For runners, indoor and outdoor running provide different benefits and setbacks. The great outdoors comes with changing scenery and less boredom. But it also means facing the elements and some terrain challenges. On the other hand, the treadmill offers an entirely customizable experience, but with the same view for miles. Depending on schedules and individual goals, both outdoor running and treadmill running are necessary components of any runner’s routine. So, it’s important to know how logging miles indoors and outdoors varies. “It’s important to recognize that there is a difference between the two and also to know when to utilize each,” personal trainer Ambyr Chatzopoulos, CSCS says. “If you are not aware of the differences, you may not get as much from your workout or training as you would hope.”
Here, pros share the main differences been outdoor running and treadmill running—and how to alter your routine to balance out the variances.
You have to work harder to pace yourself inside.
Based on which setting you select, Chatzopoulos says that pacing yourself on a treadmill is far more difficult than running outside. Why? Jogging through a path with natural ebbs and flows, hills, and flat surfaces conditions you to speed and slow depending on the energy you need to make the stretch.
Even with bursts of incline on a belt, it’s tougher to maintain a steady pace. “Your brain isn’t forced to pay attention to how much energy you are exerting to hold that pace because the treadmill speeds up and slows down to whatever mph you program in,” Chatzopoulos says. “Instead, your body starts moving on autopilot—if the treadmill speeds up, your stride speeds up. If the treadmill slows down, your stride does as well.”
You don’t have to add incline, depending on your speed.
You’ve probably heard you should add a 1 percent incline during treadmill runs. This is meant to account for the wind resistance you typically encounter outside. But, according to a recent study, Chatzopoulos says this is a myth. It actually depends how fast you’re running.
The key speed to remember is 7:09 minutes per mile. “When you are running slower than a 7:09 pace, the amount of air resistance when you’re running outdoors doesn’t add up to anything significant, so there’s no need to incline the treadmill,” she explains. “However, if you are moving quicker than a 7:09 pace, then increasing the incline will absolutely help mimic running outdoors.”
You train different muscle groups.
Sure, running is running is running, but, according to fitness coach Adrienne Daly, you engage different muscles on a machine and outside. She notes that tracks, trails, beaches, and other outdoor surfaces provide the best workout. “Treadmills do not provide the same muscle activation in your glutes and hamstrings as outdoor running,” she says. “When you’re running outside, you push yourself forward using the back of the leg, while on the treadmill, the belt actually pulls you forward.”
But there are other benefits that come with machine-based running. “Your core does get a little more engagement as you are keeping your balance [on the treadmill],” she says. “This will help you improve cardio endurance with timed bursts of intensity.”
You should try to match your machine to your terrain.
According to personal trainer Sergio Rojas, not all treadmills are created equally. Depending on the age of the machine, quality can vary. This can cause softer or harder impact absorption, which can affect your runs and lower body muscles differently. Whenever possible, Rojas suggests matching your machine to your outdoor terrain of choice.
“Depending on what type of ground you run on outdoors, you may need to adjust one or the other to mimic more closely,” he says. “Most people prefer a slightly softer landing. So, you can choose to find softer tracks to run on—like grass or dirt paths that are [more forgiving] than concrete.” However, if you’re training for a race on concrete, a hard treadmill surface will help prepare your body for the conditions.