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Treadmill Verses Road Running

Treadmill Verses Road Running
Treadmill Verses Road Running

Treadmill Verses Road Running: Which Is Better?

Treadmill verses road running, answering that question is not as simple as one being better than the other. Treadmill running and road running are not exactly the same and both treadmill and road running have something to offer that the other doesn’t. Generally I feel with the sedentary, indoor lifestyle the majority of us lead these days and that as humans we are designed to walk, run and be outdoors not stuck in front of a TV, computer screen or treadmill monitor so for that reason alone ultimately I choose running outdoors hands down over treadmill running.
However they both have benefits to offer and treadmill running can be a suitable alternative in certain situations or used nicely as a training tool for a road runner or athlete.

The Main Differences

Most runners seem to find that their running pace on the treadmill doesn’t correlate to their road pace, this has a bit to do with the treadmill belt helping assist leg turnover meaning many people can run a relatively faster time on a treadmill than what they can achieve for the same distance on road. Obviously also contributing to this there are no weather conditions to battle against when running indoors on a treadmill and depending on your workout settings there may be no incline or decline variation too.
As well as these basic differences the treadmill base gives more than road and this means there is different conditioning of your tissues compared to the “hardening” that occurs from running on the less forgiving road surface.

Treadmill Running A Constant Environment

Running on a treadmill offers a constant environment where your running surface remains exactly the same (not to mention weather conditions staying constant). The lack of variation to surface, the absence of need to change direction, change stride length as you slow, speed up to avoid something or someone, or jump up or down off a kerb, ledge or rock when running on a treadmill means outdoor running challenges your core stability and balance control far more than what any treadmill can offer regardless of the workout setting you select. This could be seen as a disadvantage but again it depends what you are trying to get out of your session. Someone returning to training following injury that has affected balance control, core strength or comfortable joint loading a reintroduction to running via the treadmill could be the perfect way to start progressing their rehabilitation.
Eliminating external factors can be a wonderful way to exert some control over re-injury risk in the rehabilitating athlete and treadmills have the added bonus of accurately measuring training load to avoid over training and allow more precise graded pacing of training distance, speed and incline.

Managing Your Running Speed

Treadmill running allows the runner to set their pace and maintain it. This can be useful if you are training for a specific event and have a goal time in mind and it is also helpful when you’re tired and maintaining the pace is becoming difficult as you actually have to press a button to slow down, making it a good motivator to keep your pace up. When you are road running you may find your pace starts to drop as you tire and you are mostly unaware of it slowing.
Worth noting is that some GPS running aids such as “Garmin” watches have functions that can easily make you aware of your running pace and your pace relative to a goal time per distance so it is not impossible to achieve this benefit of treadmill running when running out side also.

Treadmill Verses Road Running: Less Impact On Joints

Compared to road running, running on the treadmill is easier on the joints. For a regular runner with an ongoing condition requiring impact management or someone returning to exercise from a lower limb joint injury  including some treadmill workouts in their regime can reduce the impact on your joints, potentially reducing the risk of further injury. Track, soft grass and soft sand running depending on accessibility for the individual offer lower impact outdoor options more similar to treadmill running for athletes electing to run on a treadmill for this reason. For those of you with “bad knees” running on a treadmill or a softer surface is probably a better, less stressful workout option.

Surface Variations

As briefly mentioned earlier running outside offers the challenge of more unpredictable surfaces than treadmill running can obviously offer. These surface variations have the benefit of challenging your balance and coordination. When running on uneven terrain your body must work hard to counter balance any cracks in the footpath inconsistencies in parks or the challenges of cross country routes. These surfaces can bring with them increased risk of injury but work to strengthen your body, improve coordination and balance control more than any treadmill running workout could possibly achieve.
Soft sand running is a very difficult running surface, the softer the sand the harder your body has to work to propel yourself forwards. It tests balance, leg strength and endurance, soft sand running is a running work out low on joint impact stresses but physically extremely demanding and beneficial.

Functional Running

Running outdoors is a very functional form of exercise, even when you think you’re running on the flat, the ground is never totally flat. Meaning muscles in your foot, leg and core are required to constantly be making little adjustments to deal with these changing surfaces. These tiny adjustments your muscles have to make when running outdoors are important in training and improving your postural reactions, reactions that are necessary in every day life. Treadmills even with all the bells and whistles can’t mimic these challenges outdoor training has to offer.
Overall, outdoor running is more functional and uses more muscle fibers when comparing treadmill verses road running but this is not to say treadmill running doesn’t have its place. As mentioned before having exact control over the surface, speed and distance you run or run on can be of benefit in specific situations.  As well as this treadmills can allow you to do backward walking which can be a great way to easily add some cross training into your exercise regime or rehabilitation if indicated.

Treadmill The Great Training Tool

Treadmill running is more than just a wet weather option, the treadmill can be considered a great training tool. It offers a convenient way to do speed work and reduce impact all whilst exerting exact control over training speed and distance. It is a a useful addition to rehabilitation programs for the injured athlete or for the individual with ongoing joint or balance issues who still enjoys running. As well as this using treadmill verses road running is a nice cross training option for the regular runner or an introduction to running for the novice.

Disclaimer: Sydney Physio Clinic does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products mentioned. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance on Treadmill Verses Road Running should consult his or her general practitioner, physiotherapist or dietician.

Hayden Latimer is the founder of and principle physiotherapist at Sydney Physio Clinic. Since graduating from Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand he’s gained wide experience practicing across the globe for over 15 years and is now extremely knowledgeable in helping people reduce discomfort and restore function and mobility.


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