Treadmill vs. Outdoor Running: Which Makes You Fitter?

Running indoors and outdoors has its pros and cons.

Amanda Capritto
4 min read
hands lacing up a pink running shoe

Lace up and hit the pavement for a better run.

TravelCouples/Moment via Getty Images

Running is one of the most common exercises you can do indoors or outdoors. It's an easy way to get a cardio workout in, and can improve your health and fitness. For some people running on a treadmill can feel repetitive and boring, but opting for the outdoors is a helpful way to spice things up.

Running outdoors offers a new change of scenery and can even challenge you to become a better runner. Running on a treadmill is a good option if you are crunched for time or are looking for a convenient way to get some cardio in. Whether you prefer running outside or the like the accessibility of a treadmill, there are pros and cons to both of these methods. 

Read on to learn more about these forms of running to determine which fits your lifestyle best.

Read more: Best Workouts to Do Outside This Summer

Why running outside is better than running on a treadmill 

Person running up a rocky hill at sunset

The scenery will inspire you to run farther, and the natural terrain will challenge you more than a treadmill.

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You won't get as bored

Your body does the same exact thing on a treadmill as it does on a sidewalk, yet it feels astronomically harder on a treadmill. The treadmill is just a mental game for many people: I personally can't weather more than 20 minutes on a treadmill without feeling like I'll implode mentally. Podcasts and a banging playlist can help, but running outdoors is undoubtedly more fun. 

You're more likely to run longer and farther

Because you won't get as bored while running outside compared to on a treadmill, you might naturally run more. It's easier to persist when your sole focus isn't the pain in your legs and lungs. 

When outdoors, you'll have distractions to take your mind off of the physical exertion, such as the weather, your view, sounds, fellow pedestrians and vehicles. If running outside does encourage you to run farther, that's an easy way to improve endurance.

You get fresh air and sunshine

Spending time outside can make you feel happier, and studies show that outdoor time is vital to our health. For starters, you'll get your daily dose of vitamin D while outside (something many people lack enough of). Aside from that, getting some fresh air is known to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety

You have more opportunity for improvement

Running outside versus on a treadmill provides more natural opportunity for improvement, not just in speed, but in strength, coordination, technique and endurance. For example, if you live near hills or mountains, running routes with inclines, declines and switchbacks will challenge your legs more (yes, most treadmills have incline features, but they're limited compared to what you'll experience in the great outdoors).

Trail running provides opportunities to enhance your coordination and awareness skills, as you have to stay cognizant of and dodge tree roots, loose rocks and other obstacles that come with tough terrain (be sure to buy trail running shoes for extra traction). 

Read more: It's Never Too Late to Run Your First 5K. Here's How

It's more fun to track and see progress 

When you run outdoors and wear an activity tracker like an Apple Watch, Fitbit, Garmin or Polar watch, you can see all sorts of fun stats about your run. 

Depending on how hardcore of a runner you are, you can track simple stats such as distance, time, pace and calories burned, or more in-depth stats such as cadence, bounce, elevation, altitude changes, heart rate variability (HRV) and headwind.

As your run log grows, you'll be able to visualize your progress and enjoy looking back on all the routes you've run. 

Read more: Nike Run Club, Strava, Daily Burn: The 7 Best Running Apps

When you must run on the treadmill… 

Young woman running on a treadmill

The treadmill has its place.

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Sometimes, a treadmill is the only option, in the case of: 

  • Inclement weather 
  • Working too late or too early to run in the daylight
  • No proven safe route to run
  • Needing to track your pace but no activity tracker
  • Can't leave your kids at home (and you have a treadmill at home)
  • Using a treadmill helps absorb shock when you have joint issues

Even though running outdoors provides so many benefits, running on a treadmill has its advantages, too. On a treadmill, you don't have to worry about cars, bikes or pedestrians, and you probably won't feel the need to carry Mace or a taser with you. You can also turn the volume up on your headphones without worrying so much about your surroundings. 

If you have to work out at home because you have young children, investing in a treadmill is a smart move if you like to run but can't hit the pavement regularly. Also, running on a treadmill usually isn't as hard on your joints because the belt absorbs much of the shock that, on a blacktop, is sent straight to your ankles and knees.

Still, for many people, running on a treadmill is just dreadful. Try these tips for making your treadmill runs more fun and use these treadmill workouts to get faster and improve your endurance.

More for your fitness

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.