Most of us runners use some form of cardio equipment, whether it’s at home or at the gym. It’s a great help when the weather is bad, it’s too late (or early) to run safely, or if you happen to be suffering from insomnia and want to do something constructive in the middle of the night!
We’ll be going over all the details so you can make an informed decision as to which one would be right for you before jumping into your next home or gym workout!
Upfront, the cardio workout you get from any piece of equipment depends largely on how much effort you put into it. A leisurely 30 minutes on any machine isn’t going to be as good a cardio workout as an intense 30 minutes.
That said, different machines are generally a little different in terms of how good a workout they can provide.
Intensity is the biggest factor in a great cardio workout. The treadmill offers a few options for increasing the intensity of your workout.
Firstly, the ability to set HIIT programs is a huge bonus. Typically, these types of workouts are better for the cardiovascular system than low-intensity, steady-state workouts. They keep your heart rate elevated for a much longer period of time, which gets the cardio system working hard.
The biggest difference between running on the treadmill and riding the bike is that running is a weight-bearing exercise. Carrying your entire body weight means your body has to work harder, increasing the effectiveness of your workout.
Changing the speed and incline also makes you work harder, even if you don’t use them in a HIIT capacity.
The bike also offers a good opportunity to engage the cardiovascular system. Like treadmills, they offer a variety of programs that allow you to choose between LISS (low-intensity steady-state) and HITT workouts.
While you can increase speed on a bike, you don’t have an incline option. You do, however, have the option to increase the resistance, which essentially does the same thing as increasing the incline on a treadmill.
It’s important to note that the effectiveness of your workout also depends on what kind of stationary bike you buy. Upright bikes tend to offer a more well-rounded workout with better options for increasing intensity, whereas it tends to be harder to get a similar intensity on recumbent bikes.
While both machines offer a great cardio workout (if you put in the effort), the treadmill comes out on top.
This is mainly due to the fact that it’s a full-body and weight-bearing exercise, which the bike isn’t.
The treadmill vs. bike debate has some merit if you’re considering muscle use and growth. Again, it does depend on how much effort you put into your workout, but there are some differences between the muscle use between the two machines.
The treadmill mimics running, which means it’s basically a full lower body workout. Your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves get a fantastic workout.
But running works almost the entire upper body, too. When you’re running, your core needs to be engaged to keep your balance, especially when you’re going around corners or down hills. The core consists of the abs and the lower back muscles.
Have you ever tried running without moving your arms? It’s almost impossible! If your form is correct, you can get a bit of an arm and shoulder workout too, although it won’t be significant in terms of building large amounts of muscles.
Interestingly, because running is a weight-bearing exercise, it also strengthens the bones, ligaments, and tendons.
It makes sense that the bike gives you a serious leg workout. Your calves and quads will get a monster workout if you pedal with high intensity. If you stand and pedal, you’ll engage your glutes and hamstrings as well.
But because the stationary bike isn’t moving, you won’t really be using your core muscles to stabilize yourself. You also won’t be straining your arms, chest, and shoulders to steer or stabilize, like you would on a real bike.
If you want a more well-rounded bike workout that does include core and upper body, your best bet is to get on a real bike and head out to a spot where you can do some high-intensity riding. Real riding – and especially mountain biking – engages the core in ways a stationary bike rarely can.
If you’re looking to build super leg muscles, the bike gets the thumbs-up.
But if you want a well-rounded, full-body muscle workout, the treadmill comes out on top (although it doesn’t build full-body muscle as well as the bike builds leg muscle).
If you’re exercising with a goal in mind, calorie-burning is usually important. Like everything else, this depends largely on the amount of effort you’re putting into the workout.
For example, exercising at a high intensity with a high resistance level for 30 minutes will obviously burn more calories than working out at a low intensity with no resistance for the same amount of time.
It also depends quite a lot on your body composition. As a rule of thumb, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn.
According to a Harvard study (updated March 2021), these are the numbers we can expect to see using the treadmill:
- 125-pound person: 240 calories at 5mph, 375 calories at 7.5mph
- 185-pound person: 336 calories at 5mph, 525 calories at 7.5mph
These numbers can change quite a bit when you start incorporating HIIT instead of keeping a steady pace.
The same Harvard study cites these figures as the expected calorie burn on the stationary bike:
- 125-pound person: 210 calories at a moderate pace, 315 calories at a vigorous pace
- 185-pound person: 294 calories at a moderate pace, 441 calories at a vigorous pace
Like the treadmill, these numbers can change when you begin to do HIIT training.
While both machines have great potential for burning calories, and both increase when HIIT is applied rather than steady-state, the treadmill burns slightly more calories than the stationary bike.
This is most likely due to it being a weight-bearing, full-body exercise, which the stationary bike isn’t.
If you’re planning on adding one of these machines to your home gym, you’ll find that prices can vary wildly. If budget is not a consideration for you, then pick what you like! But if budget is a consideration, then you’ll be a little more selective.
Treadmills come in an extremely wide variety of levels. You can get budget treadmills for less than $500, but these will be very basic. One of the most affordable options are manual treadmills, but these don’t come with bells and whistles. Often, they are intended only for walking.
High-end commercial-grade treadmills can cost up to $4,000! But you’re paying for a more powerful motor, extra deck cushioning, and other features you won’t find on cheaper ones.
Like treadmills, you’ll find stationary bikes in a wide range of prices. The cheaper models can cost anywhere from $200. Top of the range models can set you back around $2,000 or more. Name brands like Peleton and SoulCycle can set you back $2,500 or more just for the machine.
The higher-end machines will naturally offer more features and possibly more resistance levels. Lower-priced machines can still offer a good workout, though!
One option, if you already own a good bike, is to buy a stationary trainer for it. These often allow many features like variable resistance and connectivity to apps like Zwift or Peleton. Just like full bikes, the prices and options range from low and basic to high and feature-packed.
If budget is your biggest concern, you’ll find a better quality stationary bike for a lower price than you will a treadmill.
Both of these machines are commonly found at gyms and fitness centers, where a membership gives you access to both.
Potential for Injury
Like all exercise machines, both the treadmill and the stationary bike have the potential for the user to become injured. Let’s compare them in more detail.
Although the treadmill is a great workout and mimics running, it does put pressure on your joints. Every step, no matter how cushioned the treadmill deck, jars the feet, ankles, and knees.
The treadmill also presents a falling hazard, especially if you’re moving at a speed. All treadmills come with a safety clip for emergency stop, but stepping wrong or getting distracted while running fast can lead to injury if you fall.
The bike is much easier on the body than the treadmill. It’s low-impact, so your joints don’t get jarred or damaged in the process of using it.
There’s also no falling hazard, as your hands are on the handlebars all the time. Even if you do remove them briefly, because your feet are firmly planted on the pedals, there’s far less chance of you losing your balance and taking a tumble.
The stationary bike is less likely to cause injury than the treadmill.
If you’re looking for a machine to promote recovery, we recommend the bike rather than the treadmill.
Better for Runners?
The better machine for you really depends on your goals and training needs.
If you’re looking for something to mimic outdoor running as closely as possible, then the treadmill would be a natural choice. This could be helpful for keeping up your running fitness between races, or if you happen to live somewhere with bad weather and need to get your training in.
If you’re looking for an alternative form of cardio, then you can’t go wrong with the bike. It offers something different, and strengthening your leg muscles can only benefit your running performance.
There’s no clear-cut answer as to which of these two machines is the better one. That will depend on you, your goals, and which you enjoy more!
That said, if your goal is to prepare for an upcoming race without being hampered by the weather, then a treadmill is probably the better option for you. It’s also great if you want more variety, for those who get bored easily when doing cardio!
If you’re looking for a machine to strengthen you while you recover from injury or something that specifically targets the legs, the stationary bike would be a better choice.