Will Running on the Treadmill Make You Insane?

Ask any runner if they enjoy running on a treadmill and you will find very few cheery yeses. Most of us see it as a necessary evil to deal with poor weather, injuries, lack of time or light. And some of us see it is just plain evil – aka the “dreadmill” or the “boredom belt”. How many times have you heard, “I hate running on the treadmill. I can’t run more than a couple miles and even then I’m staring at the screen the whole time – it drives me crazy!” And then there are some hard core folks who simply just don’t believe it is running at all, but instead it is a laboratory experiment or gimmick – even sacrilegious. So why does the treadmill evoke such emotional responses?

Let’s start with history. Did you know that treadmills were originally used as a means to reform prisoners in the 1800s? True. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s, when research was published supporting the benefits of aerobic exercise, that some people believe led to the development of the home treadmill. And the technology has come a long way since then. See, for example, Scott Dunlap’s review of the Alter G Anti-Gravity Treadmill (read about here or watch a video here). Is it any surprise that a machine that began essentially as a torture tool continues to inflict physical and emotional pain on its users? Does it say something about us runners – that we sometimes choose self inflicted torture? That’s a question for a different time and needs more space than I’m allotted today . . .

Which brings us back to the key question. Will you go insane running on a treadmill? I’ve not been able to find any published reports of treadmill induced insanity (surprise, surprise), but it’s a legitimate question. For ultra runners, most folks outside our world already think we’ve lost our marbles. Look around at some of your friends who you know train on treadmills – maybe that’s an answer, although not very scientific. Even the hard core among us will admit that treadmill miles can be tough on the psyche. And, although mental toughness is a hallmark of ultra running, one of the beauties of our sport is the freedom of being outside, running on the trails, exploring some great locales (I dream of the mountains out West . . .) and challenging our bodies. The distractions of our environment often power us. The treadmill robs of us this. But can it be that a little machine could instill paralyzing fear in us?

Well, for many it does. There are only so many distractions at the gym or in your basement – spying on other folks’ running stats, checking out other runners, counting bricks, watching American Idol etc. wears thin quickly. If you look at the development of the treadmill over time it is more a development of distractions than it is the technology itself (probably because running ain’t all that tough). So in the end, the fear of the treadmill may be the fear of being with oneself. On the beltway we are forced to be with and/or inside ourselves, and only ourselves, without distraction. The treadmill is our nemesis because it takes away one of the fundamental pillars of our sport and exposes a weakness which only few have challenged – see, e.g., Dean Karnazes’ attempt at the longest continuous treadmill run record.

So maybe instead of spurring insanity the treadmill actually trains the mind to support our form of running – long and often lonely. The art of running in place – and literally going nowhere – for possibly hours is certainly as much mental exercise as it is physical. Our sport requires this – the ability to withstand, and even thrive on, isolation. It requires an ability to shut off and to “go deep” and find distractions inside yourself. Longer runs on the treadmill naturally require that you find those internal distractions, when you’ve finished counting the bricks or watching re-re-runs. And, they require that you control your mind from self defeating thoughts when it is easy to just hit the stop button and not have to carry the DNF home (“it always gets better until you stop”).

No matter which side of the fence you run on, most would agree that if we had our druthers we would run outside – and for some of us that means on trails somewhere. In a world full of thirst for the artificial activities (e.g. Second Life, video games, movies, computers etc.), there are some things that just cannot be replicated outside of their natural environment. Watching NatGeo on the treadmill just doesn’t do the trick.

Whether you love it or hate it, or simply tolerate it, running on the treadmill is better than not running. It has benefits, both physical and mental. So, if for nothing else, for practical reasons, we will all likely find ourselves logging miles literally going nowhere. It’s not fun, but it’s part of what we need to do to keep the legs and the mind engaged.

We would like hear your thoughts:

  • Do you train on a treadmill?
  • Do you love it? Hate it?
  • What do you love/hate about it?
  • Do you think it helps your training?
  • Please post your thoughts or any interesting stories – like the time I watched a heavily make-up laden cougar get thrown off the back of a treadmill as she bent down to tie her shoe . . . derr

Kevin Sullivan Coyote 2 Moons[Author Note: Although I have historically avoided the treadmill (I was in the sacrilegious camp mentioned above), I have used it more in the past two years as I’m getting older and wimpier (and seem to be injured all the time). This winter has been tough (read: snowy) in New England, so I’ve logged almost 70% of my mileage on the treadmill. Despite that, I had a great run at Rocky Raccoon 50 and finished with fresh legs. I also ran very close to my half marathon PR a few weeks later – again, with no track workouts and 70% of my miles of the treadmill. As a newbie, the time on the treadmill has given me the time to think through a lot of the finer points of ultra racing, while helping me break through some of the fears of long runs in isolation – i.e., I’ve now logged marathons and 3.5+ hours runs on the treadmill, which would have been unimaginable when I was a road marathoner. There’s nothing like telling my co-workers that I ran a marathon over the weekend and when they ask where, I say “my basement.” It has also let me work through, on a more scientific basis, things like nutrition and hydration. While I cannot isolate the treadmill as THE statistically significant variable, I’ve been converted into believing one can pick up plenty of training benefit from the treadmill, not to mention that I’m also fully caught up on Friday Night Lights, ER, House and Grey’s Anatomy (the last one is embarrassing, I know) and have single handedly kept iTunes’ profits up. (I need music on the treadmill.) All that said, I am dying to get out on the trails and kick up some friggin dirt!]

There are 25 comments

  1. Clara

    I only run on treadmills when absolutely necessary (snow storm or something) and I hate them every time. Part of the reason that I hate them is because #1, they hurt my shins because of the impact; #2, I can't stop staring at the darn mileage markers (!!!); and #3, treadmills are always in hot, stuffy rooms with bad lighting. However, I do prefer treadmills for doing sprints because it forces me to maintain my pace the whole time and not get lazy and slow down at the end. Other than that- it does not help my training, it only hurts my knees and shins. I think treadmills should be used to supplement a dog's daily exercise, as Ceasar recommends. :)

  2. Derrick

    Want treadmill stories huh? I used to manage a fitness centre at a hotel, so I've got plenty of them…My favourite was on a kid’s hockey tournament weekend. These weekends were always the worst as the kids were out of control causing trouble in the hotel, while their parents usually ended up getting crazy drunk and not worrying about their kids. This particular time, there was a woman running on one of the treadmills. Good for her, as her husband was hammered at the time and she probably needed a break from both kids. Anyhow, husband staggers into the fitness centre and decides that he wants to try one of these fancy treadmills out and impress his wife. He gets on the treadmill next to his wife and starts running, but soon realizes that this isn't too much of a challenge. He then proceeds to try to do the impossible 'jump from my treadmill onto the back of my wife's treadmill and run in tandem'. Well, our superhero didn't quite stick the landing and ended up, with his wife, in a messy pile off the back of the treadmill.I ended up watching all of this happen in slow motion from across the gym, but could not get there in time to stop it. My first reaction when confronting the happy couple was to give the husband hell and ask what he was thinking. I believe his wife more than took care of that department though, as I happily watched her rake him over the coals.Note: No treadmills were harmed during this maneuver.

  3. Sara

    Funny story, Derrick. I hadn't heard that one before.I hate treadmills. Mind-numbingly boring.Okay, I admit I like them for uphill tempos, but that's it. Still, I'd rather do the workout on a mountain. Though, as Clara points out, the constant pace does help me avoid slacking off. For the benefit of that one workout alone, maybe I should upgrade to 'I love treadmills'.

  4. Bryon Powell

    I hate treadmills with a passions! Perhaps because they drove me crazy so early in my running career. Growing up my next door neighbors (and running mentors) had a treadmill in there basement that not so excitingly faced a brick wall. It was hot, stuffy, and VERY boring. It didn't take me long to decide that I'd rater run through any blizzard or any the slickest ice rather than on a treadmill. That said, I actually enjoyed training on one for last summer's Uphill Challenge and TransRockies Run. There are very few places (read as none) that I can run uphill for 40 minutes at 13% grade around here.(Ps. Welcome back, Clara and Sara. Thanks for the great story, D!)

  5. Justy

    I hate treadmills. The problem is where I live it is flat as a pancake so I should spend some time on them. When I run on one my shins hurt and after a little while my knees hurt. This does not even touch the boredom of running like a hamster on a belt and watching each one hundredth of a mile tick buy. I have a similar problem when I wear my GPS watch, I find myself just looking at the distance and pace every few seconds.

  6. Evan

    New the blog.There nothing wrong with running on the treadmill if you are in the habit. It seems I only hate running on it if I have not done it for a few months. Then I dread getting on it. I use it for speed in the mornings and then hit the mountains at night.

  7. Buzz Burrell

    OK … I live in Boulder, mountains out my back door, have run all over the world, in the most wonderful and exotic locations you can imagine … and I LOVE treadmills. You should too. Here's why:1) Forget that ultra crap. Take your pills and let it go: :30 of running is all you need. Get a good warmup in (I shoot baskets) then get on that sucker, and like Sara says, crank the grade up to 8-10%, speed at 6 mph, and hang on. Then after :30 push the button and get off. Do a :30 uphill tempo run twice a week all winter and you'll be a monster come spring. Then you won't be able to resist, will pile on more mileage, and you'll fall apart come that important summer race.2) Clara's shins are not hurting from the treadmill; they are hurting because of poor form. Treadmills are brilliant for bringing bad running habits into light, and for the opportunity to correct them. There's nothing else to do; you might as well pay close attention to your form and finally get your act together. You can even put Chi Running on the reading stand for inspiration!3) All treadmill workouts should be tempo runs. Thus, those little dials are perfect tools to teach you to hold pace and tempo. Instead of screwing around like we usually do, treadmills force us to actually hold pace, which is the real reason people don't like them! And remember, unless you are Ryan Hall, :45 is the max you can actually run tempo. Learn to get on it then get off it, and go do something worthwhile with your life. Like lift weights, yoga, or swim! :-)For more of my annoying treadmill tips, go here:http://www.dailycamera.com/news/2009/feb/16/sandrock-treadmills-can-be-your-friend/

  8. Scott Dunlap

    I'm a treadmill convert, similar to you. Mine came with two changes in my life – a baby girl that forced most of my training to the wee hours of the morning, and getting more serious about HRM training. For the HRM training, it's hard to beat a treadmill. I dial in a heart rate then see how fast I can go without having it spike. It's shown me a lot of little tricks to my form that can improve my economy. To relieve the boredom, I'm a big fan of Netflix. I just pop in a movie, punch in the pace/HR, and go. I think it helps me subconsciously recognize how to keep a pace.Of course, I mix it up a lot and try not to do more than 50% on the treadmill. Derrick, great story!SD

  9. Bryon Powell

    So far, I get the sense that there are there camps on treadmill use:(1) Dreadmills should be confiscated and destroyed as quickly as possible.(2) Time and/or weather constraints make the treadmill a primary training platform. I know top US ultrarunner Michael Wardian uses his for a big portion of his non-racing miles.(3) Treadmills are good when put to specific uses. While I still dread the treadmill, I think it toughened me up last summer. Those lessons have stuck with me. I would also use the treadmill if I had an upcoming race with lots of runnable uphill, such as the TransRockies Run.

  10. Mark Tanaka (Ultrail

    Treadmills allow me to get an intense workout when I'm staying at some resort and I need to stay nearby so that when my little ones wake up from their nap, I'm close. I'm usually working so intensely and playing with changing the incline and speed that I don't really get bored or need the TV distraction. Although my last vacation the pool complex was over a 1/6 a mile long, so I just cross-trained by swimming a lot.Otherwise I'm glad I live in California and don't need really need it weather-wise.

  11. Bill

    Dreadmill is definitely my description for them. I had to learn to use them, but not by choice.I will run outside in pretty much anything. Even the worst weather in the world – 34F, pouring rain and howling winds. But last year in Iraq was the dustiest in over 60 years. And I refused to inhale that stuff, even through a mask.So there I was, about eight miles into a 14-mile run. Yes, on the dreadmill. A gentleman hopped on a dreadmill in the row in front of me and started to run. I picked up the pace a bit and watched with interest as he ran quickly, bumping up the pace every few minutes. Soon he was flying, holding a 5:15 pace for quite a while. That was the only time that I wasn't dropped by a Kenyan.

  12. Clara

    Buzz Burrell- Ouch. Nothing like a slap in the face with the poor form. :( Unfortuantely you're right- I've noticed that my form does suck on the treadmill, as I get lazy and barely lift my knees.

  13. Paige

    I bounce back and forth on my opinion of the treadmill. But I think that for the most part I have no real qualms with it at this point. Winter 2007 I used it a lot and did all my training for a 1/2 marathon on it since the weather was so crappy. This winter, however, I grew some and took almost all my running outside (and loved it!!). On days when I know I won't have time after work, or before, I will hop on the treadmill at lunch for 3miles or so and it's great. I use my treadmill runs solely for either recovery after a long race, or for hill work. The 'mill is mighty handy for hill work when you live in flatlander Chicago. It helped me immensely at Lovin' the Hills and I plan to get back on it for hill work post-McNaughton Park.This post has helped me see the treadmill from a new angle…I never thought of it as a mind workout. It totally is! I don't know why I never saw it like that. I always listen to music, turn off the TV on the treadmill and keep a close eye on my form in the mirror: watching how much bounce I have, footstrike, hip movement, etc. This helps distract me from the screen, and I've made big improvements on my form; I used to have a lot of aches and pains from running on the 'mill, but now I can do it virtually pain free (which is huge for me as I'm pretty injury prone these days!).Great post!

  14. Meredith

    I am a big time treadmill runner and in a pinch (usually in very bad weather) have done long runs in the 5-6 hour range on my treadmill. Generally I do all my weekday runs on the treadmill and do my long runs outside on the trail and run 1x week on the trails with my running group. I used to hate the treadmill until i became "zen" with it one day. I also think as an ultrarunner, it is good mental training. I know they get a bum reputation, but I love my 'mill. I love being outside, don't get me wrong, but during the week that is really not a good option for me.

  15. Anonymous

    I have a love/hate relationship with treadmills – part of that was cured when I laid out the dinero for a good one (SOLE F85) that allows me to train to heartrate and to do tempo runs at a consistent pace. I used the 'mill to set myself up to run a PR (4:19:31, my best time in ten years) in the marathon by doing two or three hour tempo runs. I found that buying one with a wider, longer bed let me use my full stride. Since I started my training plan in November, it helped to have the treadmill so when I was too wimpy to run in the wind/cold, there was an option. I've also found that I can track and log treadmill workouts very easily. I got rid of the shin splint problem by making certain the machine was level and elevating and depressing the bed periodically so I wasn't running dead flat all the time. Last of all, I put the treadmill out in the garage, with decent lighting and fresh air. I just plug the Ipod into the mill and cruise… Now for the story: I was running on a treadmill and really had it cranked when a circuit breaker popped and the mill stopped – I didn't. NVM

  16. annette bednosky

    I am just happy to run! Running outside= the best! Running on the "mill"…whatever-at least I can run! I have spent many months injured last year that left me drooling for any kind of running-yes, even treadmill! So for me-they are an excellent option when I want to do intervals and mountains winds are at 60+ mph or it is dark or icy-or if I am feeling slack and my training partner doesn't show. The "mill" is sometimes preferable to ice and snow and can sometimes be a good motivator when I dont' want to be alone…All I know -I celebrate my ability to run on whatever surface upon which I can!

  17. Run Home Pam

    I have always believed wholeheartedly that running on a treadmill will make me insane. Of course it will. But reading some of these comments, maybe that's okay. My friend gave me her old treadmill (collecting dust in her basement) when I was pregnant with my third kid. I never used it. But perhaps I should dust it off and try some steady state speed work. (How does one begin??)This is a very, very old treadmill. The speed addled runner must convert miles per hour into minutes per mile in her head. Not the sort of IQ test I need at this stage of life.Anyway, here's hoping it still works!

  18. Yassine Diboun

    I have mixed feelings about treadmills. I have never run more than 90 minutes on one but even that amount of time helped simulate the mental toughness needed for ultra marathons. I tried to go the whole winter without getting on one for some reason but finally submitted and it was nice to open up my stride and not have to worry about slipping on ice and bundling up in multiple layers!One time at the health club I quickly stepped off to run to the toilet (I was gone maybe a minute or two)and when I returned my water bottle and towel that I had left on the 'mill' were sitting on the floor and a muscular college guy was running on it listening to his ipod and ignoring me!Anyway, good thread Kevin and it was fun to read everyone's take on this subject :0) I agree w/ Annete's line of thinking of being grateful to be running…period…regardless of surface. Happy training everyone!

  19. Anonymous

    I'm thinking about getting a treadmill for indoor running next winter. Do any of you have any recommendations for a treadmill that can handle high mileage (~10 hours / week) and fast workouts without shaking, overheating etc? Gym treadmills always seem fine for this but all the home models seem pretty rickety.

  20. Mark Berry

    I've run more on treadmills in the past 2-3 months than on the road (or in my life). What it's allowed me to do is ramp up my base mileage (from 30-40/week to 50-70/week), incorporating 2/day workouts while mitigating injury risk. Have also found that I've gotten more solid in my pacing as a result of the treadmill work, as well as providing me a means of working on climbing strength (treadmill is much better than trying to find hills in Omaha, NE). It's not something I want to fixate on, but in part of Nebraska where I live, winters (especially wind) makes outdoor running a real challenge; if I can keep running through the winter (even on a treadmill), I'll be in much better shape for spring-time racing.

  21. Simon

    Interesting take on the mental aspect! I had never thought about that before.I can't do it without lots of pump-up music thumping through my headphones, but lately I've begun to appreciate (and tolerate) treadmills more. With the cold (more importantly-snow) lately, it's hard to get outside. Also, traveling alot (moving to a new place every 6 weeks due to my participation in AmeriCorps NCCC) means I don't have access to my regular routes. These combine to make it hard to track my mileage and difficult to get out in the first place.I've been getting more used to doing longer runs (6-7) on the treadmill, whereas two months ago I was having trouble lasting a mile. I often do "Fartlek" type running on the treadmill, just to keep things interesting.The hardest part for me is usually sweating so much. It took me forever to figure out why. I thought it was just the warm rooms treadmills always seem to be in, but then I finally realized it was actually because when I'm not moving through the air, I'm not evaporating any of the sweat. That said, I'm super jazzed to be going to New Orleans at the start of January, and running in shorts and a T-shirt again (after an average high of 10 degrees the last couple weeks here in Iowa).

  22. Bryon Powell

    Simon,Good for you putting in all those miles on the dreadmill. Keep pounding them out… and then enjoy the warmth of New Orleans!

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