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Treadmill running versus road running – which is best?

Person's feet running on a treadmill
(Image credit: Getty)

There are runners who prefer the consistent and predictable conditions of running on a treadmill – and those that see the advantages of being outdoors and running in the fresh air and on a variety of different routes. 

We asked UKA running coach Angela MacAusland, of Run Coach Angela (opens in new tab), to outline the many  pros and cons of treadmill running versus road running.

Person running on a treadmill

You can run on a treadmill whatever the weather (Image credit: Getty)

Pros of treadmill running 

All weathers

Whatever the weather, from extreme heat to black ice to storms, runners can continue to train on a treadmill because the conditions remain the same and are predictable indoors.

All day and night

You can run any time of the day or night on a treadmill, especially if you have your own running machine at home. This is particularly useful in the winter and also if you require flexibility in your work and home life.

Safe indoors

A treadmill offers a safe environment if you are concerned about running solo outdoors. This might be especially true for female runners who may feel vulnerable when running alone.

Pace setting

Treadmill running makes it easier to set a regular pace. This is because the running environment is always the same and the machine can be set to give exactly the same speed and gradient each time.

Train easier

You can make use of built in training sessions, such as intervals, when running on a treadmill. 

Joint benefits

Treadmill running can provide some cushioning for your joints when compared to pounding the pavements.

Beginner friendly 

It can be easier for for novice runners to get started with a walk/run/walk programme when utilising a treadmill indoors.

Woman running on a treadmill

Treadmill running doesn't give the same variety as running outdoors (Image credit: Getty)

Cons of treadmill running

Far from reality

Treadmill running doesn’t replicate different running surfaces – for example, trails – and the inclines aren’t like 'real life' hills. Nor can you experience weather conditions such as a head wind when running on a treadmill.

Too even

Foot placement is always in the same place  on a treadmill, so this means you do not experience the benefits of running on trails and uneven surfaces

Uses fewer muscles

Runners will use fewer muscles in their legs when running on a treadmill because the belt is always moving, so you don’t need to propel yourself forward as much.

Are you bored yet?

Treadmill running can be boring, even if you have a TV, screen or music as a diversion.

Posing a problem

Depending on where the front of the treadmill is (the screen), it can cause your upper body posture to tip forwards unnaturally.

Can be costly

You have to buy a treadmill or pay a gym subscription to use one – and if you own a treadmill there are the costs of electricity and maintenance, too.

Space issues

You’ll need the space to keep a treadmill at home – and if its in a room you don’t use, such as a garage, you might be less motivated to use it.

What about the downs?

Some treadmills don’t offer the option of downhill running, which means you do not gain the experience, nor benefit physically, from learning to effectively run downhill.

Person running on a road at sunset

Road running is easy to access (Image credit: Getty)

Pros of road running

Natural advantages

One of the main benefits of running outdoors is the fresh air and being surrounded by nature. There are many studies – see seven benefits of the great outdoors – that show the mental health advantages of exercising outdoors in a natural environment.

Anytime, anywhere

Road running is accessible and flexible. You can run outdoors on your own, with a friend or with a group. 

Run with friends

Road running can be very sociable because you can run with other people, whether friends or as part of a club.

Lots of variety

You have the choice of road, trail, flat, hills, fields, mountains, river paths and a mix of all of these – and every run can be different.

Good experience

Experiencing road running in all weathers can help you prepare for any races coming up. For example, how you will cope physically and mentally, what you need to wear and how the  weather affects your training.

It's more natural

Your stride length naturally changes when the terrain / incline changes, which means you will have a more natural running rhythm when running outdoors.

A feel for it

Road running encourages your to run by “feel” or by Rate of Perceived Exertion, which can differ from day to day, depending on the weather, terrain etc

Good for balance

A variety of different running surfaces will help with your proprioception.

Health benefits

You get a daily dose of Vitamin D when running outdoors.

Cheap and easy

Road running is free to do, once you have bought your running footwear and clothes.

Man running on a road

Poor weather can hamper your road running (Image credit: Getty)

Cons of road running

Needs different clothing

When running outdoors, you are open to the elements – and have to dress accordingly to cope with the weather conditions.

Weather danger

Black ice, storms, lightning, high winds etc will prevent you from running safely outdoors – and if you don’t have access to a treadmill, you can’t run.

Traffic hazards

Road runners need to be aware of traffic at all times, especially if running in towns and cities. Motorised vehicles can pose a safety hazard if you are not aware of where you are running and what is around you.

Poor view

You need to remember to be safe and be seen (opens in new tab) at night or in poor light conditions.

Safety concerns

Some road runners may feel unsafe when running solo, so you will need to make sure you have a friend to run with.

Not so easy

Outdoor running can seem harder than treadmill running, especially if you don’t know how to pace yourself.

In conclusion, when assessing  treadmill running versus road running it's fair to say there are many pros and cons for each type of running. Many runners will choose to do a mix of both indoors and outdoors running and that is probably the best way to take advantage of the benefits of each.

 

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors (opens in new tab).