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Outdoor running vs. treadmill running: which is right for me?

April 27, 2021 katiegibbas

Outdoor running vs. treadmill running: which is right for me?

April 27, 2021 Katie Gibas

I have a love-hate relationship with the treadmill.

When I was in high school and college, I loved running on the treadmill and hated running outside, mostly because I’d start out really ambitious, tire myself out before realizing I still had to get home. But, as I started to train for my first 5k, I started to loathe the so-called “dreadmill.”

I joined a run group, which led me to enjoy running outside much more. I was able to find people moving at my same pace and run (and talk) with them. Being able to chat made the time go by a lot quicker.

Steve Gonser, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at Buffalo Rehab Group. He also started RunSmart Online to help runners avoid injury. 

“From a physical therapist standpoint, we just encourage people to move,” says Gonser. “A lot of runners do feel the treadmill is softer, so it is a little bit more forgiving on their joints.”

But as long as the pavement is dry, from an injury standpoint, either is fine.

Benefits of outdoor running:

  • More exciting scenery will inspire longer runs
  • Measurable goals
  • Different terrains, like hills
  • No cost
  • Best way to prepare for a running race
  • No stop button tempting you

“Outside, you have tremendous benefits because you can see the passing scenery. You can set a goal and go out. With the treadmill, there’s always that stop button where you might be like ‘I’m just done now.’ But outside, you have to get home. There’s a lot of benefits to that,” Gonser says.

But there is definitely a place for treadmill running, like when the weather is less than ideal.

“Running on a slippery surface can really put force on the joints and the tendons and muscles. It is increased risk for injury running on sloppy conditions, whether it’s through the grass when it’s wet or on snow and ice,” Gonser says. “If the weather is not ideal and you can’t run on nice predictable pavement, you should probably move it indoors or take it extra slow.”

Benefits of treadmill running:

  • The comfort of your own home
  • Set your pace
  • Catch up on shows
  • Able to keep an eye on the kids
  • You might feel safer on a treadmill than running outside alone

That’s one of the reasons I bought a treadmill this past year. It’s nice to be able to hop on quickly and not have to worry about the weather, or if it is too dark out to feel safe running alone. Plus, it gives flexibility to get your workout in if you have little ones at home.

But the monotony and the lure of the stop button can be a big challenge to overcome.

“Listen to three songs before you look at the timer or watch an entire episode before you look at the time. If you hate the treadmill but need to use it, find ways to distract yourself to get through it,” says Gonser.

If you’ve been running inside all winter and now want to transition back to  pavement, it’s best to ease into it to prevent injury.

“The treadmill is softer, so if you’ve been running inside the whole time, I wouldn’t recommend going cold turkey from treadmill right to running on the road. If you run three to four days a week, just take one run outside so you can get used to be running on the road,” Gonser suggests. “You’re not going to have pace control. You’re going to be on a harder surface so your body might have to learn to tolerate a little harder impact.”

Add one additional day of running outside per week, so it should take a minimum of three to four weeks to build up to exclusively running outside.

If you need a break from running, Gonser recommends a bike ride. “It translates really well to running. You will have a nice smooth transition back to running.”  

Katie Gibas

Katie spent 12 years as a journalist, including hosting a monthly national Healthy Living show. You can usually find Katie and her husband traveling, skiing, and scuba diving. Of course, Katie is a huge Bills fan, even naming her dog Chug Flutie.

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