While running is a great form of exercise, there’s often a debate surrounding running on the treadmill vs running outside. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, research from Nielsen (opens in new tab) has shown that running has become an increasingly popular way to stay fit and take care of yourself. Regardless of how you run, there are plenty of health benefits to gain from incorporating it into your routine.
Grabbing yourself one of the best treadmills (opens in new tab)has the benefit of being accessible and convenient, but you may need a gym membership if buying one yourself isn’t an option.
Meanwhile, running outside with the best running watches (opens in new tab) can provide a wide range of benefits, including exploring your local area, getting some time to yourself, and the opportunity to enjoy a variety of different terrains.
So, is there truly any difference between running on a treadmill vs running outside? We study the facts along with expert opinions to decide whether either practice makes a difference in terms of cost, weight loss, and knee impact.
- Related: Best sports bra for running (opens in new tab)
Treadmill vs running outside: What’s the difference?
One of the main differences between running on a treadmill vs running outside comes down to the environment. Treadmills are machines that are used inside, making it easy to work out from home or in rough weather. However, those who prefer running outside could argue that the lack of scenery or terrain changes can be boring.
Treadmills allow the user to control minute aspects of their run, down to the incline, speed, and intervals. This is great for those recovering from injuries who need a more controlled environment. Modern treadmill belts are also designed to absorb some of the impact of your footfalls, which can help protect your joints. However, while these are all excellent benefits, treadmills can bring a hefty cost with them.
Running outside enables you to explore nature and your local area. According to Frontiers in Psychology (opens in new tab), this can bring excellent benefits for those with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Concrete or hard ground are typical terrains to run across, which the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation (opens in new tab) suggests could see regular outdoor runners gaining stronger bones as a result. However, running outside can introduce challenges in terms of various terrains, inclines, and weather, which can potentially lead to injury when dealing with uneven or wet ground.
As there is no gym or equipment to pay for, the cost of running outdoors is typically much lower.
Treadmill vs running outside: Price
Once you’ve decided to start running regularly, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. But which is cheaper: running on the treadmill vs running outside? For both types of running, the common costs that may or may not apply include:
• Fitness clothes
• Supportive and durable trainers
• Safety gear i.e. head torch, reflective jacket, or strips
With the optional purchase of accessories such as:
• Body weights i.e. wrist or ankle weights
• A fitness app or music platform subscription
However, when using a treadmill, you may need to factor in certain costs depending on your location. If you choose to use a gym, you need to factor in the cost of a membership, which costs an average of $58 according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute (opens in new tab). However, this cost can actually rise to over $100, depending on where you live. Fuel or travel costs may also be a factor if you live further than a walk or cycle away from your local gym.
You may also need to frankly consider if you will regularly use your gym membership. If you prefer not to go to gyms, purchasing a treadmill could be an alternative option, but that may mean spending between $100–$4,000 alongside the general running purchases above.
It’s clear that running outside is the cheapest option when discussing running on the treadmill vs running outside; however, prices and preferences will vary. Only you can decide if either option is worth it for you.
Treadmill vs running outside: Weight loss
To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit; each day you need to burn more calories than you absorb. As Dr. Javier Gonzalez of the Department of Health at Bath University (opens in new tab) states: "Weight management is mainly about energy balance, so to lose weight we need to eat fewer calories than we expend through our resting metabolism and physical activity." Running regularly can help you burn more calories and create an estimated 500 calorie deficit, according to Harvard Health Publishing (opens in new tab). But which is better for losing weight: running on a treadmill vs running outside?
Experts have found little evidence to suggest that there is a difference in weight loss between treadmill running vs running outside. Regardless of which option you pick, the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab) advises that regular aerobic exercise will burn calories and aid in your goals. Researchers at The American Council on Exercise (opens in new tab) discovered that it is the speed that you run and the type of running that you do that impacts the number of calories burned. For example, the Journal of Diabetes Research (opens in new tab) suggests that high-intensity interval training can be a time-efficient and effective option for losing weight. HIIT involves running quickly for 15 to 60 seconds before walking or jogging for an equivalent period. This is done repeatedly for five to 20 minutes.
Walking, jogging, steady-state running, and HIIT training can all be done on the treadmill or in the great outdoors. However, most treadmills don’t have a decline, making it difficult to properly simulate terrain or cross-country running when marathon training.
Treadmill vs running outside: Impact on knees
As running is a repetitive load-bearing exercise, many people who are starting to run regularly can feel concerned about their joints, especially their knees. While the Journal of Sports and Medicine (opens in new tab) advises that having proper shoes can help mitigate the force of your foot-strike, running can still affect your joints.
Researchers have found that runners often have a shorter stride as well as a higher overall stride rate when on a treadmill vs running outside. A 2014 review from Sports Health (opens in new tab) found that this can translate to less impact on joints such as your knees, ankles, and hips.
Modern treadmills also have belts that are designed to absorb the force of our footstrike and increase cushioning. Meanwhile, a 2017 study from the Osteoarthritis Initiative analyzing exercise habits of over 2,500 people suggests that running regularly may actually decrease the chance of frequent knee pain.
If you are still concerned about the impact of running on your knees, you can work to minimize damage by:
• Doing knee exercises (such as these examples from the NHS (opens in new tab)) to strengthen the muscles around them
• Wear the right shoes
• Ensure that you have proper posture while running
• Try wearing knee straps
• Try to use shorter strides
• Minimize bouncing while running
Treadmill vs running outside: Verdict
Overall, both treadmill running and outdoor running have their benefits. Treadmill running is convenient, lower-impact, and much more precise but comes with a bigger overall cost. Running outdoors can often feel more engaging, reduce poor mental health symptoms, and is cheaper overall but can bring weather or injury issues.
Regardless of which type of running you choose, having a key foundation of consistency, a nutritious diet, and plenty of rest (JCEM (opens in new tab)) are key to a healthy lifestyle.