on a treadmill versus when they ran outside.

Therefore, we can decisively conclude that running on a treadmill has the same effect as running outside when running at a 1% grade.

Benefit of treadmill running versus outdoor running

Because we now know that running outside and running on the treadmill are basically the same at a 1% grade, we can identify the specific workouts or instances when running on a treadmill might actually be better than running outside.

When the weather and footing are bad

This is the most obvious benefit of treadmill running, but it’s important to include because elements effect every runner differently. Personally, I have a very difficult time when it’s hot or there is bad footing; however, put me on a clear road on a cold or rainy day and I’m a machine. You may be the opposite, so don’t be afraid to hit the treadmill on the days you need to. Getting in a good workout on the treadmill is better than suffering through a bad run or getting hurt.

Simulating race courses while indoors

One of the unique benefits of a treadmill is the ability to simulate your goal race course. Many of the more advanced treadmills allow you create your own unique course profile, which you can use to simulate the exact course you’re training for. Just program the machine, or if you don’t have that option, manually adjust the incline levels based on the course map, and you can train on the course any day of the week.

For runners training for the Boston marathon, you can even put lifts under the back end of the treadmill to simulate downhill running. This trick is something I learned while running as part of the Hansons Olympic Development project. You can now simulate the pounding of the downhills on your quads and be better prepared for the opening miles on race day.

Fluid and carbohydrate intake

As I’ve discussed many times, it’s critical that you practice taking in fluids and carbohydrates on your runs to teach yourself how to eat and drink without stopping. Obviously, this can be a logistical nightmare if you don’t plan on carrying your water or gels with you. Running a tempo run or long run on the treadmill will allow you to practice eating and drinking without slowing down. While the treadmill won’t make the actual act of eating or drinking any easier, it can make it logistically possible.

Disadvantages of treadmill running versus outdoor running

While running on the treadmill can have some unique advantages, it can also be detrimental to your long-term development if the only time you run outside is to race. Here are some specific areas you need to watch out for if you’re a habitual treadmill runner:

You don’t learn how to pace on a treadmill

When running on a treadmill, it’s easy to “set it and forget it” and just lock into a target pace. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t teach you how to properly find and maintain pace on your own. As a consequence, you stunt the development of your internal effort and pacing instincts. On race day, when executing race splits is critical, you won’t have developed that fine sense of pacing that is crucial to running a negative split and finishing strong.

The treadmill is boring

For the majority of runners, running on the treadmill is boring. Without scenery passing you by and something to take your mind off the blinking lights in front of you, it’s too easy to look at the clock every 30 seconds and get discouraged that more time hasn’t passed since your last glance. Likewise, when you’re running a tough workout outside, you can “feel” the finish line getting closer and you have a more natural sense of the distance remaining. On a treadmill, your mind can’t visualize the finish line, so it becomes harder to concentrate when the pace gets hard and you need to push yourself.

In my opinion, you should approach running on a treadmill like you should with everything in life – in moderation. The treadmill can be a great training tool and essential for those of us who live in harsh weather environments (both hot and cold). However, don’t neglect the specific skills you need to develop by running outside on occasion.

Do you have any good tips for killing the boredom on a treadmill or unique ways you’ve implemented treadmill training? Let us know in the comments section, we would love to hear your strory.

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References

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45 Responses on “Treadmill vs. Running Outside

  1. Hi Jeff,
    I wanted to ask a little more about using the treadmill for actual workouts versus recovery / base building runs. I feel like your article suggests that, overall, running on the treadmill (at 1% grade) is essentially equivalent to actual running, save the pacing and other caveats listed above. Are tempo and interval workouts OK to do on the treadmill (and occassionally versus more regularly)? I kind of feel like the treadmill is “cheating” because it sets the pace so it kind of forces the effort on days where you are maybe feeling lazy. I travel often and can’t always find outdoor spots to run, but almost always have a treadmill in the hotel gym. I just wanted to get a sense of whether or not treadmills are really a fair substitute for tough workouts, and what is the maximum relative frequency you’d advise using them for that purpose? Apologies for the long-winded question :)

    • Hey Brent, I also questioned Jeff on this and was reassured that the workout remains the same. He did, however, suggest I try and incorporate the occasional run outside using a route with hills. This of course being in order to replicate a hilly race. I was of the same mindset as you in feeling like it was somehow cheating but if you look at it, your legs are still moving at the speed you have set on the treadmill which means you are capable of running at that pace.

      I did a lot of treadmill running this past winter and was worried I was going to lose some speed. I did a half marathon last weekend and wasn’t sure how well it would go since I hadn’t run outside in awhile. I felt great, ran the pace I was wanting to maintain and ended posting a 2 minute PR! Hope this eases your mind a bit.

      I’m sure Coach Jeff will explain things a little clearer.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, John. I know it always helps to have someone who has been there and done that – makes the advice much easier to follow.

      Tempo and interval workouts are fine to do on a treadmill (tempos seem to be easier because intervals can be tough to get the belt starting and stopping quick enough, but that’s more logistical than physiological). Running the workout is definitely not cheating and will get you the work you need. It’s certainly better than missing a run or trying to head out in an unknown and being interrupted by dead ends, stop lights, and traffic you weren’t aware of.

      Of course, because of the principle of specificity, you do want to run outside when you can. It is slightly different outside (undulations, weather, etc.) so it’s good to have that practice.

      My opinion is that if you’re getting a good mix or at least running outside 1 or 2 days per week at least, you’ll be okay. I wouldn’t go 7 days a week if you can avoid it.

      Hope that helps.

  2. I am running to do my police agility testing. I can do better timing running a mile and a half in the inside of the local mall verses running a mile and a half running on a treadmill is that possible?

  3. I do a lot more running on a treadmill that I would probably do in a perfect world but with the times of my runs and balancing a full life, it often means treadmill run or no run. I will pick the treadmill. I have a page on my blog devoted to treadmill running and here is a post on how I overcome the boredom: http://lifeasarunningmom.blogspot.com/2012/03/conquering-boredom-on-treadmill.html

    I must add, I do aim to still incorporate road runs, especially for the 2+ hour runs, as often as possible to get my body ready for the impact of a road marathon.

  4. I’m one of those people who absolutely finds running outside boring. I’m one of the minority, I know, but I hate it. Absolutely hate it! I love running on the treadmill with a big fan blowing right at me and keeping me cool, and I turn on a tv show that sucks me in. I hardly pay any attention to the time, but when I’m outside, I literally count the number of songs that are playing so I have an idea of when my run will finally be over. I wish there was a better way for me to enjoy running outside. The scenery does nothing for me.

      • Hello Coach Jeff,
        This is a wonderful article highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of using the treadmill. One of the best in fact that i came across while searching this particular topic.
        I started running last year and found it to be a highly enjoyable experience. I took part in my first half marathon and finished it with an avg pace of 6m 20sec. However, i had this observation to make, when i run outdoors, after 3-4 runs, i develop a pain just below my left knee and i am forced to stop running for at least a week or so. This problem does not arise when i am running on the treadmill.
        Since, i plan to take part in more marathons and you said it is then important to mix up the routine. I just wanted to have your opinion on what i could be doing wrong and how to correct it?
        Many a thanks in advance

    • Echo what Coach Jeff says.
      My wife started doing a couch to 5K program and “gently nudged” me to do it as well. I had ACL replacement back in 2003 and recently, I think it’s becoming problematic. The first couple days out, my knee swelled up and was quite painful, but after that was much better. I’ve taken about a month off (mostly due to my laziness) and now my knee is in worse shape than when I was running. I have a desk job and when I sit here for too long, when I stand up, it takes a while for it to get nice and bendy enough for me to walk.
      It seems as if the running and pounding of the pavement actually strengthened my knee, rather than tearing it up like I thought it would!

  5. Thanks for the information. I’m training for long triathlons and a marathon and I too was/am worried about the use of treadmills. I run almost exclusively on treadmills because they are easier on my legs — a softer landing surface — and on a recurring hamstring injury and also I can run inside where it is cooler. I live in FL and August is brutal. I believe that if I attempted to run the same distances outside at this time of year I would have to spend a lot more time either recovering from the dehydration and heat or risking leg injury. I will try your 1% solution too. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

  6. At the age of 36 I gave up running because my joints were in pain due to the hard surface impact. Took up swimming instead. At 63 I was asked to run with my grandson, 12, at a 3.5 km running event. Loved it. Started running again, but in the gym on a treadmill. Love it. No pain at all! TV screens and MP3 player and air conditioning and the atmosphere of running with other people of all ages. I am now 66, and in addition to a thrice weekly one-km swim I run 10 km on the treadmill once a week (at the modest pace of 9 km) and I have no pain at all, my age seniority notwithstanding. So hooray for treadmills !

  7. I guess I’m one of the few that enjoys outside . I also find when I run on the treadmill my knees tend to be killing me after , I don’t know why but I stop i more run outside where I find that I don’t have any problem with my knees .

  8. Have an odd situation I wanted to throw out to community:
    I’m a pretty serious runner (6:40 marathon pace), who purchased a high-end treadmill (Landice L7) treadmill last year to use during Chicago’s horrible winters. I had always heard that Treadmills were actually easier on the knees/joints than running outside, but I started experiencing MAJOR knee and hip issues when running on the treadmill last winter. I had the treadmill service agency come out to evaluate, and they said it checked out fine. I just assumed this was an age or degenerative thing from over 20 years of running, and thought my running days were simply running out. When Spring came and I started running outside again (street running) symptoms went away (although, like an idiot, I didn’t not draw correlation between shift away from treadmill to being pain-free). It was only when I used the treadmill again after 6 months this week and started experiencing same pains, it hit me: Are treadmills actually WORSE for some runners than running outside? I’ve googled this topic and scoured the internet, and not once have I found an instance where treadmills are actually found to CAUSE injuries vs prevent them. I’m really looking for guidance here, as winter’s rapidly approaching again, and I need to figure out what the heck I’m going to do! Please HELP!! Thanks!

    • Tough question to answer specifically, Frank but most likely your form on a treadmill is different than outside. Maybe you’re unconsciously scared of falling off the back, so you don’t generate enough hip extension. Or, maybe you pick your feet up more to prevent hitting the front of the treadmill. I think the different form on treadmill vs. outside is the issue.

  9. Pingback: Is It Better To Run On A Treadmill Or Outdoors? - Choices, Choices

  10. Yeah, try jumping up and down on a treadmill and see how fast you can get the belt moving. The belt is imparting a force onto your feet every second you’re in contact with. the only difference between a treadmill and the road is the air resistance

  11. I enjoy running and due to my schedule, I barely road run outside. I used to run on the treadmill at home but would get bored fast and I know a few running partners who would experience the same results running inside on a treadmill.
    One afternoon, I decided to relocate the treadmill at home and took it out under the carport and things have changed for me. I don’t get bored as fast and have been run longer. The days I run when the sun is out is just hard but I tend to keep myself hydrated and feel great.

  12. Good tips. I’ve been a treadmill runner since 2003 after being dx with Hydrocephalus at age 42 and 7 resulting head surgeries including a crainiotomy for a subdural hematoma. I am currently double shunted with ventricular peritoneal shunts. I recovered by walking gradually, building up my endurance, and loosing 70 lbs. I don’t get bored at all on the treadmill. There is plenty to think about such as constant change in form (balance and posture) to run with maximum efficiency. I can stop whenever I want and only have to walk as far as the shower(biggest +). I can monitor my training more closely, avoid inclement weather, and not have obstacles to trip on or over on the treadmill. I’ve never fallen off. The only time I run outdoors is when I run the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run. I am now a six year consecutive finisher

  13. Hey Jeff,
    I’m trying to understand what the actual speeds were in the trial. I read an article today on Runner’s World that said the 1% incline only matters for people who can run a 4:28 pace or faster referring to the same research. Your thoughts?

  14. While I’ve often read about the wind resistance offered by outdoor running (and the need to account for it on the treadmill by inclining the deck), I haven’t read anything about momentum.

    Doesn’t the forward momentum of our bodies help us on an outdoor run? And isn’t it true that we don’t have the benefit of momentum on a treadmill because our bodies aren’t moving forward?

    Dan DiPiro
    PS – Trying to recall 10th-grade physics lessons is one way to pass the time on a treadmill run…maybe not the most fun way.

  15. I’ve been running on a treadmill in a basement facing a blank white wall for about 10 months now. My workouts were suffering due to the increased level of boredom. I have recently discovered an app called BitGym. It simulates runs through various venues i.e. Rockie Mountains, Desert Southwest, the streets of Chicago. Some how by using the front facing camera on an ipad, tablet or smartphone it detects your speed and automatically adjusts the speed of the video. The videos are filled with breath taking scenery and sounds of nature. Each workout lasts approx. 30 minutes. It can be used with treadmills and elliptical machines. Since I’ve been using BitGym, I look forward to my workouts and run further, faster.

  16. You asked on tips on how to pass the boredom on treadmills.

    My personal thing to get through a long run is well.. I play video games, specifically japanese role play games (turn based) as you can pretty much play with one hand.
    It sounds strange I know :) but it makes me run a LOT longer than I would without it.

  17. I run on a treadmill only. Where I live, there are no sidewalks, traffic is heavy and drivers are reckless, it’s usually sweltering with 90%+ humidity, and it frankly isn’t safe for a woman to go out running alone. Sadly, I must run solely on treadmills if I wish to prioritize my safety.
    My way to pass time on treadmill is listen to trance music and let my mind go elsewhere.

  18. I usually listen to music when I am easy running, but when I am hammering it I pause it so that I can be in touch with my physical part. Good info by most of you and at least I know what I have tried is working and will try the new things suggested. Also, the treadmill is easier on the joints which is another benefit.

  19. I just got a ProForm 1450 which was on sale for $999 which is good considering it was $1999. I’ve read or heard that you should set the incline at 1.5-2 % which is maybe why I can’t match my outdoor speed on the treadmill. Everyone I speak to says I can go way faster on a treadmill even when they have the 1-2% incline. I haven’t found that…..????

  20. I have a question about pacing. I much prefer running outside, but due to my wife’s recent knee surgery I currently have to run while she’s in rehab, at a time when it’s dangerously hot outside here in Georgia, thus the treadmill is my safer option. When I set my pace on the treadmill, I try to get my leg turnover at the same rate as when I’m outdoors. However, the display shows a pace much, much slower (20-minute miles, for instance) than what I actually run outside, which makes me wonder if I’m not adjusting properly to the moving belt on the treadmill. Is there a special art to running on a treadmill that I’m not picking up?

    • I found that my ProForm treadmill made me seem faster than on outdoor runs (outdoors I felt like a snail!). Now using a NordickTrack I am actually slower on the treadmill than outdoors. I guess you can know what the treadmill time and speed means by comparing real outdoor and treadmill runs. Outdoor running feels a bit more difficult subjectively still – I guess I am making somewhat larger steps outside (something mentioned in the article).

  21. So I’ve read some of these questions and answers but I still wonder if the treadmill is for me. I’m a high school student and this is my first year of cross country. The official season hasn’t started yet, but I do this summer program and the coaches want me to run long distance with the varsity kids. I can run the amount at roughly a 10 minute mile pace, but I can’t keep up with them. Will running on the treadmill teach me to run faster and give me better endurance? The season starts in August and I want to keep up with them and be on varsity. But I’m not sure how. Any ideas?

  22. Regarding the 1% incline: I stopped upping the incline and just sped up the pace a little. What are your thoughts? I use a heart rate monitor inside and outside when I run and found the my heart rate is the same as is my perceived exertion, outside and inside on no incline. Thoughts?

  23. I am so glad that i found this post..I assumed that I was the only one who loved treadmill running more than an outside run (to be fair i have to admit that i have not tried it many times though, but whenever I have, I have experienced extreme tiredness).

    The main reason I love treadmill running is the controlled environment I get i.e. no distractions at all- just my body, my chosen music and me. I just feel I am in a different zone when I run on a treadmill and since I am not a regular runner as such, I am still able to run atleast 3-4 miles in 20 mins even after long breaks (of around 2-3 months or so). The two main facilitators for me while running are 1) good music and 2) a mirror infront where I can see myself running. Both these factors keep me going so while the first get me zoned out of my surroundings, whenever I start feeling tired the second factor inspires me to keep running- its like my reflection in the mirror pushes me to keep going and my mind relates this whole thing (tiredness, running with no end in sight, etc) to our journey of life where we all are running without any particular finishing line in sight. Sorry to get philosophical…but just wanted to share how I run and why I love running on a treadmill so much. However, I have one question, unlike running on treadmill I do not enjoy any other gym exercise as such and so wondered if just running on treadmill is enough to be fit or loose/maintain weight. I am moderately overweight (10 kgs more than my recommeded weight) and have been trying to loose the extra kilos from quite some time, but unable to do so (again that has also to do with the gaps in my physical activity). I read somewhere that doing the same exercise (in this case running) for more than 20 mins is counter-productive since our body shuts down or something that it goes into anaerobic respiration and so it is advised to keep changing equipments. is this true? and if its is then how come marathon runners are so lean?

  24. Here is my daily tread schedule for past few weeks

    Min Miles Calories MpH CpH
    30 3.00 347 6.00 11.57
    30 3.03 350 6.06 11.67
    40 4.13 477 6.20 11.93
    30 3.10 358 6.20 11.93
    30 3.00 347 6.00 11.57
    30 3.28 401 6.56 13.37
    30 3.01 349 6.02 11.63
    30 3.03 350 6.06 11.67

    60 6.37 733 6.37 12.22
    60 5.86 679 5.86 11.32

    Relative to outdoor running, tread mill benefits me with minimal impact on joints and shins

    To minimize boredom, cover the indicators with a towel and listen to rock & roll (Zepplin, Hendrix, Beatles, Neil Young, CCR or Stones or mix it up) to make the workout go well – tend to speed up the pace on fast guitar riffs

    per schedule above – always go for at least 30 minutes and find that inertia drops off after about 15 minutes (i.e., begin to just roll along in a peaceful groove with heightened energy to pick up my pace)

    tread is a great way to go if you are getting on in age.

  25. Wrong, you need to redo this study you left out too many variables. Not only is wind a factor but humidity, heat, and terrain are factors that make running outside much different than running on a treadmill. You cant makeup for all of that with 1% grade increase.

    most of the other studies including these variables

    • Those are the wrong variables to isolate since they are not dependent on a treadmill. You could easily run on a 50 degree day with no humidity outside. These variables are not dependent upon the treadmill so they should not be factored into the difference between the two.

  26. The body fatigues faster under higher levels of heat and humidity and rough or uneven terrain directly Affects the quality of your run and can throw off your stride.

  27. This article is super helpful. Thank you.
    I loooooove running on the treadmill and it does feel easier (even with the 1% incline) so hearing that they’re relatively the same makes me feel better, especially since I feel the pavement challenging on my aging joints… I guess the treadmill just feels easier because I love it :) …I find it easier to get into my zone and just run and run and run…

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