Running outside or on a treadmill: Which is better?

Running outside or on a treadmill: Which is better?

Whether you run competitively or for fun, weather conditions may decide which surface you run on – treadmill or outdoors. But, is one surface better than the other? Which gives you a better workout? Does one lead to more injuries?

The similarities:

  • The motion of your ankles, hips and knees are similar on either surface. Neither increases your risk of injury to these joints.
  • The energy you use is about the same. Both surfaces give you an equal cardiovascular workout. But when you run outside, wind resistance and uphill climbs can make your muscles work harder.

The differences:

  • The treadmill is repetitive, and each step is the same. Outdoors, you have to adapt to the terrain and slope as you run, so each step varies (this isn’t a good or bad thing, but if you run competitively, take note).
  • When you get fatigued on a treadmill, your “flight time” increases (time when both feet are off the belt), but your stride stays the same. When you get fatigued outdoors, your stride decreases (this isn’t a good or bad thing, but if you run competitively, take note).
  • Treadmill running can put pressure on your feet differently, especially if you already have foot problems. If you have flat feet, plantar fasciitis, hammertoes or pain on the balls of your feet, the treadmill may be harder. But if you have bunions, arthritis or heel pain, it may be more comfortable since there is less impact on these areas of your foot on a treadmill.
  • Outdoor running can put more stress and strain on your legs, with the potential for stress fractures. But it can also strengthen your tibia (shinbone), which is good if you have osteoporosis or get shin splints.

Bottom line:

Fresh air and scenery make running outside a more enjoyable experience. But the treadmill is a great way to stay in shape when weather conditions keep you inside. If you’re a casual runner with no foot problems, either surface is fine. But if you’re a competitive runner, it’s best to run outside unless the weather forces you inside.

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  1. I personally believe running on a treadmill can have adverse effects on running mechanics over time, particularly with forefoot strikers. It’s important to remember to have good forward knee drive, as the belt driving the foot back and causing faster hip extension can mess with overall timing, as well as cause a “late pull” if one gets too lazy with the knee drive. I feel disoriented and less energized after running on a treadmill, and my breathing seems better outside as well, so I run outside year-round, but that’s me. I’m a novice that runs for fun and focuses on mechanics to prevent injury, so take that for what it’s worth.

  2. When I was 29, I decided on running/jogging/walking as my dedicated choice of cardio exercise for life. I bought a treadmill and I also engaged in outside jogging to change it up. In four months, I almost fell onto my face as my knees gave out. Since then, I have been on the treadmill without any problems. I feel 100% that jogging on pavement and rough, uneven, unpredictable terrain is detrimental to your leg joints and muscles, and, possibly other parts of your body. For example, the female parts to a woman’s body.

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About the Author

Dr. Thurmond Lanier
Dr. Thurmond Lanier

Thurmond D. Lanier, DPM is a Podiatrist at Aurora Health Center in Fond du Lac, WI.