Fitness

Here's How to Get the Most Out of Using the Treadmill for Race Training

The “dreadmill.” The “hamster wheel.” If you’re like me, you’ll run outside in almost any treacherous condition to avoid running on the treadmill. Although there are some ways to make treadmill workouts more enjoyable (like the studio class I tried out last summer, for example), the reality is that no matter how you jazz up your treadmill run, you’re still, you know, on a treadmill. Running is hard and tiring whether you’re inside or outside, so I’d always rather be enjoying some scenery or the sunrise when I do it.

But for many runners, a treadmill is sometimes the only option. Maybe the only time you can get a run in is in the early morning hours when streets aren’t well-lit or there aren’t many other runners out there, or the snowy and icy conditions are making training outdoors unsafe. Sometimes, we all just have to suck it up and climb on that treadmill if we want to fit in a training run.

Something I’ve always wondered, though, is if I’m actually sacrificing quality when I take my runs inside. (Am I looking for any excuse I can to avoid the treadmill? Maybe.) So I asked Rebekah Mayer, a USATF Level 1 coach and national training manager at Life Time Run in Minneapolis, who assured me that when you’re preparing for a marathon or other long-distance race, training on the treadmill can come pretty close to training on the roads.

As an example, she mentioned professional runner Chris Clark of Alaska, who won the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials in Columbia, S.C., after preparing mostly by doing treadmill runs in a heated room (heated to prep for the 70-plus degree race day temperatures).

“That goes to show you that it can be done,” Mayer says. But it’s best to only do some of your training on the treadmill, instead of relying on it completely. “I recommend doing as many easy and long runs outdoors as possible to acclimate to various conditions, and to be able to work on your footing. In our training groups at Life Time Run, we often take the faster sessions indoors when training for the Boston Marathon to reach the needed paces with safe footing.”

Mayers explained the three things to keep in mind about using the treadmill to train for a race.

1. The treadmill controls your pace, which can be useful, but you don't want to become reliant on it.

When you have the assistance of the belt pulling you on a treadmill, essentially serving as your “pacer” after you’ve chosen your target pace on the machine, it can feel easier to run faster since all you’re doing is following along. This is why you may find that your paces don’t match up and you might end up being slower when you attempt the same workout outdoors.

Since you won’t have the guidance of the treadmill belt on race day, it’s important to get a handle on what are truly realistic paces for you out on the roads. Try to fit in some interval workouts outdoors throughout your training so you can figure out how to pace yourself without any help.

2. Running on the treadmill impacts your body differently than running on the road (or a trail).

Although there ultimately isn’t much difference in the quality of activity performed on a treadmill versus outside, there are still some factors to keep in mind if you’ve been doing the majority of your runs on a treadmill. For one thing, the treadmill’s surface is different (generally considered to be more forgiving as far as impact) than pavement.

If you’ve been doing most of your runs on it, your body might need some time to get adjusted to the change in surface. Mayer says you may initially feel more achy and sore after your first long run outdoors when your body isn’t used to it, so transition slowly, and listen to your body. Of course, it’s best to run on the surface that feels good for you, but if your race is on the pavement, you should slowly transition to that to avoid any surprises on race day.

If you’re training for a trail race, Mayer also emphasizes the importance of incorporating other methods of agility training, such as ladder drills and hops, to get ready for uneven, stability-challenging trail conditions.

3. Training indoors makes conditions a little too perfect.

While it can be tempting to resort to training on the treadmill whenever weather conditions are less than ideal, doing so isn’t going to prepare you for a less-than-ideal race day. And unfortunately, you can never know what the weather will be until that day. If you can safely and comfortably run outdoors, Mayer recommends doing so as often as possible to experience a variety of weather. Save your treadmill runs for when the weather or conditions are truly appalling or unsafe.

“Training in tough weather can make you mentally strong, helps your body adapt to the weather in your area, and gives you the opportunity to learn how to dress for various conditions,” Mayer says. “This year’s Boston Marathon was a great example, where women’s champion Desiree Linden was clearly ready for the inclement weather, as she had trained consistently in tough conditions.”

Also, if you’re as bored by the idea of doing a long run on a treadmill as I am, here are a few good ways to break up the monotony.

If you live somewhere where the temperatures drop as much as they do in Minnesota winters (Mayer will lead her groups on outdoor runs down to about -20 degrees Fahrenheit), Mayer recommends splitting long runs—do the first half outside and the second half inside on the treadmill. That way, you’re not doing a full 15 (or 18 or 20) miles on the treadmill. The change of scenery can definitely help.

Occasionally adjusting the incline to get some hill training in, or adjusting your paces to run some faster intervals or challenging yourself to complete the run with a faster finish are good ways to mix things up a bit, too.

Other boredom-busting methods you can try: Download a few episodes off Netflix onto your phone or tablet so you can kill two birds with one stone. Or, tune into a new podcast to help pass the time. Just use technology to your advantage to stay entertained however you prefer.

At the end of the day, the treadmill can be a great training tool as long as you’re not relying on it too much. Even I’ll admit that it really doesn’t deserve all the hate it gets.

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