The Difference Between Treadmill, Road and Trail Workouts

by Lauren Krouse
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The Difference Between Treadmill, Road and Trail Workouts

If you’ve been walking or running on the same surface for a while, it could be beneficial to switch it up. Have you been using the treadmill for months? Take your workout outside. Stuck on your same old neighborhood road? Head to your nearest park and hit the trails!

But what’s the difference between exercising on a treadmill, pavement or trail — and which workout plan makes the most sense for you? Here, running coaches break it all down.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TREADMILL, ROAD AND TRAIL WORKOUTS?

“The treadmill is technically the easiest (to run and walk on), with the road being middle ground and trails being the hardest,” says Sara Hayes, founder and head coach of Mindful Miles Running, a program for runners of every skill level. That’s because the treadmill belt helps your feet along and you’re in a more controlled environment indoors.

On the road and trails, on the other hand, you may burn more calories due to factors like hills, shifts in terrain, and the wind. But if you’re used to road running and suddenly switch to the treadmill, it could seem harder due to perceived exertion (aka, how hard an exercise feels regardless of how your body responds), says Meghan Kennihan, a USA Track & Field certified running coach.

Ultimately, you can get a high-quality workout on any of these surfaces. The key is to maintain the same effort level. Here’s what you need to know about the pros and cons of each, plus the best time to use them.

TREADMILL WORKOUTS

Naturally, the treadmill’s a smart option if you’re short on time or live somewhere with extreme weather conditions. It’s also a smart pick if you’re new to regular walks or runs or prone to injuries like shin splints. “The treadmill surface is softer and has ‘give’ to it, unlike the ground reaction forces of running on concrete or asphalt,” explains Kennihan.

But treadmill dread can definitely be a thing. So use a high-energy playlist, engaging TV show or fun workout plan to keep your workouts interesting.

PROS:

  • Climate-controlled
  • Adjustable incline and speed settings
  • Easier on the joints thanks to a softer surface

CONS: 

  • Can get boring
  • Lacks variation in terms of terrain
  • Requires a gym membership or investment
  • You can still get hurt

BEST FOR: 

ROAD WORKOUTS

“The road is great because it allows you to explore and get fresh air,” says Hayes. You can step out your door and hit the pavement immediately. Many running and walking clubs meet up on the road, and joining one could help keep you accountable and increase your pace.

The main downside? You’re at the mercy of mother nature weather-wise. But there is a silver lining to rainy-day workouts: “Training in various conditions can breed a sense of mental toughness,” says Amie Dworecki, head running coach for Running With Life.

PROS:

  • No need for a gym membership or special equipment
  • Can plan runs for interesting views and distance markers (Think: Run at a medium pace for the next three blocks or sprint until you hit the stop sign)
  • Research suggests outdoor exercise is generally more enjoyable and dynamic

CONS:

  • Potentially greater risk of injury due to repeatedly hitting harder surfaces (like concrete)
  • Poor weather conditions could disrupt your running schedule

CLICK TO TWEET THIS ARTICLE > Learn the difference between treadmill, road, and trail workouts—and which to choose, via @myfitnesspal #running #walking


BEST FOR: 

TRAIL WORKOUTS

Trail running is even more challenging because your foot placement is key to not tripping. The surface is often soft and, therefore, you’re not getting the return energy you get from springing from the road or treadmill,” says Kennihan.

But nature runs can boost your mental well-being and work more muscles as you navigate ever-changing terrain. “Often first-time trail runners can be sore in places they didn’t even know existed,” says Dworecki.

PROS: 

  • Build more muscle and strengthen your core
  • Improve balance and body awareness
  • Get a mood boost from quality time in nature

CONS: 

  • Potentially greater risk of injury due to uneven terrain
  • Poor weather conditions could disrupt your running schedule

BEST FOR: 

  • “Boot camp” style workouts with bodyweight exercises like lunges and step-ups at various intervals like trail markers
  • Longer walks or runs to increase fitness levels and challenge different muscle groups
  • Meditative nature walks or scenic trail runs

THE BOTTOM LINE

“Any form of walking or running is great exercise,” says Dworecki. “The best type of training is to mix up treadmill, road and trail running so the stressors on your body aren’t always the same and, mentally, you have a different experience as compared to repeating the same routine over and over again.”

“It doesn’t have to be either/or,” agrees Kennihan. “The key is to find what works best for you and fits your needs and schedule.”

Make progress every day while you work on fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated. 

About the Author

Lauren Krouse

Lauren Krouse is a freelance writer who covers health, domestic violence, and self-advocacy. Her work appears in Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Prevention, Self, HuffPost, and elsewhere. When she’s not writing, you can find her trying to meditate more, weightlifting, or walking in the woods with her partner and black lab.

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