Running on the Treadmill vs. Running Outside

by Daniel Johnston

Many years ago, when I was really young, I didn’t used to like to run outside. No sir. I thought my sturdy treadmill was king and scoffed and those who said running outside was more effective.

Now, of course, I’ve changed my tune.

While there are certainly advantages to running on a treadmill, my own experience with running has convinced me that nothing beats running outside.

Why a Treadmill?

Running on a treadmill has a number of advantages that can make it seem tempting. The most obvious to me is that you can set the speed you’re going at. That is something you will never be able to do outside, and may help you increase your fitness and speed.

Another advantage is that a treadmill is inside, and you can even have one in your house. That means it’s very convenient. At any time during the day, no matter what the weather, you can go and hop on the treadmill.

Also, treadmills offer you the ability to change the incline at will, which allows you to strength your legs by setting a steep incline.

Why Run Outside?

On closer examination, however, the arguments for running on a treadmill quickly fall apart.

The reason that you cannot just run at any speed you want when you are outside is because your body isn’t capable of doing that speed and is telling you so by not going there. By going too fast on a treadmill, you are trying to override your body, but it doesn’t work.

What usually happens is that your running form simply goes downhill and you take shortcuts so that you can keep up with the pace of the treadmill. When I used to go fast on the treadmill, I would simply hold onto it, so I really wasn’t running very hard at all; the treadmill stats just said I was.

That’s not to say that a treadmill can’t be good for increasing your speed; it certainly can, because it can force you to go at speeds you’re physically capable of but mentally don’t want to go at on your own. So it is a good tool, but it is hardly a substitute.

Although it is nice that you can go on a treadmill whenever you want, it is much better to run outside. Anybody who has done running for any kind of distance will be familiar with the aliveness and happiness that you feel with running outside. It has a tremendous amount of psychological benefits. You simply don’t get those from running on a treadmill inside.

Treadmills are also very poor for strengthening your legs. While they can be good for increasing your cardiovascular system, the impact on a treadmill is not nearly the same as when you are actually running outside and propelling yourself forward.

Your leg strength will certainly be better from running on a treadmill than doing nothing at all. However, it is nowhere close to what is necessary to run fast outside, because that takes a different level of leg strength altogether.

Run Outside for Maximum Health

Sometimes when I tell people about my running they will tell me how they run a certain amount of miles on the treadmill on a certain speed, and so they think they’re a “runner.” I smile to myself knowingly.

That’s because I know that if they do a run outside, they’re going to be surprised at what is waiting for them! Running on a treadmill is like the cheap, knockoff version of running outside. It’s like a kid who thinks he’s really good at basketball playing an NBA player. “Oh,” the kid thinks, “this is a completely different game than I thought it was.”

People who run on the treadmill often are deluding themselves into thinking they’re much more fit than they actually are. There is absolutely nothing wrong with running on a treadmill if running outside is impossible for you for some reason. But running outside is the way to go.

Me and some of my friends used to go to the gym a few times a week. We would go on the treadmill and run for a while. But I’ll be honest; it didn’t help us. At all.

I started getting into running road races and quickly learned that all the running I had done on the treadmill wasn’t going to help me in the slightest. In my first 5k, despite having run on the treadmill religiously, my time was 26 minutes. While to some of you that may seem fast, to me it was the exact same time I’d run in races a year earlier! My treadmill running had made no difference.

While I’m sure running on the treadmill increased my fitness up to a certain point, beyond that it merely maintained it. After running the 5k, my legs were sore for days afterwards. I couldn’t believe it! It was in good shape, but just that one 5k race killed me.

After running that race, I stopped running on the treadmill and started training outside. My legs never felt that sore again (except for after I ran my first half marathon, but that’s another story). With just one week of training outside, my 5k time went down to 20:45, more than five minutes!

The Silver Lining for Treadmill Runners

If you’ve spent significant time and energy training on the treadmill, don’t feel discouraged. As I said earlier, treadmill running helps your cardiovascular system. There is no question in my mind that without that the three training runs I did that week were not responsible for a more than five minute drop in my 5k time. Obviously, the treadmill training I did is largely responsible.

However, I also firmly believe that I would’ve been much further along in my running if I had started running outside sooner. The reason why I struggled so much in that first race is because I didn’t have the leg strength. So running on a treadmill does give you some of the tools to be a good runner, just not all of them.

So don’t panic and feel like you’ve wasted your time working out on the treadmill. You’ve undoubtedly increased your fitness a great deal, and now it’s time to take it to the next level by going outside. It is certainly a lot better than having done nothing. In fact, if you’ve been running on the treadmill, you’re already in better shape than most people will ever be! Now you’re about to get in even better shape, and be happier while doing it.

The nice thing about it is that when your leg strength and other stuff catches up to the cardio ability you’ve gained on the treadmill, you’ll make huge progress (maybe not quite as dramatic as my 5k times, but still huge), and you’ll feel great about yourself. You cannot imagine how happy I felt after running that 20:45 5k.

So, in conclusion, I would say it’s absolutely fine to run on the treadmill on occasion (if it’s raining or snowing or it’s dark, etc.), but you just aren’t going to get either the physical or psychological benefits that you get when you run outside. If you don’t believe me, try running outside a few times and see if you still feel the same way. I think I already know the answer 🙂

Leave a Comment

{ 0 comments… add one now }