Is Treadmill Running or Outdoor Running Better?


question-icon-newMy friend told me that running on a treadmill will not give you the same cardio workout as running outdoors on a track. Is this true?

answer-icon-newThis is a really great question as the treadmill is probably the most utilized piece of cardio equipment in the gym. It’s easy to understand the popularity of this machine as it has many benefits. First of all, it’s easy to use. Along with this, it’s a very familiar piece of equipment to most people and doesn’t carry the “goofy” stigma that some cardio equipment does. Secondly, it’s easy to distract yourself on a treadmill by watching TV, reading a magazine or people watching. In fact, many of the newer treadmills have televisions built right into them! You can also use a treadmill any time of day and in any type of weather. All of these are great benefits and we haven’t even mentioned yet that you can get a very good workout on a treadmill.

There are however, inherent differences between running outside and running on a treadmill. The major difference is in locomotion. Normal running requires that we use the muscles of the body and momentum to propel the body forward. This process essentially has 3 phases:

  • The forward foot strikes the ground.
  • The planted leg then pulls back with the hamstrings and gluteus.
  • The trailing leg swings through with the assistance of the hip flexors.

Perhaps the most important of these 3 phases as far as locomotion is concerned is the second phase which is the pulling back that is done with the hamstrings and gluteus muscles. The faster you wish to go, the more the muscles involved in this stage of the process are stressed. This will become very evident if you were to look at the physical differences between sprinters and long distance runners. Sprinters have more muscle in general but it is especially pronounced in their hamstrings and glute (butt) muscles. It is often said that we run with the back of our legs not the front.

Now let’s compare this with what happens while running on a treadmill. The forward foot strikes the ground just as with outdoor running. But then that foot is pulled back by the rotation of the treadmill belt. This assistance by the treadmill in the pulling phase is really what separates treadmill running from real world running outdoors. On a treadmill, you are essentially removing the second phase or at least greatly reducing the workload of the necessary muscles. Another important thing to note is that the body is a synergistic unit. In other words, every movement it makes is interdependent on other muscles of the body. So when the body is asked to thrust itself forward while running, many other muscles are called into action to support the primary muscles responsible for the movement. Muscles of the lower back, abdominals, calves and many more are called into action when running. It follows then that any type of assistance you are getting from the machine not only works less of the primary muscles involved in the movement but many of the secondary muscles as well.

So, all else being equal, I would tend to agree that real world running outdoors is a better workout than treadmill running. Both can be a great workout and both have inherent benefits but I would save the treadmill for those rainy days whenever possible.

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