Stuck Running on a Treadmill? Make the Most of It with These 3 Workouts

The dreadmill.

The hamster’s hell.

The death belt.

Geez. The way people talk about the treadmill, you’d think it was a medieval torture device. Mention a treadmill to a group of runners, and you’ll be met with a symphony of groans, accompanied by a list of why the treadmill sucks.

Because, really – the treadmill effin’ sucks. You don’t go anywhere cool, commune with flora and fauna, or feel the sun on your face. Nope. You get on the belt, turn it on, and run (and run, and run…for what feels like forEVER). The treadmill, essentially, has no benefit to anyone who wants to enjoy running.

Or does it?

If the treadmill sucks so much, why do so many exist?

If they were so horrible, people wouldn’t use them. Yet there are rows upon rows of treadmills at most gyms, so there must be something good about them. Actually, there are a bunch of a reasons why a perfectly sane runner might opt to stay inside for a spin on the old ‘mill:

Comfort – When it’s negative 30 degrees in Milwaukee or 115 in Phoenix, the treadmill can offer a welcome respite from harsh conditions.

Convenience – If your workout is a mixed bag (say, a swim, a run, and a weightlifting session), sometimes it just makes sense to do it all at the gym.

Safety – If you have an odd schedule, a run may just have to happen at 4 AM or 11 PM. Running outside in the dark poses a lot of safety hazards, many of which can be eliminated by running indoors on a treadmill.

Multitasking – A lot of us use running as our escape, our chance to do one thing and nothing else. But for some, it’s an opportunity to multitask. On the treadmill, people can watch the news or read work briefs. One couple I know, whose running speeds are vastly different, use treadmill workouts as a way to be there to motivate each other!

Injury Prevention – If you are prone to injury when running on the sidewalk, a treadmill, which absorbs more shock, can reduce pain and discomfort.

Speed – During speed or tempo workouts, it’s easy to drop your effort without realizing it. You may estimate you’re running an 8 minute per mile pace, then look down at your watch and realize that’s not the case at all. The treadmill eliminates that guesswork – if you can’t keep up with the treadmill, you’ll get tossed. Simple as that.

3 workouts to help you maximize your treadmill time

I’ve been using the treadmill in my training for my first attempt at qualifying for Boston. My coach, Mario Fraioli, likes to torture challenge me, but thanks to his training (which includes treadmill workouts), I’ve gotten significantly faster.

Here are three treadmill workouts Mario wrote to share with No Meat Athlete readers:

1. Marathon-Paced Tempo Run

Success at longer races such as the half marathon and marathon is all about pacing and discipline. What better place to practice running goal race pace than on the speed-controlled contraption called the treadmill?

Warm up with 10 to 15 minutes of easy jogging followed by 20 to 50 minutes of running at your goal pace for your upcoming half marathon, followed by a 10 to 15 minute cooldown. For the marathoners, begin with 10 minutes of easy running before launching into goal marathon pace for 30 to 60 minutes. Finish up with 10-15 minutes of easy jogging to get your heart rate back down.

Take advantage of this opportunity to not only practice running goal race pace, but also to work on dialing in the demands of your body’s nutritional needs at race speed.

2. Break-the-Boredom Fartlek

Let’s face it: running on a treadmill isn’t the most exciting way to spend an hour — but it can be a very productive way to spend an hour if necessary. One way to make the time pass by quickly is to vary the speeds and intensities at which you’re running.

Start by warming up with 15 to 20 minutes of easy running, then run a pyramid of pickups in the following fashion: 1 minute at 15 seconds per mile faster than 5K race pace, 2 minutes at 5K race pace, 3 minutes at 5K race pace, 6 minutes at 10K race pace, 3 minutes at 5K race pace, 2 minutes at 15 seconds per mile faster than 5K race pace, 1 minute faster than 5K race pace. Take 1 minute of easy jogging after the 1, 2 and 3 minute pickups and 3 minutes after the 6-minute pickup. Cool down with 15 to 20 minutes of easy jogging. Before you know it, an hour is up!

3. Progression Session

If you set the treadmill at 9 minutes per mile and leave it there as you plod along for 45 minutes both your body and your mind are likely to get stale. The Progression Session is a workout designed to stave off that staleness.

Here’s how to do it: Say your goal pace for an upcoming marathon is 8:30 per mile. Start your run a minute per mile slower than that, so a comfortable 9:30 pace. Stay there for 10 minutes till your body begins to warm up and your legs get used to the rhythm of the belt underneath your feet. For the next 5 minutes drop the speed down 30 seconds per mile to 9:00 pace. At the 15-minute mark of the workout progress to goal marathon pace, 8:30 per mile, for the next 20 minutes. After spending 20 minutes at goal marathon pace, chop another 30 seconds per mile off the pace, so 8:00 per mile, for 5 minutes. This will be challenging, but maintainable, for a short period of time. Finish up with 5 minutes of easy jogging and walk away with a solid 45-minute progression session under your belt.

Wait! Not so fast!

Before you designate your treadmill as your primary training tool, know that it’s not a magic speed machine. As with sugar-free desserts, Beatles cover bands, and wax figures of celebrities, the substitution is never as good as the real thing.

Treadmills are a smooth, constant surface with consistent environmental conditions. When we run on treadmills, we’re exercising a very specific set of muscles in a very specific set of ways. If you log the majority of your miles on the treadmill, then decide to race on more varied terrain, you’ll be at high risk for injury because your muscles will suddenly need to maneuver and land on your feet in ways they’re not used to. Additionally, because treadmills are so great at absorbing impact, taking to the streets may be a shock to your system (literally!).

Basic physics come into play, too. When you run on the treadmill, the “ground” moves under you, making it easier to move your weight. Some say because of the way the treadmill “grabs” your foot and moves it, running on a flat treadmill is actually the equivalent of running downhill! When you run on the road, the track, or the trail, you’re the one doing all the work. Race day may seem much harder if you’ve spent the majority of your training on the treadmill.

So What’s a Runner to Do?

  • Use the treadmill for a very specific purpose (say, tempo runs); do all other workouts outside.
  • To counteract the “downhill” effect of running on a treadmill, set the incline to at least 1 percent.
  • Find a speed where you are actually pushing the belt backwards a little bit, instead of the belt pulling your feet along.
  • Don’t hold on to the handrail or console. This should be an obvious tip, yet so many people still grab on to the treadmills instead of using their arms! If the speed of the belt is so much that you absolutely cannot keep up, then decrease the speed.
  • Remember that treadmill speeds are not always exact. Calibration of treadmills doesn’t happen frequently (if at all), so don’t put too much stock into the speeds you hit on your treadmill. Do your time trials on a track flat stretch of road to gauge your true run speeds.

Just like weight machines or pull buoys in the pool, the treadmill is a tool to supplement your training. Use them correctly, and you’ll have a reason to smile when everybody else is whining.

Susan Lacke is No Meat Athlete’s resident triathlete, author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, and is currently training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. “Like” her on Facebook for links to her latest articles in random corners of the Internet.

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Comments

  1. Cathy Walsh says:

    Really helpful!! Thanks!

  2. I totally hate the treadmill, but this posts reminds of all the reasons why it can be a helpful tool. Thanks!

  3. The treadmill, of course, has it’s place. For me, [I live in the 115° Phoenix] I wouldn’t be able to run everyday if I didn’t have my treadmill at home.

    Some days, I’ll even get in 5-7 miles of walking while I work as I have an arm that holds my laptop at the right height.

  4. Love this! Right now I’m using the treadmill to get in extra hill practice while I train for the San Francisco marathon (I live in a really flat area). But normally I can’t stand them. Happy to have this list of ideas for the days when it’s treadmill or nothing.

  5. Danielle says:

    Thank you for this post! I am of the “pre-dawn” workout folks, and don’t feel safe running alone in the dark at 5am. (And in New England, where there are only about 3-4 months where it is actually lighter and above 32F by 5am…) I do longer runs outside on weekends, but was having a hard time shaking the treadmill guilt during the week! Thanks for the recommendations on how to make my early mornings more interesting and hopefully productive.

  6. Deborah says:

    I love the treadmill. In fact, the first race I ever ran (a 10K) I trained entirely by running on the treadmill and walking at the mall. It was what I had available to me and I made it work. I don’t have the luxury of being that much of a snob about other people’s training.

  7. Sabina :) says:

    Great I love running but I got a surgery in my knee last year and the doctors said if i want to be able to walk a 50 years old I would better run inside ! And actually if you open the tv wile you run it’s not thag bad !!

  8. I work 12hrs a night, and after my strength training in the afternoon I like to watch the news while I run. I do all my speed and interval training on the machine and my long runs on the weekends.

  9. Great article, Susan. Those are some great workouts (I know your coach, Mario, well and he definitely doesn’t take it easy on his runners, haha)

    Here’s a helpful point that might help anyone that has to run on the dreadmill, excuse me, treadmill.

    Run at a 1% incline. Scientific research has proven that setting the treadmill to a 1% grade accurately reflects the energy costs and simulates outdoor running (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8887211). Therefore, by setting the treadmill to a 1% grade, you can offset the lack of wind resistance and the belt moving under you to make treadmill running the same effort as running outdoors.

    Corroborating research has shown that VO2 max is the same when running on a treadmill compared to outside, clearly demonstrating that running on a treadmill is as effective as running outside http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4033405). Furthermore, research reveals that bio-mechanical patterns did not change when test subjects ran on a treadmill versus when they ran outside (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7421475).

    Therefore, research shows that running on a treadmill has the same effect as running outside when running at a 1% grade. I hope that research helps anyone that has to run on the treadmill.

  10. i started training on a treadmill and struggle with running outside. i didn’t know i needed to have the mill at a 1% incline. i had to find that out for myself, the hard way. i love your article. for a newbie like me it helps alot. thanks!

  11. Another pro-treadmill point you might want to mention is that for some of us that live in places with extremely flat terrain (South Florida in my case), the treadmill is one of the only ways to get in some incline/hill work. Great piece though!

  12. I signed up for my first 10K and then in the 4 months before the run, the the monsoon season started and it rainned every single day. I went out and bought a treadmill and ran on it the whole time before the 10K. 4 months later without a single run outdoors i managed 1hr 13mins. No impress yet? I have never ran more than 50 meter in my whole life before the treadmill because i have asthma.

  13. I found that when I used to get on a treadmill, I would get quickly bored and rarely pushed myself like I should.  A friend told me about some killer treadmill workouts on iTunes.  They basically have a top-notch trainer taking you through a HIIT routine for the treadmill.  Seriously kicks my butt every time, in just 20 minutes: http://bit.ly/TreadmillExpress_iTunes.

  14. I run exclusively on the treadmill. I make workout mixes on my ipad for exactly the length I am going to run on any given day, so I never get bored as I always have something to listen to and know exactly how many songs are left until I’m done.

    I live in Minnesota, though, which means super hot, humid, summers, and incredibly cold winters (although, for me, it’s easier to run outdoors in the winter than the summer. Summers are just so humid here that I can’t stand it). The only time it’s usually comfortable to run outside is spring/fall. But I also live in a rural area which is nothing but flat cornfields. Running in the city might be great as you have different scenery constantly flying past, but running in the middle of a cornfield is actually more tedious than running on a treadmill as it’s all the same scenery, so you don’t feel like you are progressing at all. Much more interesting to just listen to music and turn the TV on to have something to look at.

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