Street running and treadmill running are both popular forms of exercise and each has strong advocates. What is unclear, though, is how working out on a treadmill compares with outdoor running. Some research exists that looks at the physical benefits of both, but much of the comparison comes down to personal preference.
Running, whether on the street or on a treadmill, provides a variety of health benefits, including lower blood pressure, improved lung function and improved cardiovascular performance, according to an article by Elizabeth McLeod Sadler of Vanderbilt University. There is some evidence, however, that running outdoors has a slight edge over the use of treadmills. Based on a study published in the Journal of Physiology, wind resistance and the need to navigate curves and turns on streets cause the runner to expend more energy outdoors than when running on a treadmill.
Propulsion and Speed
When you run on a treadmill, the belt moves along at whatever speed you choose. Because the belt moves and pulls your legs behind you, it creates some of the propulsion you need to keep up with the speed of the belt. When you run on the street, you must produce all of the energy needed to move you forward. Your body makes second-by-second calculations to adjust your rate of speed to suit your physical conditions and the environment. On the treadmill, however, you must keep a constant speed to keep up with the moving belt.
Street running exposes participants to all the good and not-so-good aspects of the natural world. Some runners prefer the outdoors regardless of weather, finding the fresh air invigorating. For others, the thought of covering up in rain gear or bundling up for the cold is enough to give them reason to take a day off from working out. The end result is that some runners are more motivated to exercise regularly when the elements are not a factor.
Depending on where you live, it may be perfectly safe to run outdoors at any time of the day. Unfortunately, many places don't offer this peace of mind. Runners in urban areas must be cautious when running alone in dangerous neighborhoods. In suburban and rural areas, running on the road is risky as well, as vehicles are not always on the lookout for people running in the street. Treadmills, on the other hand, have none of these associated risks.
A treadmill offers a smooth and consistent surface for running, which can be kinder to your legs and feet than streets. Outdoor surfaces tend to be uneven, making it necessary to be more cautious when running. Potholes, rocks and other obstacles are a constant. At the same time, some runners find the more varied terrain of street running to be challenging and more interesting than the never-varying treadmill surface.
The Boredom Factor
An understandable complaint against treadmills is that they are inherently boring, Without a change in scenery, a workout can sometimes be dull. Many treadmills do have programs that automatically vary your incline and speed, which make for a more varied run, but your view doesn't change unless the treadmill is positioned in front of a television. Street running provides a little variation, but unless you live in an area with lots of different routes, you’re still doing the same run repeatedly. However, running outdoors provides the opportunity to exercise with friends, a running group or the dog, while a treadmill is more often than not a solo experience.
- The Journal of the American Medical Association: Energy Expenditure With Indoor Exercise Machines
- The Journal of Physiology: Oxygen Intake in Track and Treadmill Running with Observations on the Effect of Air Resistance
- Marie Claire: The Debate -- Treadmill vs Outdoor Running
- Go Ask Alice!: Track versus Treadmill