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Treadmill or running outdoors?

By  AAMI

The pros and cons of both and which is better? Everything you need to know.

Whether you're a seasoned sprinter or a running newbie, you're doing your health a favour – the benefits of running are well documented. From a positive mood (yes, ‘runner's high' is real) to better brain power and living longer, running is a great exercise. Plus, it isn't as likely to damage your knees as people may think. Researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine, US, found for runners with no pre-existing knee conditions, running doesn't harm knee joints - in fact, it might protect them. 

So, we know it's good for us but what's the best way to do it: train on the treadmill or pound the pavement? "The biggest technical difference is in our balance mechanism," says Exercise Physiologist Andrew Schwartz. "On a treadmill, the ground under us is moving; on the road, it's not," he says, which is why people can find it hard to run in a straight line on the treadmill. That said, there are pros to both – here's the run-down.

5 benefits of treadmill running

Forecast factor

No excuses: the weather won't get in the way of your run. "A treadmill is climate controlled!" says Schwartz. Rain, hail or shine you can lace up and go.

24/7 possibility

If your schedule only allows for exercise early in the morning or late at night, a treadmill can be safe and convenient. "If you're a shift worker and can only exercise in the dark, there's greater injury risk running outdoors," says Exercise Scientist Martha Lourey-Bird.

Maximum me time

Super low on down time? Treadmill workouts can help you combine two pastimes: exercise and entertainment. Dying to catch up on the latest episode of your favourite show? Run on the treadmill and both are ticked off.

Speed work

Want to improve your running time? Treadmill training might do the trick. "You can usually run a faster, more constant pace on a treadmill than on the road," says Lourey-Bird.

Less impact

"Treadmill running is a little less harsh on the joints, so it can be more beneficial for people with injuries," says Schwartz.

5 benefits of outdoor running

Fresh air boost

Just five minutes of exercise outdoors can energise you and positively affect mental health, say researchers from the University of Essex, UK. It works for Sydney runner, Louise Cheung. "Running outdoors is a bit like being on holidays," she says. "I don't think about deadlines or emails: I'm completely in the moment as I leap over stepping stones – time and distance fall away."  

Variety effect

It's important to mix up the terrains you run on so you don't get bored and your body doesn't work the same muscles. "Doing the same high-impact activity day after day on hard surfaces is going to have a negative impact no matter what you're doing or where you're doing it," advises Lourey-Bird. "While you essentially use the same large muscle groups for running on any surface, running on different terrains – such as sand – recruits different muscles than just normal running," says Lourey-Bird.

Race prep

Signed up for a fitness event? It's probably best to stick to the conditions you'll compete in. "Running outdoors is better if you're training for things like the City2Surf or a fun-run," says Schwartz. 

Group therapy

Running needn't be solitary. If you're a social creature, running outdoors with a club, group or friend can be very motivating and help keep you going.

Free for all

Running outdoors costs nothing, as opposed to either forking out hundreds or thousands of dollars on a decent home treadmill or paying for a gym membership.

The verdict

Like most things in life, it's best to have a balanced approach. "It may be good to do a bit of both," says Lourey-Bird. "Indoors on a treadmill for speed work and outdoors on different terrains for conditioning," she says.

When it comes to energy burning, it's much of a muchness: "Things like intensity and duration of your run determine the kilojoules you burn," says Lourey-Bird. "You may run a shorter, faster session on the treadmill that burns more kilojoules than the slower, longer workout outdoors, but the reverse might also be true. It's about the volume of work you do rather than where you do it," she says.

What do the experts prefer? Both Schwartz and Lourey-Bird's personal choice is an outdoor run, but don't let that sway you. "Doing either [a treadmill or outdoor run] is better than neither," says Schwartz. "And if it's just for fitness there's not a big difference," he adds. "Choose what's convenient and enjoyable for you, and you're more likely to stick to it," says Lourey-Bird.