Running preferences are very personal. Some of you prefer a solo run indoors on a treadmill and others prefer hitting the pavement outdoors.
But as a fitness professional who’s constantly concerned about the effectiveness and safety of different exercise methods, I ran into a mental dilemma — between sprinting on a treadmill versus outside, which is better when it comes to effectiveness and health?
Evidence suggests that sprinting outdoors is better for a well-rounded workout while running on a treadmill is effective for cardiovascular training. Outdoor running has a slight advantage when it comes to calorie and energy burn, but this can be offset by adding incline and intensity to the treadmill.
Let’s run through the pros and cons of sprinting on a treadmill versus outside and what to consider when deciding which one is right for you.
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What’s the difference between running and sprinting?
Before we ready, set, go, it’s important to understand the differences between running and sprinting.
Running is defined as gait (the way of moving the body by foot) in which at some point both of the feet are off the ground at the same time. It counts as both anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen) exercise. It involves the entire body.
Related Article: Cardio vs. Aerobic vs. Anaerobic: Are they the same?
Running at a slow and easy pace is sometimes referred to as a recovery run since it can be used to recover from interval exercise.
Natural runs are those that are done at a moderate pace and will help with cardiovascular exercise.
A long run is one that lasts long enough to leave you fatigued.
Then there are hill runs that are done while running uphill and tempo runs which keep a specific pace.
Sprinting is another type of running. It’s a term used for sprint interval training. It’s based on repeated, short bursts of running that are at your max or at least close to it. Meaning you’re going as fast as you can and reaching the point where you feel out of breath. Sprinting has been shown to have plenty of benefits including strength, power, and speed building. It also helps with plyometric training and has positive effects on cognitive function and mental health.
For the purpose of this article, we will be using the terms, sprinting and running, interchangeably. That’s because when it comes to differences of treadmill versus outside runs and sprints, the pros and cons are similar. Since the bulk of the research has been conducted on running, we will use that as our standard.
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Benefits of sprinting on a treadmill
Easy tracking: advantage of exact timing, pacing, and speed.
Softer surface: made from softer materials such as rubber and plastic which cause less impact on your body. This allows for quicker muscle recovery from sprints.
Weather proof: rain or shine, you can always make it to the gym. Or even better if you have a treadmill at home, it allows for “no excuse” training.
Benefits of sprinting outside
More muscle activation: requires more overall muscle use. Without the help of a treadmill belt, running becomes a plyometric movement that activates glutes, calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, and quads.
Stimulating terrain: variations in street and trail running can add natural inclines and declines as well as more side to side movements, helping to burn more energy. It’s also more stimulating for the mind, improving the body-mind connection.
Benefits of nature: being outside is associated with more happiness and improved health. Running outside can lead to feeling good and more relaxed after a workout.
Want to target specific muscle groups? The Fitbod app recommends exercises that focus on large muscle groups and includes compound movements that activate multiple muscle groups.
Sprinting on treadmill vs. outside: 5 differences
When it comes to whether treadmill or outdoor running is better, both have pros and cons based on your personal goals and preferences. In general, running outside is more dynamic, helping your body and mind adapt to the differences in terrain. While running on a treadmill is helpful for set and sustained speeds and performance goals.
Check out what the science says about each of these aspects of running:
1. BALANCE AND BODY MECHANICS
Physiologically, running outside stimulates more muscles in order to compensate for the changing terrain. You may do movements such as dodging people and hopping on curbs or over rocks and there may be slight tilt or curve to the road or path. This can help improve muscle control and balance when compared to a linear treadmill run.
The impact of running on pavement can be tough on the body but also be a benefit for bones. Research suggests that both resistance training and long-term running can increase bone density mass. High-impact activities, such as running, may even have a greater positive effect on bone density than resistance training.
Running on pavement may not be recommended if you suffer from an injury. Always check with your physician before starting a new exercise routine. Check out Cleveland Clinic’s article on healing and Preventing Running Injuries.
Another advantage that outdoor running has, is the ability to run downhill. Not all treadmills have this setting. Downhill running uses different muscles in order to slow the body down and stabilize. It can also help increase the impact, which may be rough on sensitive or injured knees, but is suggested to be beneficial for muscular, joint, and bone strength.
When it comes to gait, the treadmill and outdoor running seem to be comparable. One study found that running mechanics were similar as long as the treadmill surface is sufficiently stiff and the belt is regulated.
Related Article: 6 Best Cardio Machines To Tone Legs (Plus, Sample Workout)
2. EFFORT AND AIR RESISTANCE
It’s thought that running indoors on a treadmill makes for a less intense workout when compared to indoor running with the same momentum. This is because of the air resistance. Logically it makes sense that you’d use less energy on a treadmill because there isn’t wind to fight against and therefore have a less effective run. Running outdoors also uses more of a pushing off the ground movement rather than relying on the belt pushing you back. But research has found that this overall effort all depends on the speed and incline that’s added to a treadmill.
One study found that the lack of air resistance on a treadmill resulted in a lower effort when compared with running outdoors at the same velocity — burning about four percent less energy. But the researchers discovered that adding a slight incline of 1% to the treadmill can be used to compensate for this.
When looking at heart rate and perceived effort, both were higher on the treadmill at faster (but not all out speeds) when compared to running outside. The study authors explained that heart rate may increase as a result of stress about falling as well as a lack of moving air to cool on a treadmill.
3. SPEED AND PERFORMANCE
On a treadmill, you have the advantage of adjusting speed, incline, and time of your workout. This can help you push yourself to reach higher speeds and faster sprints. When running outdoors, it’s more difficult to track unless you use a wearable tracking device such as an Apple watch.
When running on a treadmill however, it’s common to overestimate the pace of running. In one study, researchers compared the runner’s perception of speed between outdoor running and treadmill running. The treadmill runners were not able to see the screen display but were free to adjust the speed until it was perceived as similar to an overground run they previously did.
As a result, the difference was significant, showing that treadmill speeds were much slower than overground speeds. With this noted, it’s also important to note that you may be more motivated by numbers on the screen or being distracted by watching your favorite show while on the treadmill.
When it comes to “real-life” dangers, there are more when it comes to running outdoors. There are weather conditions such as rain or extreme heat which can make it dangerous to exercise outside. When running outside there are also possibilities or running into branches. It’s also a risk to run near bikes or cars.
Here are some tips to keep you safe on your sprint:
Run during daylight hours. If running at night, wear bright and reflective clothes.
Stay on the sidewalk whenever possible.
Face oncoming cars and bikes so you know when to get out of the way.
Obey all traffic rules and signals – don’t jaywalk.
Only run through neighborhoods or areas that you know are safe.
Run with a friend if possible.
Dress appropriately for the weather
Safety also applies to preventing injury. Treadmill running has an increased risk for specific muscle overuse and repetition. There isn’t a variation in the terrain, so the same impact time and time again can increase the risk of joint or ligament damage. Something that can help prevent this is to vary the speed and incline and make sure to wear good shoes.
When running outside, there are constant changes in the surface which activate more muscles. But, when comparing a treadmill to a hard pavement, the treadmill can be more forgiving. Always remember to consult your physician to learn which type of exercise is best for you.
5. MENTAL WELL-BEING
Running outside has benefits such as being in nature. In a systematic review, they compared exercising in natural environments to exercising indoors in relation to mental and physical well being, health related quality of life, and long-term adherence to activity.
Compared to exercising indoors, the natural environments were associated with increased feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, and decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. However, the results suggested that the calm feelings may be decreased following the outdoor exercise. The outdoor exercises also boosted energy. The participants were also more motivated to repeat the run after doing it outdoors.
This of course depends on where you live and what the weather conditions are like. If you have access to sunlight, it has been shown to increase levels of serotonin, known as the “happy neurotransmitter”. But if you’re running when it’s too hot, raining, cold, or running into the wind, it may make for an unpleasant experience, therefore decrease motivation to do it again. Some areas may also be unsafe to run so please use your best judgement.
A treadmill offers a controlled environment which can be very helpful if you live somewhere very hot, cold or unsuitable to exercise outside. Heading into a temperature controlled gym may be the safer and more preferable option in this case.
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Sprinting for HIIT
If you’re looking to sprint for quick, effective, and long-lasting calorie burn and improved health, you may want to consider HIIT. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an exercise done at a high level and strength, for brief periods of time, followed by a period of rest or easy recovery. It typically has 5-8 rounds performed for 30-60 seconds each, with 20-30 second rest periods in between.
HIIT sprinting can be done either on the treadmill or outside. For the treadmill, you can time the “all out” portion as you sprint as fast as you can. You may also find it helpful to increase the incline. When doing HIIT sprinting outdoors, you can either use a watch or your scenery. For instance, locate a destination ahead of you and sprint as fast as you can to get to it.
When going for the all out sprints, a good way to gauge how hard you’re pushing yourself is by using the rate of perceived effort (RPE). This is personal, so your best may be different than someone else’s best. An estimate is number one one the scale being a light walk, five being moderate intensity pace, and 10 being an all out sprint. Using this scale, you should aim for the eight to ten range during your HIIT sprints.
Keep in mind that intense exercise like HIIT or HIIT sprints should not be done everyday. This is because too much can put you at risk for injury, overtraining, and prevent the essential muscle recovery time which allows them to get stronger.
Learn more here: Should You Do HIIT Every Day? (5 things to Consider)
There are pros and cons to both sprinting outside and on a treadmill. The treadmill tends to be a bit more beneficial for cardiovascular improvements while outdoor tends to be better for working different muscles as well as fitness factors such as balance.
There are slight differences when it comes to body mechanics and effort, but the two are close enough so that the differences don’t make a big impact. This is as long as you’re using a good machine.
It’s important to consider that this really comes down to personal preference, familiarity, and comfort. Basically the biggest differences between treadmill and outside sprinting aren’t the ways you run, but rather how you respond to the running experience.
The key to deciding whether sprinting on a treadmill or outside is better, comes down to what’s going to get you ready, set, go-ing!
About The Author
Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.
Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.
She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.