Getting the Most out of Treadmill Workouts

getting the most out of treadmill workouts

Ask anyone who does a bit of running, and they’ll have an opinion on treadmill running. Many runners feel running on a treadmill is easier than running outside-if you can stand the boredom. And I have to say, I was firmly in that camp, until I started looking a bit more closely at the research.

Treadmill Running vs Running Outside: which is harder?

Intuitively, it would seem that running on a treadmill has to be easier than running outside. After all, running on a treadmill, the ground moves for you. In theory you could just jump up and down, and not propel yourself forward, and the treadmill speedo would show you running at whatever pace the belt is moving.

However, if you base your workouts on exertion level rather than speed, you can get just as good a workout on the treadmill. A treadmill workout at 7/10 on the Rating of Perceived Exertion is the same exertion level as running 7/10 on the road. You might run a bit faster on the treadmill at the same level of exertion, but you’re still going to get the same training benefit if you’re running at 7/10.

When you’re running outside, you have to work against wind resistance, and you’re also constantly working smaller stabiliser muscles. Unless you’re running on a track, the surface you’re running on won’t be completely flat and level, unlike on a treadmill. You do miss out on that subtle strengthening of the smaller stabiliser muscles running on a treadmill. When you’re running outside, you’re constantly challenging the neural pathways which help you to cope with the constant changes in terrain and surface level.

Set the Treadmill At a 1% Gradient

There is research that shows setting the treadmill at a 1% gradient will compensate for the lack of wind resistance, and the resulting smaller energy cost of running on a treadmill. And setting the treadmill on a steeper gradient is comparable to an outside hill of the same gradient, in terms of energy costs.

So, if you want to run on a treadmill at the same speed and the same level of exertion as an outside flat run, you just need to set the treadmill at a 1% gradient. You will, however, miss out on some of the more subtle effects of running on the less predictable outside surface.

Why run on a treadmill?

If you’re like most people, you find running on a treadmill dead boring. So why would you do it?

Keeping your training consistent

The main advantage of treadmill running is that it’s inside, away from poor weather conditions. If it’s too cold, too wet, too dark, or too hot and humid, treadmill running can keep you consistent. And when it comes to fitness, consistency is super important.

No matter what you’re training for, you’ll only get results if you’re consistent with your training, across time. For example, if you’re training for a marathon or half marathon, consistency with your training over a six month period is far more important than belting out one or two big workouts. In fact, unless you’ve been consistent with your training across time, you’re unlikely to be able to complete your longer training runs, without risking overload and injury.

Keeping your easy days easy

Treadmill running is great if you’re having trouble keeping your easy days easy. Depending what you’re training for, your easy runs might need to be 30-40% slower than your 3km pace, and some people find that pretty hard to do. If you’re doing a treadmill workout, you can set the treadmill to the appropriate pace and forget. You’re pace won’t get faster over time. The one disadvantage of this is that having a set pace to run at doesn’t take into account the way you’re feeling on that particular day. You might have had a harder than normal workout the day before and need to take it a bit easier than your planned pace, so you do still need to be in tune with how you feel, and be prepared to slow the treadmill down if you need to.

If you’re looking for a really easy day, but you still want to run at a good pace, you can set the treadmill to a negative incline. Not too much: -0.5%-1% is enough to make a real difference.

Mental Toughness

Treadmill workouts can toughen you up mentally. If you’re reasonably serious about your training, you’ll get to a point where it starts to hurt in some of your sessions. The temptation here is to slow down. If you’ve got your treadmill set to a particular pace, then you can’t slow down without falling off the back! All you need to do is resist the temptation to change the setting on the treadmill.

Having said that, the set and forget method of treadmill running might not be so great for harder efforts such as interval training, tempo or race pace runs. You’re relying on the treadmill to keep you honest, and it will. Doing these harder runs outside can definitely be a bit more mentally taxing.

With a treadmill keeping pace for you, you’re free to drift off and let your mind wander. Outside, there’s nothing to keep you running fast except your mental focus and strength. Your mind needs to be trained, just as your body does, so if you’re always running on a treadmill, you’re not likely to develop the mental strength needed to push hard in a race.

Train on a Simulated Race Course

You can use a treadmill to simulate the course of your goal race. You can get a topography map of your race by using sites such as maypmyrun. Map the course out on map my run, then print out the topography chart. If your treadmill has the facility, you can program the inclines and declines in before you start. Otherwise, you can keep the printout on the dashboard of the treadmill, and manually adjust your treadmill for hills.

You can even have water and gels or other nutrition handy, to simulate when you’ll be taking your nutrition on board. If you’re planning on carrying your nutrition with you on race day, carry it in the same way you’ll be carrying it in a race, in a pocket, on a belt or in a Camelbak.

How to Counteract the Boredom Factor!!

There’s no doubt that running on a treadmill can get monotonous and boring. Try these tips to help overcome the boredom factor:

  • Watch TV whilst you’re running
  • Alternatively, watch nothing. Get into a good rhythm and get into your head space. Take this opportunity to meditate
  • If you’re at a gym, change treadmills part way through your run to change your surroundings a bit.
  • Listen to podcasts
  • Make friends with the people next to you. You’ll probably find they’ll be perfectly happy to talk to you. If you’re the shy type, have a few standard opening lines in your back pocket. “Are you training for anything in particular?” or “A bit boring running on the treadmill, isn’t it?” are reasonable conversation starters. Or you could try “love your running shoes, where did you get them?” or possibly “do you come here often???”
  • Take a friend to the gym with you
  • Skype your mother

Starting and Finishing Intervals on a Treadmill

Do you jump on a treadmill which is already moving at the pace you want to run your effort at? Or do you take the more sensible approach and work your way up to the pace of your effort?

No prizes for guessing which option I prefer.

Jumping on a treadmill moving at a rapid pace can be pretty tricky. If you’re doing an interval training session on a treadmill, you’re better off dropping the pace down to a walking pace for your recovery (unless you specifically want a standing recovery). Spend the first 5-10 seconds of your effort working up to the pace you want to run at. Even if you’re running outside it’ll take you a few seconds to reach your effort pace, so you’re not going to lose too much time at target pace by taking the safe option!

Try This Treadmill Training Session

Warm up at an easy pace for 10 mins or so. Make sure it feels pretty easy. You should be able to hold a conversation with no problems at all.

Pick the pace up a bit for the next 5 mins or so, until you’re running at about 5/10 on the Rating of Perceived Exertion

Once you’ve established the 5/10 effort pace, maintain that pace for 1km.

Run your next kilometer at 10 seconds faster than the previous.

Run each kilometer 10 seconds faster than the last.

Cool down with 5-10 minutes at a slow pace.

You can do this for as long as you like, (generally up to about 10km is good).  For the first time, aim for 4kms, not including your warm up and cool down.  As you get fitter, you can gradually increase the distance of this workout.

The Verdict

Treadmill workouts can be a great way to keep your training consistent and help you to develop a good sense of pace as it relates to increases and decreases in effort. You can use treadmill workouts to vary up your training a bit, but for me, there’s nothing like running in the great outdoors.