Treadmill vs. Outside Running: Which Is More Beneficial?

Does running on a treadmill give you a better workout than running outdoors? Lace up your running shoes — here's what experts have to say.

Outdoor Running Vs Treadmill Running
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You've laid out your favorite workout outfit, double-knotted your most supportive sneakers, and meticulously crafted the perfect running playlist while charging your headphones. Now all that's left to do is make one important decision: Should you run on a treadmill, or outside in the fresh air?

No matter where you choose to take your cardio, running has several benefits for your physical health. Running for up to just 10 minutes a day is associated with a much lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and running also strengthens your lower body and your core and improves your bone density, as Shape previously reported. On the mental health side, running releases endorphins (aka the feel-good hormones that can boost your mood) and might even help treat anxiety or depression.

Despite all these proven benefits of running, new and veteran runners alike often find themselves torn between running on a treadmill vs. running outside. Do the benefits of treadmill running (such as the ability to add incline and change speed) outweigh the perks of fresh air? Or does running outdoors boost happiness and build mental toughness more than running on a "dreadmill"? Here, running experts weigh in to settle the treadmill vs. outside running debate once and for all.

Treadmill Running

The treadmill is a staple in any gym, and its motor-powered running belt gives users the option to change incline and speed at the press of a button. Some of the most tricked-out treadmill options include features such as television displays, connected fitness programs with live instruction, and the ability to track your progress over time, which might make the treadmill more engaging to those who thrive off data and distraction. Here are some of the other benefits of treadmill running to consider.

Softens Impact

Unless you're lucky enough to live in a place with easy access to trail running, outdoor runners most often take their cardio to streets or sidewalks — hard surfaces that can increase the impact that running places on your joints. A treadmill, on the other hand, features a softer, more joint-friendly surface, says Erin Beck, NASM-CPT and director of training and experience for STRIDE Fitness.

"Your body can tell the difference from asphalt and other surfaces outside, even if you can’t," she explains. "Treadmill training can be beneficial for runners because you're running on a softer surface with less impact to the body in each step, especially if you run on a Woodway treadmill" (which is known for having a belt of individual rubber slats for better shock absorption, FYI). One thing to know: The prevailing myth that running will ruin your knees has been proven false, thanks to a Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study that found running doesn't increase the risk of osteoarthritis (aka "wear and tear" arthritis). That said, if joint pain is a concern of yours, the treadmill can be a more comfortable way to continue running.

Controls Environment

When running outside, several variables can affect how much you enjoy your workout — and the safety factor of your workout too. For example, "running with earphones on the road is not always safe, but you can blast music as loud as you want when running indoors," points out Beck.

Similarly, running on a treadmill means no cars, cyclists, pedestrians, or over-excited dogs that could potentially injure you, says Percell Dugger, C.S.C., C.F.S.C., a USATF-certified running coach and NIKE running coach. "Being in a controlled environment doesn't negate you from injury, but it does minimize the likelihood of you getting into an accident with a bike or pedestrian," he explains.

And of course, running on a treadmill takes one major factor out of the equation: weather. Chances are, your gym is a consistent 68 degrees with a refreshing fan nearby and a zero-percent chance of rain. If you often turn to less-than-perfect weather as a reason to skip your run (#relatable), opting for the tread can eliminate that excuse.

Increases Precision

In addition to the controlled environment, running on a treadmill also gives you a more precise way to work out and track your progress, says Beck. "If you go outside for an interval workout, your running watch might read your pace inaccurately, or you may get stuck at extra red lights," she says. "It can be hard to tell if you’re improving or if the external elements are just changing." Treadmill training, on the other hand, allows you to easily track and challenge your progress. And if interval training or hill workouts are more your speed, a treadmill is the most convenient way to hit the exact paces and heights that your workout prescribes.

Outside Running

For many new runners, jogging outside is their gateway to a regular running habit. After all, there's nothing quite like the convenience of lacing up your shoes and running a loop around your neighborhood (after a short running warm-up, of course). Plus, an outdoor run lets you interact with the world around you, giving you all the mood-boosting benefits of being in nature. Here's what else outside running has to offer.

Increases Happiness and Mental Health Benefits

While exercise in any location is a surefire way to release endorphins, taking your run outdoors amplifies those good feelings. In fact, people who exercise outdoors report more energy and fewer feelings of depression, according to a study from Environmental Science and Technology. Even better, participants who exercised outdoors were more likely to repeat their workouts. So if you're turning to running to help create a fitness routine that you really enjoy, consider running outdoors.

"Running outdoors can be a great way to destress and decompress," adds Beck. "The fresh air and nature can do wonders for your mental health and pull you away from additional screentime after working all day or messing around on your phone."

Adds Variety

Even if you switch up your treadmill workout often by adding intervals or inclines, the cardio machine can feel monotonous after a while. Running outside, in contrast, often feels more exciting and gives you a sense of novelty every time you get out the door. You can switch up your route, invite a friend to join you, or notice the changing weather and scenery over time.

Plus, running outdoors in a natural environment challenges your muscles to adapt to changing landscapes, says Beck. "[Running] outside offers a variety of terrain that you may not be able to achieve on a treadmill," she points out. "Hills of varying inclines and declines, turns and bends in your path, and different surfaces like grass and asphalt can challenge your stamina and agility and strengthen your muscles and joints."

Builds Mental Toughness

Even the most dedicated of runners can struggle to get out the door when the temperature drops before freezing or a sudden rainstorm hits. But challenging yourself to stick to your running plan when the weather doesn't fully cooperate builds your mental resilience, says Dugger. "The most important trait of any runner is confidence," he explains. "In order to build confidence, you have to be familiar with a myriad of variables that you can't control, [such as] running in the cold or training in the rain." By intentionally choosing to run during these difficult circumstances, you're teaching your mind and body to adapt to the elements — which comes in handy, especially if you're training for a race where you'll have to show up at the start line regardless of the weather.

How to Decide Between Treadmill vs. Outside Running

Running on a treadmill and running outside both come with their own unique set of benefits — so how do you decide which one is best for you? It depends on your goals, says Beck. "You have to decide what your goals are and work backward from there."

Here, Dugger and Beck share their advice for deciding between running on a treadmill vs. running outside.

If you're training for a race: Outside

Just like your body requires dedicated training to prepare for a race, so does your mind. In order to best prepare for an upcoming race, prioritize running outside, says Beck. "If you are training for a marathon or road race, you should definitely train outside so you are ready for the elements: wind, heat, and even air quality," she explains. "When you’re preparing for an outdoor event, these things will impact your performance, so it’s important to practice dealing with them." Plus, it's important to get familiar with the feeling of your target race pace without the assistance of a treadmill setting, and running outdoors helps you hone in on your ability to nail — and maintain — that pace (especially with the help of tempo runs).

If you want to measure specific progress: Treadmill

The data and tracking capabilities of a treadmill are more precise than what you'll often get from your running watch and GPS, says Beck. So if you're chasing a specific distance or pace, the treadmill offers a more accurate look at your progress toward that goal. "If you are looking to measure your progress more specifically, treadmills allow you to control factors like speed, incline, intervals," and more, she says.

If safety is a concern: Treadmill

Whether you're wary of slipping on black ice or running alone after dark, running outside can be risky. "Running on a treadmill is a safer option than running outdoors," argues Beck. "You don’t have to worry about traffic, dangerous heat or weather, and harassment." Instead, try treadmill training in a group fitness class under the eye of a watchful instructor who can adjust your running form for "a great sense of community and safety," she suggests.

If you're looking for an instant mood boost: Outside

The feeling of sunshine on your face, a fresh breeze blowing gently in your hair, and the feeling of disconnecting from technology — they all contribute to the rush of endorphins you receive when running outside vs. on a treadmill. And surprisingly, running outside can be even more beneficial during winter, when daylight hours are limited, as Shape previously reported.

"When the days get shorter and the temperature plummets, many people suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder," says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and sports performance coach. "Running helps release powerful hormones that help combat this depression, increasing positive mood states during the cold weather months."

So, Which Is Better: Running Outside vs. Treadmill Running?

At the end of the day, either method of running is an effective way to get your workout in — it all depends on what makes you most excited and fulfilled, says Dugger. "Sometimes, getting in the workout is the goal," he says. "Sometimes getting some fresh air is what you need in the moment. Don't limit your relationship with running by leaning on one approach. Whatever approach is in line with your goals, and will bring you joy and make you feel more confident, is the best option."

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