Running on a Treadmill: Advantages, Disadvantages, and Tips

Man on treadmill with headphones

Whether you’re outside or on a treadmill, running is an excellent form of exercise. Many runners dread the treadmill, but sometimes circumstances leave you no other choice. If you have the option of doing either, in my opinion there is no substitute to road running.

I’ve done extended stints on the treadmill before, usually during the winter months when my usual routes are covered in snow and ice. After a couple months of fast-paced, high intensity treadmill running, I’ve found myself struggling to keep a good pace during my first few road runs. While you can achieve a high level of cardiovascular exertion on a treadmill by getting your heart rate up, you don't use your leg muscles the same way as compared to running outside. Road running requires you to push yourself forward with each step. On the treadmill, the belt pulls your leg back instead of you pushing yourself forward. Other differences are a lack of wind resistance and hills on a treadmill. You will be able to cover significantly more ground with less exertion on a treadmill. If you’re training for a race, running on the treadmill isn’t an adequate substitute for road running. Of course, its much better than not doing anything, but the bulk of your training should be outside.

An advantage of the treadmill is you can set your goal pace and then you have no option but to keep up or fall off the back. When running outside, you may unconsciously slow your pace. On the treadmill you set your goal pace and then you have to make a conscious action to slow down. It may be also easier to track your progress by recording times, distances, and speed more accurately.

One way to get more out of your treadmill workout while also making the time pass faster is by running intervals. Increase the speed and keep the pace for a set distance or time. Repeat after running a set recovery distance. You’ll not only get the benefits that come from interval training, but tracking the intervals will help keep your mind occupied and pass the time. Another advantage of the treadmill is running on a padded surface. The padded surface along with the slight give of the treadmill under your weight helps reduce stress on your joints.

Another way to get the most out of your treadmill workout is to increase the incline. By setting an incline (1 or 2 percent will work), you can engage your muscles better than running on a flat surface. The extra inch or two that you need to propel yourself upward on each step helps increase strength and better simulates a road run.

When you are forced to run on a treadmill, the minutes can seem like hours, especially when you’re staring at the seconds and minutes slowly tick away on the clock. Sometimes you have the benefit of a television to distract you when you’re on the treadmill, but workouts can still seem excruciatingly long. There are a couple tricks I’ve learned to help make the time pass faster. First, throw your towels over the dashboard to hide the time and distance. When you’re not looking at the clock or the hundredths of a mile slowly add up, time will likely pass a lot faster. If you don’t have towel, try toggling the dashboard so average pace or speed is showing instead of distance or transpired time. If you’re listening to music, tell yourself you’re not going to look at the clock until you’ve listened to a certain number of songs. I found it’s a lot easier to tell yourself you just have 8 more songs as opposed to 4 more miles.