Is running outdoors better than running on a treadmill? There are arguments for the effectiveness of both, but outdoors has my vote, and here are the reasons why....
In the spirit of honesty and transparency let me be the first to say that running is not my favourite activity to maintain cardiovascular fitness, and in fact to me, running on a treadmill is about as interesting as watching grass grow!
When I was competing in Mixed Martial arts competitions however, running was a staple in the final lead up preparation for my fights, as it as necessary for me to make weight, and burn off those final stubborn kilos that just didn't want to budge.
There is no doubt of the effectiveness of running on maintaining a strong and health heart, and a lot can be said for the ability to shed excess fat as well, so the age old question still remains, is it better to hit the pavement, or take to the treadmill?
Pros and Cons
When looking at the overall picture, there are arguments on both sides of the fence as to which is more effective, so let's take a look at a list of the Pros and Cons for each;
Treadmill Running - Pros
1. Treadmill running allows you to accurately control the pace, incline, interval, and recovery time for your workout, and track the results of each session.
2. By choosing a specific speed for your run, a treadmill can force you to work at the same consistency throughout, rather than allow you to 'slack off', as you may be tempted to do when a machine is not dictating the pace.
3. Studies have shown that your VO2 max (how much oxygen your body can use during physical activity) is the same when running on a treadmill compared to outside.
4. Being an indoor training environment, you can run on a treadmill in all weather conditions. Having said that, there is no law preventing you from running in the rain outdoors as well if you don't mind getting a little soggy, although of course this also comes with it's own inherent risks.
5. Having an indoor environment can provide safety, particularly for women who fear running by themselves early in the morning or late at night.
Treadmill Running - Cons
1. To me running on a treadmill is SOOOOOOOOOOOOO boring! Every time I have tried to run on a treadmill I keep conjuring up the image in my head of being on the hamster wheel, one monotonous step after another, with the same view and a feeling I can't seem to shake that I am going nowhere fast.
2. Treadmills cannot perfectly simulate running outdoors as the elements are removed from the equation, therefore there is no wind resistance, uneven ground, sunshine to soak up, or beautiful scenery to take in while you exercise.
3. Whilst it is possible for a treadmill to simulate going uphill, most definitely cannot simulate going downhill, which is a crucial part of any running program. Machines also max out on incline and speed, so it is possible that your treadmill may not be able to keep up with you if you have a high level of fitness.
4. You can't add stair runs to your program, so if you like the challenge of a massive spike in heart rate as you tackle a big flight of stairs, you need a stair master in your gym or home as well as a treadmill, and you cannot seamlessly integrate this into your running program without changing equipment mid run.
5. Did I mention running on a treadmill is BORING?? Yes I know it is possible to watch television, or listen to music, or check out the other attractive people who frequent you local gym, but in reality you are still stuck in the same room, on the same piece of equipment, and limited to the stride length and surface of the equipment, which you obviously cannot vary.
Outdoor Running - Pros
1. Running outdoors is more natural, as you can use your full stride (particularly if you're tall), and don't have the negative resistance of the treadmill belt, which many runners complain further tightens their hamstrings, and slows down their overall pace.
2. Soft surfaces can provide additional challenges, i.e. sand or grass, which most will agree are far more demanding than running on hard surfaces. Uneven ground will also force recruitment or more stabiliser muscles, as your body tries to automatically adjust to the terrain, providing a more demanding and effective workout.
3. Running outdoors lets you enjoy the beautiful scenery, get some fresh air, and if you are running during the day, some good old Vitamin D inducing sunlight as well. To me having a nice breeze to keep you cool whilst you run, and the ability to vary the location and difficulty by adding hills or stairs, or to take man’s best friend on the journey with you, makes outdoor running a whole lot more appealing.
4. Outdoor running tends to be slightly better at strengthening the Gluteus Maximus (butt) muscles, because every time your foot lands in front of you on a treadmill, the belt brings your leg back underneath you, which is an action your glutes should take care of.
5. Running outside tends to require more energy than running on a treadmill. Due to the fact that you are changing surfaces constantly, as well as the fact that you may have to fight the wind and the elements and make sudden starts and stops, running outside can lead to increased caloric burn.
Outdoor Running - Cons
1. When running on hard surfaces i.e. cement or concrete, the impact on your joints is usually higher than the impact of a padded belt on a treadmill, however it can also be argued that the impact from running will strengthen your bones, which will help with reducing the likelihood of brittle bones or osteoarthritis as you age. If you have a good pair of running shoes, and vary the surfaces you run on, this should be a non-issue.
2. Running late at night or early in the morning can create some concern over safety, especially for women who may feel unsafe when running alone. A couple of helpful solutions would be to see if there is a running group in your local area to join. Another option is to buy a dog, a REALLY BIG dog, (think Rottweiler not Chihuahua), who can become your running companion. Of course this will probably also mean you need a yard at home, as not many people want or are able to share a unit with a dog the size of a horse, but a dog will provide protection, and a running partner who can challenge you.
3. Weather can determine if you are able to take your workout outside. Unfortunately rain, hail or snow can make surfaces slippery or dangerous, and not many of us enjoy running when the rain is bucketing down. A good pair of running cleats can fix stability issues, but there is no fix for wet weather. Having said that, a great alternative would be an awesome indoor body weight HIIT workout, which can burn as many (if not more) calories as a run. Of course there is also the option of the dreaded hamster wheel, if running is your favourite fitness activity.
All joking aside, there are solid arguments for both sides as to whether running on a treadmill or running outside is the best option to keep fit, but at the end of the day, as long as you are exercising, bringing your heart rate up and getting a sweat on, you are taking steps towards stronger cardiovascular fitness and overall improved health.
Whilst for me the advantages of running outdoors over a treadmill are a no-brainer, everyone is an individual, and hopefully this article has given some insight into which option might suit you better. #keepthosefeetmoving