Road running or treadmill, WHICH IS BETTER?

Road running or treadmill, WHICH IS BETTER?


I’m often asked this exact question and it’s funny how people have different ideas of the definition of the actual word, “BETTER”.  Some might say the treadmill is safer than running on dark streets, or easier than running in the cold and rain.  Others say running on the treadmill is boring, so I’m going to take a slightly different view.  Let’s examine which is better from an anatomical point of view first and then marry up the pros and cons from all perspectives, anatomical, caloric expenditure, ease, comfort and personal safety.  But before we get into this HSR stands for hard surface running and TMR stands for treadmill running, OK?

There are two factors which play a role in determining how fast you actually run.  Your stride length or the distance one of your feet travel from one pace to the next and stride speed or how often those strides occur.   So, if you want to remain at a constant speed and you alter one of those, then common sense dictates that you need to increase the other and vice versa.

running on the treadmillNumerous studies have been done comparing HSR & TMR and the end conclusion is that when you run on a treadmill, your stride frequency is higher and stride length shorter than on HSR.  In other words, when you run on a treadmill, you take shorter strides, but take more of them.

Also, when you run on a treadmill, you have a decreased swing phase and an increased period of time when the foot remains in contact with the treadmill.

The major difference between HSR and TMR is with the belt on the treadmill.

On HSR your glutes and hamstrings are required to drag your foot backwards in order to propel your body forward.  On a treadmill, the belt does this for you, thus creating an easier movement.  African American sprinters have powerful glutes and hamstrings, hence the reason why they do so well at sprinting.  With the easier movement being on the treadmill and your glutes and hamstrings not having to work as much (remember the belt is doing their job for them) they now have a tendency to go to sleep.  I call it “Glute amnesia” and is a major cause for concern, given most 21st century occupations have people sitting all day.  Another term for those who run a lot on treadmills is SAS.  (Saggy Arse Syndrome)  You can always tell someone who runs a lot on treadmills, as their bottoms start to sag through lack of glute activation.

outdoor runningWhen we sit all day our hip flexors are held in a shortened state for an excessive period of time, causing tight hips.  Remember earlier in this article I talked about how running on the treadmill causes your stride frequency to increase to offset the decrease in stride length?  Well the overall effect of this is an increased tightness in your hip flexor muscle.  So, if you sit all day at work and then go to the gym and run on the treadmill, you are giving your poor hips a double whammy tightness session.  So, what do you need to do?  Offset this tightness by performing some gentle hip flexor stretches both at work and after your exercise session on the treadmill and may be even when you get home.

The moving belt of a treadmill also causes some issues with our calves.

When we push off a solid surface like the ground during HSR, the ground remains still and so we have a solid foundation from which to push off and propel ourselves forward.

With the moving belt, the ability for the gastroc – soleus complex (a flash name for your 2 calf muscles the gastrocnemius and soleus) to push off is severely reduced and so they must work harder to commence the forward propelling movement of your leg.

This over activation is one reason why many TMR runners have such tight calves.

Further more, running on a predictable surface like a TMR requires less ankle stabilisation.  HSR requires constant focus due to the undulation of the terrain, gradient and texture.  All of these factors require extra ankle stabilisation, more so than TMR.

Runners who perform a lot of TMR and then transition to HSR may suffer a higher risk of ankle injury due to the lack of ankle stability.

On the positive side, TMR has considerably less skeletal impact than HSR as most treadmills have a flexible striding surface to absorb the impact on foot strike.  This is great news for those who suffer from joint pain and are just starting out in a new exercise regime.

There does not appear to be much supporting research to indicate which method burns more calories, HSR or TMR.  In fact, a recent study suggested that in order to have similar energy costs (calorie consumption) the treadmill needs to be elevated by 1%, however, other research studies contradicted this, hence the reason for the inconclusive answers.

Unlike HSR, TMR remains absolute constant due to the speed and terrain governed by the treadmill being set at a steady pace.  HSR on the other hand can provide all manner of constant changes such as a headwind, terrain changes and weather conditions.  These all provide the runner with a constant stimuli, whereas, many find TMR and its constantness (is there even such a word) monotonous and boring compared to HSR.


So to summarise, Treadmills create a higher frequency in stride, due to a shorter stride length, causing an extra burden on the hip flexor complex. This can lead to tighter hips. It also tends to create tighter calves due to the treadmill belt moving as the leg transitions forward requiring them to worker harder for the same result.  The treadmill also allows the glutes and (to a lesser degree) the hamstrings to become lazy due to the belt performing some of the backward movement.  Treadmills can increase the risk of ankle injury due to the lack of required stabilization required as compared to HSR.

On the plus side, the treadmill provides a safe and secure environment for those with personal safety issues to exercise.  They are also less stressful to the skeletal system due to the built in shock absorption of most belts and platforms and they can be used all year round, removing the unpleasantness of running in the wind, rain or cold.

My best recomendation is to mix it up. Like most things in life, too much of one thing is no good. Variety is the key to spice up anything in your life. So, mix your running with an even mix of treadmill and outdoor running. They both have their place and can both be used to great effect.

If you read this and would like some assistance or guidance, please feel free to contact me

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Pat Rae

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ABOUT: Pat Rae is a personal trainer, lifestyle coach, massage therapist, motivational speaker, author and presenter.  He is the owner of a boutique PT studio in Brisbane  and an online health and wellness program both of which have been established to help people live healthier, happier and more energetic life through exercise, eating whole real foods and stressing less.  See more at &


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