Pt Q’s: Treadmill Running

Treadmill Running vs Outdoor Running 

The Q: Is there a difference in how I run outdoors compared to on a treadmill?

Patient QuestionIt was a question from a patient of mine, and certainly with the changing temperatures outdoors, a reasonable one. Before I started studying seriously in this field, it’s also I question I used to ask myself. 

Outdoor running involves community streets, bicycle paths or trails, wind, elevation changes, and different surface types, etc. A whole host of variables unique to each day. Treadmill running involves… well almost none of those things. You have a consistent environment with little variability, but lots of lingering questions.

  • Isn’t running on a treadmill easier because the belt is moving?
  • Won’t the subtle shifting of the treadmill track cause me to overuse/overwork certain muscles?
  • Doesn’t a treadmill’s incline have to be adjusted to make it more like outdoor running?
Is there a difference in how I run outdoors compared to on a treadmill?

Generally speaking, NO. 

A comparative study published by Riley et al. in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2008 sought to find if there are significant differences between running outdoors (called “overground”) and treadmill running (specifically, they were interested in knowing if they could use treadmill running to make recommendations for other types of running). They used joint markers and video analysis to evaluate the differences in running between overground and treadmill running in a group of runners.

Conclusion Treadmill RunningGenerally speaking, their study concluded that overground and treadmill running are very similar. This means that relative action of running remains the same for both overground and treadmill running — you’re using the same muscles, in the same pattern, to achieve the same purpose. The differences they did find were small: cadence (slightly faster on a treadmill), stride time and length (slightly faster and shorter on a treadmill) and slight variability in movement patterns about the knee and ankle — these findings do not change the impression that the act of running is essentially the same no matter which group the runners were in.

So while there may be some subtle mechanical differences, the Riley et al. study clearly demonstrates that running is running — no matter if it’s on a trail outdoors or a treadmill indoors. 

Answer the Question!

No, treadmills are unlikely to significantly change how you run. So if you want to keep running as the weather turns to winter, don’t be afraid to use a treadmill.

Dr. Jim Gilliard is a chiropractor in Burlington, ON — if you have questions, comments, or wish to book an appointment, contact him at your convenience by leaving a comment below, visiting his website, via email at, by phone at (905) 634-6000, or in person at Endorphins Health and Wellness Centre.

Primary Reference: 
  • Riley PO, Dicharry J, Franz J, Della Croce U, Wilder RP, Kerrigan DC. A kinematics and kinetic comparison of overground and treadmill running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2008; 40(6): 1093-1100.

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