Treadmill vs. Running Outside

treadmill-vs-outsideIs 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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30 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.

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