I’m asked this question all the time: is running on the treadmill as good as running outside on the roads? This is more than a fanciful question, since many people are training for spring races and want to make sure that they get as much benefit from their training as they expect.
To answer this question, let’s compare how they stack up.
Ease of Access
Road running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise available – it can be done anywhere, at any time. At least, in theory. In practice, there are concerns that limit a runner’s options. Running in the dark or alone can create anxiety about safety – made all the more potent by news stories about attacks on runners. Bad weather is also a concern; even with the best of gear, it’s hard to get motivated to run on icy streets when the temperature is in single digits, or less.
Treadmill running, on the other hand, provides the same experience every time: a predictable and replicable workout in a temperature-controlled, safe environment.
Road runners report all manner of injuries from running on uneven, hard surfaces, from shin splits to sore knees, to bruises from tripping.
Treadmills generally provide a softer, more even and predictable running surface.
Road running is the best exercise to prepare the body for running on the roads, like in a race. That’s an example of the “specificity of exercise.” By running on the roads, the body learns to deal with impact, hills, and uneven surfaces.
Treadmills provide a somewhat artificial experience, since it feeds the road to you and doesn’t challenge you to deal with wind or uneven surfaces. But it does give you a good sense of pacing because once you set a speed on the treadmill, that’s what you’ll be running. You can’t lack and surge on a treadmill, or you’ll find yourself thrown off.
Advantage: road running.
Road running allows us to each become explorers as we check out new neighborhoods and paths. In DC, our options include streets, bike trails, and off-road trails. With a little planning, every run could be an adventure.
With treadmills, the benefit of predictability is matched by the tedium of repetition. On a treadmill, there is no journey, there is no adventure, and there is no exploration.
Advantage: road running.
If you want experience the joy of running, head outside. But if you want really improve as a runner, go indoors to treadmill to work in a controlled environment on your form and speed. Or best of all, include both in your routine to get the best of both worlds.
Ultimately, though, it matters less which format you choose than it matters that you run consistently.