I took up running because I was tired and bored of working out inside four walls. That’s why for a long time I always took the option of running outside even if I had easy access to a gym with state-of-the-art treadmills.
But after years of tripping on sidewalk cracks, having to slow down and stop at intersections and red lights, being chased by feral dogs, and inhaling smoke from vehicles stuck in heavy traffic, I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity and convenience of running on a treadmill.
There are many benefits to running on a treadmill, and it is a great tool to build fitness and improve performance.
The Pros of Running on a Treadmill
1. Treadmills offer a more forgiving surface to run on.
If you’ve ever run on a concrete sidewalk then ran a few meters on grass or dirt beside it, you would know that some surfaces are harder than others. Concrete and asphalt/bitumen is hardest, while grass and sand is softest. Dirt trails, tartan track surface, and treadmill belts are the happy medium that offer shock absorption while still returning energy to your stride.
Treadmills have one advantage over trails and track: there are no turns or canted surfaces and you don’t have to watch out for rocks or wildlife while running on a treadmill.
2. You can run despite road and weather conditions.
Some cities don’t lend themselves to running: run-down or non-existent sidewalks, reckless motorists, and interminable stop lights (and the temptation to jaywalk that comes with them) can break your stride and rhythm.
Some runners are hardier than others, going out for runs even when the heat outside can fry eggs on car hoods, even when the cold can freeze sweat icicles on bonnets, and even when a torrential downpour threatens to sweep everything outdoors into the gutter.
For everyone else, retreating to the comfort of a treadmill indoors ensures you get your workout in without risking your health and safety.
3. Learn to pace yourself and develop your pace awareness.
Treadmills allow you to input the pace you want to run, and it’s going to stay there until you select a different speed or press Stop. This encourages a consistent effort rather than the surge and fade you get when running outdoors.
When it comes to a race, experience on a treadmill of running steady at race pace will allow you to control your effort so you can finish strong and not burn out too early.
Running on the road sometimes alongside other people, I’m frequently tempted to speed up if I feel good (or competitive) or slow down when I don’t feel great. Running on a treadmill you’re forced to stay disciplined, which is beneficial especially for runs structured according to pace like tempo or intervals. If I am doing pace work outdoors I am constantly checking my GPS watch. On a treadmill, I “set it, then forget it”; my entire attention can then focused on other things, like keeping proper running form.
4. Improve your running form.
You can catch glimpses of yourself in reflections on plate glass windows while running outdoors, but using a treadmill with a mirror on the front and the side is a great way of seeing your form and getting real-time visual and motor feedback when you make adjustments to improve it. You can see if your shoulders start to tense up from fatigue and can actively relax them. You can feel your feet drag on the belt if you’re not picking your knees up enough. You can hear if you’re not running tall enough because your feet land heavier and more noisily.
Treadmills can alter which muscles you’re using because the belt moves under you instead of you moving forward with the force applied to the ground by your legs and feet. However, if you’re working on reducing over-striding as well as increasing foot turnover to improve running form, treadmill running has been shown to decrease stride length and increase cadence.
5. Challenge yourself physically and mentally.
Because you can pick and change speed and incline settings on a treadmill, it’s easier to create challenging workouts for yourself that will improve your speed and build your strength or ability to stay on pace for an extended period of time. It will also allow you to simulate a race course’s elevation profile if your surrounding running grounds don’t match it (run flat if you live in a hilly area or run hills if you live on flatlands).
The Cons of Running on a Treadmill
The combination of airflow against the body, visual feedback of forward movement, and visual stimulation that distracts from discomfort makes running outdoors feel easier (and more enjoyable). Research shows perceived exertion is greater when running on a treadmill than when running on a road at the same pace. Running indoors can be a mental challenge: if you’ve ever likened it to running like a hamster on a wheel, you know “running to get nowhere fast” exerts a toll on your mind. It’s so easy to hit the big red button and hop off… But that’s when your resolve and determination is tested; when you can stick with running on a treadmill, running outdoors during a race will be a breeze.
However, there are a few disadvantages to doing all your running on a treadmill.
1. It’s not very entertaining by itself.
The view doesn’t change and you may not be able to resist comparing yourself to a hamster on a wheel — going nowhere fast. When I run on a treadmill, I frequently find myself looking at the clock checking whether or not it’s time to end my workout. Running outdoors, I sometimes don’t even notice how much time has passed.
While there are treadmills that can offer video representations of running outdoors and some have programs that can even simulate hills and famous run courses, nothing beats the real thing especially for people drawn to running because you get to explore on your own two feet.
Speaking of trying to find diversion…
2. You tend to rely on gadgets and numbers.
I find it really boring to run on treadmills, so I need to have music in my ears. For long workouts I will usually use a streaming service to watch two episodes of a television show or a short rom-com movie. I am also always checking how far I’ve run already and at what pace.
When I run outdoors especially on well-loved routes, I find myself checking my GPS watch far less, relying on visual landmarks to tell me how much further I have to go and how quickly I’ve gone. It's easier to connect feel to actual performance.
3. You’re only training one plane of movement.
Treadmills train you to move forward, but in race situations you’re very rarely just moving forward. You could be dodging slower runners, hopping on and off sidewalks, running on changing surfaces, and turning corners. You’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate these varying paces and movement patterns on a treadmill.
Variety is the spice of life, and the different challenges your body is faced with on an outdoor run (even more so a trail run) make you a better runner and a more fit athlete overall.
Don’t write treadmills off as good tools for running, but also don’t stress it when you don’t have access to one. Remember that running is still one of the more accessible sports for everyone — as long as you’ve got the time and resources to put rubber soles on the road.