Elliptical, Treadmill or Running Outside—Which One Is the Best?

Sport & Activity

The elliptical and treadmill are two popular cardio machines but is one better than the other? Is it better to take your workout outdoors? Let's compare the pros and cons.

Last updated: 21 January 2022
6 min read
Elliptical vs Treadmill vs Running Outside: What's Better?

When you’re deciding what type of cardio is best, you may find yourself comparing the difference between using an elliptical and running on a treadmill. If you’ve decided on running, you might be caught up in another question — should you run indoors on a treadmill or outdoors? We've weighed the pros and cons for you.

To start with the basics, what is the difference between an elliptical and a treadmill?

What's the Difference Between an Elliptical and a Treadmill?

An elliptical machine, also referred to as a cross-trainer, is a stationary exercise machine. It has two foot panels, which you step on with each foot. You grab the accompanying handle with each hand. As you move your feet and pull the handles towards you, the machine moves in a circular motion to reproduce the movement of running.

A treadmill is a machine that has a continuous belt, allowing you to walk or run in place. You are able to move freely on the treadmill, in the same way that you would if you were outdoor running.

What Are the Benefits of an Elliptical?

The elliptical exercise machine is one of the most popular machines in the gym for several reasons. It's easy to use, effective and is safer for your joints than the treadmill because it's low impact.

When you work out on an elliptical trainer, you can adjust the level of intensity. This increases the resistance, making pedalling feel more difficult. This activates your muscles, as you have to exert force to complete the movement.

It's a low-impact machine, meaning that your feet remain on the pedals for the duration of the workout. This is different from running on a treadmill, which involves both your feet coming off the ground at the same time, before hitting the ground on impact. The low-impact nature of the elliptical machine makes elliptical training a great option for individuals with joint problems, older adults, injury rehabilitation or beginners just starting a workout routine.

An elliptical workout may sound like an easy cop-out from the high-impact, high-intensity workouts popular today, but a study found that lower-impact exercise was effective at reducing body fat, increasing muscle strength and improving cardiovascular fitness in a group of participants.

Don't discount the exercise an elliptical machine can provide—you can still get a high-intensity workout on an elliptical. You can increase the resistance to make each movement harder, activating muscles to feel a burn. Aside from the intensity, you can also train in intervals. When you push with full effort and cycle it with periods of lower intensity, you can create your own low-impact HIIT workout.

A final benefit of using an elliptical is that it incorporates your upper body. Your arms are working against resistance as they pull the handles towards and away from your body as you move. That makes it a full-body workout, perfect for a warm-up or cardio session.

What Are the Benefits of a Treadmill?

The treadmill offers different benefits than the elliptical, some of which may make it superior—depending on you, your situation and your goals. The treadmill is more versatile in terms of the workouts a runner can do on it: you can walk at an incline, lightly jog or do high-intensity sprints.

On a treadmill, runners are in control of how fast and intense the workout is, making treadmill running a great option for all exercisers, whether you're a beginner or an experienced athlete.

However, a treadmill is a high-impact machine. Running on a hard surface can cause joint pain, injuries and shin splints as shown in a 2007 study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine. If you're a beginning runner, an older runner or are a runner overcoming an injury, treadmill workouts might not be suitable.

Running on a treadmill can help to increase lower-body strength by targeting your leg muscles, specifically the glutes, quads and hamstrings. Walking and running are one of the most popular and common ways to improve cardiovascular fitness, lean out your legs and increase strength.

A study published in 2017 found that after a 12-week treadmill walking trial, participants improved their strength, muscular endurance, ankle range of motion and flexibility. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) done on a treadmill has also been shown to have a plethora of benefits for physical fitness and stamina. A study found that HIIT burns more calories than any other type of cardio and reduces body fat more efficiently.

Which Is Better?

Both the elliptical and treadmill are beneficial, helping to improve physical fitness, stamina and strength. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that the calories burned, heart rate and oxygen consumption were almost identical during treadmill workouts and elliptical workouts.

Thus, your machine choice should be based on your preference and your situation. If you're older or recovering from an injury, choose the elliptical. If you're physically fit and want to increase running endurance, choose the treadmill.

Treadmill Running or Outdoor Running?

Once you've decided that running is right for you, you might be faced with the decision to run indoors or outdoors. So which is better?

Benefits of Treadmill Running

  1. 1.Controlled Environment

    Rain or shine, you can run on a treadmill. When you work out indoors, you aren't restricted by the weather, temperature or daylight. Whether you're training for a marathon or just getting in healthy exercise, it's important to be consistent. But bad weather or darkness may not permit you to run outside, particularly in winter. Running on a treadmill is a perfect alternative.

  2. 2.Steady Pace

    One of the best ways to train for a race or marathon is to learn how to keep a steady pace. Some people struggle to do this when running outside due to distractions or uneven terrain. Treadmill training keeps your pace steady.

Benefits of Running Outside

  1. 1.Mental Health Benefits

    A 2019 study published in the journal Mental Health & Prevention compared indoor workouts with outdoor workouts. The researchers found that those participants who exercised outdoors reported a better mood, feeling calmer and feeling more grounded than those who exercised indoors. It's easy to see why, particularly if you compare running in a loud, busy gym with exercising in a beautiful park.

  2. 2.More Realistic Race Setting

    When you enter a race or marathon, you'll most likely be running on the pavement outdoors. Treadmill training may not adequately prepare you for the factors that come with running outside. For example, dealing with wind resistance, controlling your pace, ignoring distractions and adjusting for inclines or declines. Any experienced runner knows that it's better to practise in a scenario that realistically mirrors what it'll be like on race day.

Elliptical vs Treadmill vs Running Outside: What's Better?

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Listen to the Guided Runs in the Nike Run Club App and run with some of the best coaches and athletes, like Eliud Kipchoge, Shalane Flanagan and Mo Farah. Our Guided Runs give you the guidance you need to listen to your body, adapt to your training plan and become your own best coach.

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