Treadmill vs road running – which is best for older runners?

Is a treadmill preferable to running outdoors – or is it simply down to what you prefer? We weight up the two options.

When it comes to treadmill vs road running, there are upsides and downsides that come with both activities.

There’s not a clear winner in studies, and generally the weather is the greatest influence when it comes to choosing between the two running options (or so this runner finds, at least).  

If you’ve been having debating which is the best option for you, we’ve compiled a list of pros and cons for both – with help from a running coach and a fitness coach – so you can crown your winner, lace up your running shoes, and get out there.  

Person running on treadmill with just below the knee showing and sunlight in the backgroundCredit: Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

Pros of road running

“Road running on pavements around your local area is the simplest form of running; different from other terrains such as trails, tracks and treadmills,” explains running coach Clare Norris. “It doesn’t require much equipment – you can just walk out of the door and explore your local area.”  

Norris’s pros of road running include: 

  • no membership fees; you can run when you like, where you like 
  • it helps get you outdoors and experience what your local area has to offer 
  • you can set goals and see progress quickly (even if it’s just running to the next lamp-post) 
  • friendships – running has a far-reaching community that includes athletes of all ages and abilities. 

Cons of road running

Road running is said to be less forgiving to muscles and joints compared to treadmills and trail running, says Norris: “However, it’s difficult to be sure if this is true and further research needs to be done.”  

A little discomfort when running is part and parcel at any age. However, if it becomes painful, consult your doctor or there are specialist sports consultants you can turn to for advice. 

Other cons that come with road running include:  

  • fumes from traffic  
  • it can be risky to run close to cars and other vehicles  
  • stopping frequently while waiting at traffic lights and crossings   
  • it can be boring, as there’s not a lot to look at apart from buildings and concrete. 

Road running conclusion

Norris says: “Road running isn’t necessarily better than treadmill running, it’s just different.  Both have unique benefits. Mostly it comes down to personal preference and what your running goals are. 

“I personally prefer road running purely as I like knowing where I am going (my navigation skills are terrible), how far I am running and how long it will take me.” 

If you’d like to become a road runner, Norris advises starting with couch to 5k, as it’s a simple way to get going, with set targets. 

Photo taken behind runner on road with the bottom of their legs showing and the sun rising in front.Credit: Shutterstock/lzf

Pros of treadmill running

“Treadmills are easy to use,” says, James Staring, lead coach at Fit to Last. “But the key to staying consistent is to set yourself some goals. Like any other piece of training equipment, you get more out of a treadmill when you know what you want to achieve.”  

Starling’s other benefits of treadmill running include:  

  • you can set a target and progress your speed in a controlled manner 
  • it’s not weather dependant – you can run rain or shine  
  • a treadmill surface can feel easier on the legs than running on concrete
  • you can use the incline function to vary your workout. 

“The best thing to do with treadmill running is to make sure you know how everything works,” says Staring. “By getting a staff member at the gym to demonstrate the features (or by reading the instruction manual – fully if you’re not in a gym), you’ll get the most out of your runs as you’ll know how to best utilise the tools available.” 

Fun fact

Jamie McDonald holds the Guinness World Record for the longest distance covered on a treadmill. In 2019, he spent seven days running 524 miles (843km). Do you fancy giving him a run for his money?  

Cons of treadmill running

Top of the list is boredom, says Staring: “Again, having a plan on what you want out of the workout, and how you’re going to accomplish that, will keep you on track – and a great playlist helps, too.”  

Staring’s other cons that come with treadmill running:  

  • easy to give up as you’re running in one place 
  • you tend to stay in your comfort zone and not challenge yourself 
  • it can be repetitive if you do the same thing all the time  
  • It will cost money – either via a gym membership or through buying your own treadmill  

Treadmill running conclusion

“Think about what you want to accomplish from running on a treadmill,” says Staring. “If you just start without an objective in mind, you’ll bore very quickly and stop.”  

Spend some time finding out what functions the machine has. Set yourself some targets and make it your mission to challenge yourself.  

Treadmill vs road running: the verdict

Treadmills are great for practising speed work in a controlled manner (especially if there’s someone next to you who you can race), and road running is great for getting outside and exploring where you live. Both of them have as many pros as they do cons.  

Take the opportunity to mix up your environment when you can and be fair to yourself. If you find the treadmill a drag and can only manage 10 minutes, that’s still 10 minutes more running than you would have done – and that’s the same for road running.  

Ultimately, there are many benefits of running regardless of the surface – so pop on your trainers and get going.   

Rebecca Frew

Written by Rebecca Frew she/her

Updated:

Becky Frew has written various articles for newspapers and magazines focusing on fitness, is a qualified run leader, and a certified sleep talker trainer who loves to help advise people how they can nod off easier. When she is not writing or reading about fitness, she is at hot pod yoga, bounce class, training for an ultra-marathon or booking anything with a medal and free food at the end.

  • instagram