The Difference Between Treadmill Running and Road Running

If you’re like millions of Americans stuck at home, you’ve been forced to get creative with your fitness routine. And although you miss your standing appointment with your favorite treadmill at the gym (the one with the working television AND the great view of the pool!), you’ve started hitting the pavement to enjoy the nice weather while getting a good workout.

But can your body tell a difference between running on the treadmill and running on the road? Which is really the better workout? For the answers, we spoke to Dr. Sean Brown, an OrthoCarolina physical therapist with an impressive personal running history that includes competing in the 2016 Olympic trials marathon.

Running on the treadmill vs. hitting the road

“From an orthopedic standpoint, a treadmill is a good place to start as you develop the muscles necessary to be able to run outside,” Dr. Brown says.
On a treadmill, you can completely control your environment. That means less potential for injury compared with running outdoors where terrain can be uneven and unpredictable.

Other positives of treadmills include:

  • no wind resistance, so you could potentially run faster than outside
  • smooth, even running surface that could limit the potential for injuries
  • trackers to let you know exactly how far and fast you ran
  • accessories like television to let you “turn off your brain” while running
  • some treadmills are shock absorptive, which is easier on your joints
  • ability to train even in inclement weather

Cons of hopping on the treadmill for every run

Exclusively running on the treadmill can have its downsides though.
For example, it might not adequately prepare you for running in an outdoor race where you’ll have to deal with changing temperatures, wind resistance and other factors.

“If you’re only training on the treadmill, you’re not getting an idea of what it feels like to run at your goal pace with wind, hills or whatever else,” Dr. Brown says. “As much as you can simulate your race environment, that’s ideal.”

You also aren’t forced to propel your body forward on the treadmill the way you would if you were running outdoors. And if you don’t have a fan blowing, you could be at a higher risk for overheating since there’s no breeze indoors to cool you down.

Running outdoors: What to watch for

Compared to the controlled environment of the treadmill, an outdoor run can become unpredictable. But that’s all part of the adventure. Just be aware of your surroundings to keep yourself safe and the potential for injuries low.

For starters, Dr. Brown says outdoor runs can involve a variety of different surfaces like concrete, asphalt, bricks and grass. All of these obviously have different levels of softness and shock absorption, and thus will require your muscles to respond in different ways.

“It’s good to have a variety of different surfaces to stimulate muscle and bone growth,” he said.

Strengthen your joints to avoid injury

Dr. Brown also says even if you’re just planning to run on the road, it’s important to keep your hips and ankles strong in case you hit terrain that’s uneven.

If you’ve been exclusively running on the treadmill (or not running at all) and want to start running outdoors, Dr. Brown suggests heading to a track since it’s a more controlled environment — possibly with a rubberized surface that would be easier on your joints.

If joint pain is an issue, you could also consider running on grass, which is softer than concrete or asphalt.

Starting from scratch

If you’re new to running, it’s better to go slower for a longer distance than to go faster for a shorter one.

“Doing too much too soon, in general, is a good way to get injured,” Dr. Brown says.

As for pain, some soreness is to be expected with any new or modified exercise program. But if you have pain that gets worse the faster you go into your run, you’ll need to back off and consider seeing a physical therapist.

“In general if you’re sore, cut back the workload for a day or two,” Dr. Brown says.

Anything is better than nothing

The bottom line is any type of exercise is better than nothing at all. Whether you choose the treadmill or the road, you’re doing your muscles, bones and joints a favor that will pay big dividends later in life.

So even if you aren’t feeling up for a run, Dr. Brown advises just getting dressed and hitting the road (or the treadmill).

“If people generally don’t like running, it’s because it doesn’t feel good … it takes a while for the muscles and nervous system to wake up, but once they’re going it won’t feel bad,” Dr. Brown says. “When people can do that, they’re able to feel pretty good throughout their run — even better by the end.”

For more questions about running, give the experts at OrthoCarolina a call. There are several ways to consult with the staff at OrthoCarolina right now:

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