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Is Running on a Treadmill Harder?

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Individual runners have different preferences when it comes to running on a treadmill or outdoors. Running on a treadmill might be easier for one segment of runners while enjoying the outdoors works best for another. And others are just fine with both.

Whatever your choice, there is no wrong answer. Whether you are anticipating a race or just doing your daily workouts, both surfaces (treadmill and outdoors) provide the necessary exercise needed.

But why do some folks feel that running on a treadmill is harder? Is running on a treadmill harder?

Or is it all about the physical factors or the psychological factors involved?

This article will point you to the key factors to consider when choosing a surface to run on, and why running on a treadmill might feel harder.

Which is Better—Treadmill or Pavement?

It all depends on the runner’s preference.

Some runners find it more comfortable and easy running with all the controls right in front of them so they can increase the pace or slow it however they want.

On the other hand, some runners are inspired and motivated by the great outdoors when running on the road or a track and find it unbearable running on a treadmill. 

Low angle of woman running down bridge with sun

What to Consider When Choosing a Surface to Run On

When choosing a surface on which to do your running exercise, either the great outdoors or a treadmill can give you the best experience depending on a few factors:

  • EnergyRunners often claim that running outside consumes more energy compared to running on a treadmill, making it good for professional athletes because they get to experience wind resistance and various terrains. 
  • Well-being – Studies have often shown that runners who exercise outside in the natural environment, especially in a location with lots of green scenery, tend to enjoy it more and find it satisfying and rejuvenating compared to running in a confined environment.

    It is for this reason that you may find running on a treadmill harder because you have to convince your brain that you are comfortably making progress yet the brain might just be tired of the space.

    Besides, running outdoors means that you get exposed to sunlight for vitamin D activation, beautifully complementing the exercise with a healthy and strong skeleton system.
  • Safety – Running on a treadmill might give you the impression of a safe exercising space since there are no risks of falling branches, tripping over protruding roots, or dodging traffic.

    However, unvarying repetition can be a major concern with treadmills because your joints and ligaments can get used to particular paces, and after long streches of similar paces, it might be hard to stretch your pelvic joints.

    When running outdoors, however, this is never an issue because you get to experience various terrains, obliging you to pace up or slow down respectively.

    This not only helps you exercise your muscles, joints, and ligaments but also helps improve your balance. It is therefore good to change the pace and incline often while running on a treadmill.
  • Speed – For a fact, outdoor runners work harder compared to those using treadmills. Those running on treadmills, on the other hand, often feel that they are running faster. This is only an illusion created in the mind because of the fewer visuals in the room and the always pacing treadmill below.

    Besides, it is the moving belt that helps you gain speed because it drags your feet along. Therefore, if you are training for speed, the outdoors are best for you.
Woman running on treadmill at home

Reasons Why Running on Treadmills Might Feel Harder

Different Stride Length

For different runners, the biomechanical adjustments of the body to the treadmill mean that they have to contain their stride to fit the predetermined pace on the treadmill.

Running outdoors, therefore, is nothing compared to a treadmill. You have to extend or shorten your strides naturally depending on your speed and the terrain, meaning that more energy is needed to maintain the pace.

Even if you are maintaining the same pace on a treadmill as you would outside, altering your stride length might give you a false impression of working harder. This can be a bit challenging and also may be the reason why you feel running on a treadmill is harder.

Treadmills Get Monotonous

Ever heard the term “dreadmill” uttered amongst runners? Guess what they are referring to? Running on treadmills can take a serious toll on you not only physically, but also mentally.

For a fact, it is known that runners will always maintain their interest and attention better when running outdoors as compared to running on treadmills. The consistency of the pace and the confined gym environment makes it difficult to concentrate on the tracked distance, often making it feel harder. 

However, you can beat this monotony by switching things up a little with preset landscape simulations on the treadmill which often change the pace to fit the simulated terrain.

You can also take advantage of the “boring” environment and distractions to build upon your concentration on nothing else but the route alone, helping you to build psychological toughness for races.

Incorrect Machine Calibrations

Treadmills are man-made machines, and since man is prone to error, all machines will not always have the exact same calibrations.

Besides, after being in use for a while, meters can develop a drag in calibrations, a reason why a treadmill’s calibrated pace is not always the actual pace you are exerting. For this, you might feel that the treadmill is getting harder by the day.

If you need confirmation, try out a friend’s or another gym’s treadmill and you will see the difference between the machines even when running at the same pace as you always do with your treadmill. 

Fitness man working out and running on treadmill in gym

Constant Pace

For a fact, maintaining the same pace for extended periods will be more tiresome for your body and muscles compared to accelerating and decelerating over slopes and hills when dealing with the outdoors. This reason may have you feeling that running on a treadmill is harder.

However, depending on how you view it, keeping a constant pace on a treadmill is not necessarily something bad since it helps you maintain the same pace and speed, even when fatigue sets in.

Focus on Different Muscles

You might feel that running on a treadmill is harder compared to outdoors because the belt causes you to focus on different muscles than you would on an outdoor run.

Although it might be good that it drags your legs along giving you the motivation to keep up, the belt gives your feet a softer surface to land on, making it much more comfortable and accommodating to your ligaments and joints.

Considering an outdoor run, however, you have to constantly push yourself forward with your back muscles besides engaging your stabilizer muscles, something not offered by treadmills.

Considering that all muscles are not worked the same on a treadmill as they are on a track, you might feel that you are overworking your quads because they do the real work here, often making you feel the treadmill is harder.

Is a Treadmill Good for You?

Treadmill running is not bad for you, especially if you spend most of your time sitting. However good they may be, treadmills have their disadvantages too.

Not all treadmill machines are equipped with the simulation variations of going uphill or downhill. These treadmills can be tiresome, boring, and monotonous compared to outdoor tracks. 

Woman's legs on treadmill in fitness club

When Should You Use a Treadmill?

  • Treadmills are good for runners doing structured speed exercises while they prepare for races.
  • For outdoor runners, treadmills are good for when outdoor conditions are not favorable, such as bad roads or extreme weather, or when they might be exposed to dangerous situations such as sharp turns that may have blind spots for oncoming cars.
  • Treadmills are also good if you just want a workout for your general health and well-being. Running outside is not necessary.
  • If you are recuperating after an injury, or slowly getting into the aport of running, starting on a treadmill may be a good idea. Your feet will gradually get used to running on a softer surface before being subjected to the hard surfaces of pavements and concrete.


Depending on your purpose for exercising, treadmill running should not necessarily feel harder than running outdoors.

When running on treadmills remember to constantly vary the speed and inclines to break the monotony of constant pace repetition that may get tiresome and make the run harder. Also, focus on your breathing rate, and not just on the minutes per mile to maintain a healthy pace.

Either way, you should know how to balance between the treadmill and outdoor tracks to get the best out of them and your exercise.