Treadmill Verses Road Running

Treadmill Verses Road Running

Treadmill Verses Road Running: Which Is Better?

Answering the question regarding which is the best, treadmill verses road running is not really something that can be labeled as one being “better” than the other. Treadmill running and road running are clearly very similar, but at the same time differ in some significant ways, both having something to offer that the other doesn’t. It is my personal opinion with the sedentary, indoor lifestyle the majority of us lead these days, being far removed from what we as humans are designed to do. We are engineered to move, to walk and run and wired to do all this outdoors, not stuck inside in front of a computer screen, a TV,  or treadmill monitor… So it is for this reason alone that personally I choose running outdoors over treadmill running hands down every time. But this is a personal opinion not a medically based one. Ultimately running in either way both have their benefits and at the very least treadmill running can be a suitable alternative in certain situations or effectively used as a training tool for a road runner, or athlete.

The Main Differences Between Treadmill Verses Road Running

Most seasoned runners will 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 will be able to run a relatively faster pace on a treadmill when compared to what they can over the same distance on outside. Contributing to this can be environmental factors, as 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 variations too. Meaning a flat belt assisted, inside zero wind run is inevitably going to be a shade quicker.
A spring assisted treadmill base will also give more than tarmac meaning there is different conditioning of your tissues with treadmill verses road running. Relative “hardening” must occur in certain tissues when running on a less forgiving surface like road or pavements.

Treadmill Running Provides A Constant Environment

When running on a treadmill it tends to offer a constant environment where your running surface remains exactly the same (not to mention the weather conditions also remaining stable). This lack of variation in surface, with an absence of any need to change direction, alter stride length as you slow or speed up to avoid something or someone, or step up or down off a kerb, ledge or rock when running on a treadmill means that outdoor running challenges your core stability and balance control far more than what any treadmill training session can offer, regardless of the workout setting you select. Now 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. With the treadmill eliminating some of these external factors can be a wonderful way to exert some control over re-injury risk in the rehabilitating athlete. On top of this a treadmill sessions comes with the added bonus of being able to very accurately measure training load to avoid over training and allow more precise graded pacing of training distance, speed and incline.

Managing Your Running Speed Easily With Treadmill Running

Treadmill running allows the runner to set their pace and maintain it. Yes with a metronome to keep track of cadence, Strava, Map My Run or similar apps much of this pace and distance mapping can now be done effectively outside too. Generally these won’t be as precise as on a treadmill so this exact real time measurement of speed and distance can be useful if you are training for a specific event and have a goal time in mind . Treadmill speed settings can also helpful when you’re tired and maintaining the pace is becoming difficult, as actually having to press a button to slow down, can make it a good motivator to keep your pace up. Without a real-time app when running outdoors you may find your pace starts to drop as you tire and you are mostly unaware of it slowing, even with an app you are still more likely to get variations in pace when compared to a treadmill session.

Treadmill Verses Road Running Places Less Impact On Your Joints

Compared to road running, running on the treadmill is easier on your joints. For a regular runner with an ongoing condition requiring impact management, or someone returning to exercise from a lower limb joint injury the inclusion of some treadmill workouts in their regime can reduce the impact load on your joints, doing this may potentially reduce the risk of reaggravation or further injury. Running track, off road, on soft grass and soft sand can offer lower impact outdoor options more similar to that of treadmill running but any access to these depend on geographical location. For those of you with “bad knees” or hips running on a treadmill, or a softer surface is probably a better, less impactful workout option.

Surface Variations Associated With Outdoor Running May Reduce Injury

As mentioned briefly above running outside offers up the challenge of a more unpredictable surface when compared to the treadmill. These surface variations have the benefit of challenging your balance and coordination. When running on uneven terrain, your body must work harder 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 conversely work to strengthen your body, improve coordination and balance control more than any treadmill running workout could possibly achieve. Just like many regular runners will alternate their shoes between runs to create variations in stressors to the foot and body, running outdoors offers variations that can be protective against developing overloading issues to tissues. Tissues that may be constantly stressed in the same way over and over when running on the unvarying surface of a treadmill wearing the same footwear day after day, run after run.
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 that is low on joint impact stresses, but physically extremely demanding and beneficial as part of a training program.

Outdoor Running Is A More Functional Form Of 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 precise control over the surface, speed and distance you run, or run on can be of benefit in many 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.

A Treadmill Is A 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 a rehabilitation program for an injured athlete, or for an individual with ongoing joint or balance issues who still enjoys walking or running. As well as this using treadmill verses road running is a nice cross training option for the regular runner to add variation and potentially reduce overload risk, or as an introduction to running for the novice runner.

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.