Treadmills vs. Trails: Is it Better to Run Outside or Indoors?

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Which is a better way to run: indoors on a treadmill or outside in nature?

The question has sparked countless debates among gym-goers and aerobic athletes over the years. But the answer isn’t black and white, and research supports both sides for different reasons.

To help you make an informed decision here’s every factor you should consider when choosing between treadmills or trails:

Pros & Cons of Running Outside

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As with any other form of exercise, running outdoors has its pros and cons. From the mood-lifting benefits of spending time outdoors to the potential risks of injury, here are some things to consider before lacing up to hit the gravel running.

Benefits of Outdoor Runs

Mental Health Benefits: In today’s busy world, nothing can lift your mood quite like spending time outdoors. Research shows that nature has restorative properties that can alleviate mental fatigue. Another study showed that spending time outside can help improve mental health conditions, such as dementia and depression. Additionally, outdoor exercise can do more to improve your mental health than simply exercise alone.

More Physically Demanding: Outdoor running conditions can increase the rate your body burns calories. According to the American Council for Exercise, weather conditions, such as intense headwinds, can force you to run harder, which requires more energy output. Conversely, running with a strong tail wind can help activate additional fast-twitch muscle fibers more often associated with strength training and muscle definition.

Better for Pre-Race Prep: If you’re training for a race, running outside might be your best bet! Rolling hills, hard turns and different (sometimes harsh) weather conditions can come into play during a race. Training with similar conditions and terrain can help you prepare accordingly.

Train for Different Terrains: Keep your body guessing – train in different terrains! When you train, your body adapts to meet the demands of the specific activity you perform! Training outdoors on different trails and terrains will help you avoid hitting plateaus.

Explore Your Surroundings: Running outdoors is one of the best ways to explore your neighborhood, and beyond! You could stumble upon a new, trendy coffee shop, a local farmers market or even a more exciting running trail!

Get Social: Whether you’re a novice or a competitive runner, many communities have running groups filled with people of various ages and ability levels. Not sure where to get started? Visit Meetup.com or head to your local running store to ask them what’s good!

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The Downside to Running Outdoors

Increased Injury Risk: As a sport, running comes with some inherent injury risks. Running outdoors on hard surfaces, such as asphalt and pavement, can impose additional stress on your body, leading to an increased injury rate. Your ligaments, cartilage and tendons are especially at risk for injury since they adapt slower than muscle tissue to the additional stress from running outdoors.

It can be dangerous: When you run outdoors, you can expose yourself to a variety of risks, including cars and cyclists. A mid-run injury can be especially risky if you’re far from home. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2017 there were 5,977 deaths involving pedestrians and motor vehicles.

Long-term Wear & Tear: In addition to acute injuries, such as blisters or sprains, runners can also suffer injuries due to long-term overuse. In fact, evidence suggests that as many as 80% of running injuries are due to overuse, such as pulled muscles or strained ligaments.

Seasonal Weather: Depending on where you live, you may only be able to enjoy outdoor running during certain times of the year. Inclement weather conditions can also make it challenging to plan and stay consistent with your training. After all, there’s nothing worse than being caught in a spring rainstorm or trying to avoid icy road conditions in the winter.

Pros & Cons of Running on a Treadmill

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Whether working out at home or the gym, treadmills are a great way to log miles. If you’re not sure if indoor running is for you, here are some things to consider before jumping on the treadmill.

Benefits of Treadmill Runs

You’re in Control: Treadmill running allows you to control virtually all aspects of your run, including speed, incline rate and climate. If you’re new to running, this can help reduce some of the anxiety associated with working out. It can also help you work your way up to running trails safely, if that’s the end goal.

Less risk of injury: Running on a treadmill tends to be much easier on your knees, back and joints. Many treadmills are designed to absorb the shock caused by the impact of running. This can help reduce the risk of acute injuries and long-term wear and tear. Plus, when running on flat surfaces, you’re less likely to trip!

Customize your training: Treadmills offer a variety of custom-built workout options that aim to replicate outdoor terrains. For example, the incline feature allows you to train as if you were running up a hill.

More Results, Less Time: Many modern treadmills offer the ability to use custom-built, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) training programs. Studies show that incorporating HIIT into your workout can significantly improve your running performance in less time compared to steady-state cardio.

Easy & Convenient: If you own a treadmill, it’s easy to work out from the comfort of your home or office. While you may not get the same scenic views, convenience is critical to maintaining a consistent exercise routine.

Multiple Entertainment Options: Stay entertained by listening to your favorite music playlist or audiobook. Have a TV show you’ve been dying to binge? When you’re working out on a treadmill, you can binge away while also improving your fitness!

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The Downside to Running on a Treadmill

Less Engaging: For the less tech-driven crowd, running on a treadmill indoors may be less entertaining. Over time, the drudgery of logging miles in the same location can be unmotivating for even the most experienced runner.

You’re stuck indoors: Perhaps the most obvious downside of running on an indoor treadmill is that you’re stuck inside. Sunshine, fresh air and natural views are just a few of the things you miss out on when sweating it out indoors.

Less Functional: Functional fitness is your ability to replicate a real-life movement. When you train on a treadmill, your body may have a harder time adapting to the harder surfaces and varying conditions of running outdoors. So, if you’re preparing for a vigorous race that goes off the beaten path, outdoor runs may be your best bet.


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