Treadmill versus Outdoor Running: Which is Better?

>> Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'll start this post by admitting I'm biased. I think outdoor running is awesome, and I try to stay away from the treadmill as much as possible. That being said, this morning I set out on my 5-mile tempo run at the beginning of the snowpacolypse. I don't know if I've ever run a slower workout. (Not that there's anything wrong with that -- no workout is too short or slow.) It was like running on loose sand. Snowflakes were flying up my nose . . . and down my throat. Even my eyelashes had an accumulation when all was said and done.

Today I would have preferred to bust out a tempo run on the treadmill. But our gym membership ran out, and now that we're fully into training for the Lehigh Valley Half Marathon, we figured we'd save money and deal with the weather.

Treadmill Pro/Con List
  • PRO: Run no matter the weather and without having to watch out for cars, potholes, puddles, and dogs. So, safety.
  • CON: It can be incredibly boring. Even when you employ some clever techniques to survive your workout.
  • PRO: You get a dashboard with your distance, calories burned, and other stats like heart rate. You also control your workouts, so -- for example -- if you live in a flat area, you can add mad hills to your weekly schedule.
  • CON: It's easy to either go too easy on yourself. Or too hard. Sometimes when I run on the treadmill, I start thinking everyone's looking at my pace. I feel I have something to prove because I consider myself a runner and not just a gym rat. The too easy part is because if you just stick with flat treadmill running at the same pace, you won't be challenging your body and, therefore, won't increase your fitness over time. It's easy to get stuck in a rut.
  • PRO: The padding -- the give -- that treadmills feature can help keep your joints and muscles safe from too much pounding.
  • CON: However, running on a treadmill changes your stride and general form, which can lead to injury.

Outdoor Pro/Con List
  • PRO: Gradual hills, wind resistance, variety of temperatures and precipitation. Basically, good conditions in which to train for races.
  • CON: Like I mention above, all those weather problems and other issues (like the guys who sometimes follow me in their cars . . . right?). You're out and about. And if you don't pay attention, you could get hit by an oblivious motorist. Etc. 
  • PRO: You can run with a buddy or in a group. Sometimes if you're lacking motivation, that's all you need to get back on track. Yes, you can also chat with a friend beside you on the treadmill, but usually when I'm at the gym, it's crowded and not possible.
  • CON: Also (especially in winter) many of us don't have time in the day to run when it's light outside. And if you don't live somewhere with streetlamps, running outdoors can be nearly impossible and dangerous.
  • PRO: Fresh air and vitamin D. In the winter, it feels good to be outside. It's refreshing, and you get benefit mentally and physically from a little sunshine.
  • CON: Unless you invest in a good sports watch, you likely won't know exactly how far you ran or how many calories you burned. I'm not too hung up on these things -- and I often use Google Maps to chart out courses, but it's definitely more for the Zen runners :)
So, which is better? There's really no universal answer. I prefer outdoor running. However, on days like today -- I'm yearning for a little belt action. We'd love to get your input, too. Are you a treadmill junkie? Run like postal workers through rain, sleet, and snow? Weigh in by leaving a comment or emailing us at And be sure to check out these other running-related posts . . .
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