Differences Between Using a Treadmill and Running Outside

Trail running amongst green rolling hills.
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"I've heard that you don't get the same benefits from running on a treadmill as running outside. Is running on a treadmill easier than running outside?"

Running on a treadmill feels somewhat easier physically because the ground is being pulled underneath your feet and there's no wind resistance. On a treadmill, the smaller stabilizer muscles in your lower legs don't have to work as hard.  Running outside demands more from your body because you're propelling your body forward stride for stride. Your calf muscles have to work much harder than when you're on a treadmill. As a result, many runners find that they experience calf muscle pain, shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, and other issues when they run outside after exclusively running on a treadmill for a long period of time.

If you've gotten in the habit of running exclusively on the treadmill, you should gradually ease back into outdoor running to avoid getting injured. Start with some short runs outside once or twice a week before you start running outside all the time. Be sure to stretch, especially your calves, after running.

While running outside may be a bit harder physically, treadmill running poses some mental challenges. Mentally, you may have a tougher time dealing with the monotony of the treadmill. (Here are some tricks for beating boredom on the treadmill.) Some runners find it much easier to distract themselves when running outside. So incorporating some treadmill running into your training may actually help you improve your mental toughness as you push yourself through some boring runs.

And there are numerous other benefits of treadmill running. Treadmills are a much better option than outdoor running when the conditions (bad weather, darkness) are dangerous. Many treadmills are padded, making them a good option if you're overweight or are injury-prone (especially with knee issues) and want to decrease the impact. You can also easily track your distance and pace, and set up your pace and course to be exactly what you need. You shouldn't ever think of running on a treadmill as "cheating" since there are definitely some advantages to it.

The bottom line: If you're training for a specific outdoor race, try to train outside as much as possible to get prepared both physically and mentally prepared for race conditions. Your body needs time to adapt to the stresses of running on pavement. The only way to make sure that you're ready for an outside race is to run outdoors.

If you're do end up doing a lot of treadmill running, follow these tips for safe treadmill running. Also, set your treadmill incline setting at 1% because that helps you better simulate the resistance you would experience when running outdoors.