Which Running Terrain is Best: Treadmill vs. Road vs. Trail

Whether you’re a running rookie or an exercise expert, the terrain you choose to train on can make a huge difference to your workout. They each have their benefits and drawbacks, but no matter what you choose, running is a simple but effective exercise, suitable for anyone and everyone.

The three running terrains discussed in this article at are The Treadmill, The Road and The Trail. These three types give way to three different running styles and are the most prominent for runners looking to up their distance and build their pace whilst maintaining healthy, active lifestyles.

The Treadmill

  • PROS
    • Your local gym will have a full bank of treadmills which are able to be used no matter what the weather, often with up to 24-hour access.
    • Running on a treadmill is generally considered to be the easiest method, as there is no wind resistance or any other restricting outdoor elements.
    • But if you do like the challenge, gradient settings can be adjusted on most treadmills to counteract this and diversify workout intensities.
    • Treadmills also have a very low injury risk as the surface is flexible and uniform, with built-in safety features.
    • Often you can track your heart rate and other fitness levels, too – making it easier to see progress or the distance and speed of your run instantly.
  • CONS
    • Running on a treadmill can hamper your long-term development as a runner. If you move onto running outdoors after treadmill training, you won’t have the same sense of speed or pace, as this will have been controlled by the treadmill rather than yourself.
    • Some see the treadmill in a negative light, owing to the lack of a natural environment and surroundings.
    • Treadmills also put more stress on the knees, due to the forced nature of the pre-set speed.

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The Road

  • PROS
    • Running on roads or pavements is free and very easy to start.
    • No matter where you are, there will always be a place to run – even down the high street.
    • Running on the road is much more aesthetically pleasing (unless you really do prefer watching the gym tellies).
    • In general, an outdoor run is more beneficial to your health, and if you want to train for races, this is the best way to practise for the real thing.
    • It can even be used as a mode of transport, such as travelling home from work and therefore is environmentally friendly.
  • CONS
    • As the ground is harder, you’re more likely to develop injuries over repetitive strain.
    • There are more hazards to be wary of, such as cars, cyclists or other pedestrians. Therefore, low-light situations or the use of headphones can increase the risk of danger.
    • In the winter months especially, there are heightened risks to face, such as ice, the bitter cold and heavy rain or even snowfall, which can all cause injury or encourage illness.

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The Trail

  • PROS
    • Trail running undoubtedly offers the best scenery and surroundings.
    • Running on dirt is good for your feet as it offers a balance of firmness and a spring that won’t be as tough on your knees.
    • Trail running adds variety to your workout as it includes a greater mix of gradients and other challenges that prevent boredom and repetitive strain injuries.
  • CONS
    • Trail running holds more risk of falls and injuries, which can be increased by choosing mountain trails, as any falls have the potential to be fatal.
    • It’s recommendable to purchase a higher quality of shoe or specialist trail running trainers, as others won’t handle the stress of trails.
    • As you’ll inevitably be further from home, you’ll need to consider getting there and back, which increases activity time, and all-in-all makes the workout much more effort.

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So, Which Terrain is Best?

Overall, whichever terrain is best for you is entirely down to personal taste.

If you’re looking to squeeze in a run after work, a treadmill is a great way to keep fit. If you want to push towards marathon running, the road is a smarter move. If you would rather experience the outdoors and get off congested urban roads, trail running is the way to go.

One approach is to build up a programme. Why not try a treadmill first to see how you find it, before moving on to road running in an attempt to build skill, and finally trail running, just for the experience. Each one is great for fitness, but whatever you decide, make sure you enjoy running in a way that’s right for you.

Got all the idea but none of the gear?
Check out our Expert Exercise Gear Guide here.

Written by: Natalie Green