Treadmill Training: Welcome to the Machine

“I have a punishing workout regimen. Every day I do three minutes on a treadmill, then I lie down, drink a glass of vodka, and smoke a cigarette.” –Actor Anthony Hopkins

I steered clear of the treadmill during my early running career. They weren’t necessary—an apparatus reserved for yuppies and gym rats. I was a tough ultrarunner who ran outside no matter what; the worse the conditions the better. Years later, following a series of eye-opening events, my opinion softened and I discovered treadmills can be employed as a useful training tool.

An Injury Management Tool

After a tough summer of running and racing in 2010, I developed incapacitating glute and hamstring pain that rendered me unable to run hard or far. Eager to solve the issues, I turned to a running-form specialist and then a treadmill to heal my wounded leg.

“Optimal form will decrease injury rates and increase running efficiency,” says Jeff Waldberg, who is a physical therapist with a master’s in orthopedic manual therapy and is the owner of Los Angeles, California-based Ortho Pro Physical Therapy and The Runner’s Clinic. “You become a faster runner by eliminating faults like unnecessary vertical motion, heel striking, and improper arm swing. By decreasing these uneconomical movements, you decrease muscular effort and lessen the load on the tissues and joints doing the work.”

In order to uncover the problems creating the hitch in my stride, Jeff filmed me running on his treadmill in two sessions spaced a year apart. Have a look at my spring 2011 treadmill evaluation and here’s one from a year later in 2012.

Jeff identified the easiest home remedy for fixing my form. I needed to increase my running cadence and land with my feet under my center of mass.

Cadence improvement wasn’t easy for me. I had to get the hang of it. During the initial process of retraining my neuromuscular system, previously unused muscles got sore and I had to slow down and shorten my stride in order to increase my cadence. I found this difficult on uneven surfaces and hilly terrain. So, for several weeks, I almost exclusively used a treadmill to retrain and improve my cadence and form without the distractions of tripping, steep slopes, and/or navigating traffic. I saw drastic improvement, built confidence, and returned to the trails injury-free.

However, even today, I’m tempted to modify proper form on technical and steep ground. But Waldberg advises, “Do not alter your cadence. Keep your cadence fixed whether you’re running uphill, downhill, or over tricky surfaces. This keeps you from fatiguing quickly, over-striding, obliterating your quads and knees, and losing control on hazardous surfaces.”

It’s hard to maintain these form cues on rugged terrain when fatigue sets in. So, when I begin slacking, I return to the treadmill to remind myself what proper form and cadence should feel like.

A Course Record

In the early 2000s, I met Coloradan Paul DeWitt (who now lives in Montana), head coach at DeWitt Coaching. His race resume includes wins at the Leadville Trail 100 Mile (twice), Vermont 100 Mile, San Juan Solstice 50 Mile, and Heartland 100 Mile. All impressive victories, but what still floors me most is his 2007 course record set at the low-key Pemberton Trail 50k in Fountain Hills, Arizona.

“While dealing with a shin injury in the fall and winter of 2006/2007, I wasn’t able to run at all for a month and was then limited to the treadmill for the next two months,” recalls DeWitt. “For that first month, I walked over 50 hours (roughly 90 minutes a day) on my treadmill at four miles/hour on an eight- to 12% grade.”

During his second month back from injury, his shin still wasn’t healed, but he could tolerate uphill treadmill running. DeWitt incorporated 30-minute tempo runs at 7:30/mile pace and 75-minute marathon-effort workouts at 7:45/mile pace at an 8% incline. Easy and long runs were accomplished at slower paces and 4% grades. Over the ensuing weeks DeWitt was able to gradually decrease the slopes and increase his treadmill speeds—allowing his shin to progressively adjust to the new training loads.

“While I knew I was in good shape for uphill running on a treadmill at altitude, I didn’t know how well that would transfer to Pemberton’s relatively fast, flat, sea-level trail course,” says DeWitt. “As it turned out, my legs were the limiting factor. It felt like I was practically sprinting the whole way. However, as far my fitness, I was right where I hoped to be.”

After training for less than three months on a treadmill for a trail ultra, Paul ran 3:11:55 for the 50k, a record that still stands 11 years later.

A World Record

When I learned that friend and fellow coach Jacob Puzey was lining up to break the 50-mile treadmill world record, I thought he’d finally gone off the deep end. In my opinion, and I’m sure many of you agree, spending five-plus hours on a treadmill at sub-6:00/mile pace seemed totally irrational. Puzey, who leads a team of coaches at Peak Run Performance, proved me wrong on December 1, 2016, at The Running Event trade show in Orlando, Florida, by setting a new world best of 4:57:45.

“I wondered for a long time how fast I could run if I eliminated all of the other variables,” says Puzey. “When things have clicked for me in the past, I felt quite capable, but more often than not something external like weather, terrain, illness, or outside stresses have impacted my performances. I just thought it would be fun to start the treadmill up with everything laid out before me with no other objective than to see how fast and how far I could go.”

Puzey’s no stranger to the treadmill. He lives in Alberta, Canada, and out of necessity and convenience covers many winter miles on one because snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures make running indoors prudent. However, unlike DeWitt, Puzey wasn’t relegated to uphill grades during his record attempt training cycle. “I did my most intense efforts and long runs on the treadmill to better acclimate to the surface and machine,” Puzey recalls. “On average, I was on the treadmill three to four times a week. Most runs were in the 60- to 90-minute range. I’d start easy, around eight miles/hour, and gradually increased the effort until I finished at 12 miles/hour. The goal was to get comfortable running 7:00/mile pace (or faster) as often as possible. My longest treadmill run leading up to the record attempt was 18 miles.”

Puzey’s world record underscores the notion that a treadmill can be effective for long and maximal efforts.

A Universal Solution

“I go to the gym and I try to run on the treadmill and I listen to music but it doesn’t motivate me enough. So, I’m going to get a recording of a pack of wolves gaining on me. People would be like, ‘Why is that guy crying on the treadmill over there?’ ‘I don’t know, but he’s been yelling, “help” for like 20 minutes. He’s getting a good workout.’” –Comedian Demetri Martin

In 2010, I began coaching a variety of runners from all over the globe. I determined quickly that the treadmill could be utilized as a comprehensive problem solver.

Logistical Problem: Living in a place that has only flat terrain but racing in the mountains.
Treadmill Solution: “We can’t all live in the mountains, but many runners enjoy hilly races,” says DeWitt. “Even if your races are pancake flat, you will still benefit from the strength you gain through hill training on a treadmill.” Many treadmill models offer 15% to 40% inclines, but lack a decline option. DeWitt suggests countering this by doing lower-body strength work immediately following a hard, uphill workout. We do not recommend raising the rear of the treadmill on boards or blocks to produce a downhill slope.

Logistical Problem: Erratic pacing and failure to find a groove.
Treadmill Solution: “Treadmills help runners find a good rhythm,” says Puzey. “They can consistently stay in that zone for a longer period of time than they might not otherwise on trails or roads. This ultimately results in a higher volume of quality.”

Logistical Problem: Running too hard on easy days.
Treadmill Solution: Keep your pace and effort honest on easy or recovery days by programming the treadmill to an appropriately relaxed speed.

Logistical Problem: My day is too busy and I don’t have time to run.
Treadmill Solution: “The treadmill can be a time saver, especially if one has children or an inconsistent work or travel schedule,” says Puzey. “I recommend the treadmill for those who aren’t able to train at the same time each day as a means of getting in the training whether at home or in a hotel or gym.” Squeeze in what you can on a treadmill when arriving late, leaving early, visiting unknown territory, or while the kiddos are napping.

Logistical Problem: I’m hurt.
Treadmill Solution: As described above, use the machine to assist with gait retraining or utilize steep treadmill inclines for hiking or running when returning to fitness. If available, anti-gravity treadmills (e.g., AlterG), which lessen body weight and thus running impact, are also a good method for rehabilitation.

Logistical Problem: The weather isn’t cooperating.
Treadmill Solution: Rarely is race-day weather optimal. This is why DeWitt offers this advice, “I prefer to never skip a scheduled recovery run or long run due to bad weather. After all, you never know when you’ll be faced with adverse weather during a race. But when it comes to quality workouts, you want to be able to run hard and get the full value of the workout. That’s a good reason to use the treadmill.” Moreover, treadmill spaces can be modified to prepare an athlete for heat and/or humid race conditions when the outdoor environment is too tame.

Logistical Problem: It’s unsafe outdoors.
Treadmill Solution: If conditions outside are unsafe due to poor air quality, high heat indexes, lack of streetlights, snow, ice, or the like, fire up the treadmill to get your workout in.

Logistical Problem: I’m unsure of my running capabilities.
Treadmill Solution: “The treadmill can break our preconceived limits of pace,” explains Puzey. “For example, by increasing the pace toward the end of a treadmill run, we can find ourselves running much faster and sustaining the effort for much longer than we initially set out to do. This teaches us that we’re more capable than we allow ourselves to believe. If anything, seeing faster paces can prepare our mind not to freak out if/when a similar split appears on race day.” 

Our Favorite Treadmill Workouts

Torrence’s Easy Run: My favorite treadmill workout consists of an easy 60 minutes paired with an action-packed Netflix movie to prepare me for a hard workout the following day. Running easy on the treadmill keeps my heart rate low, effort easy, and allows me to focus on proper form and comfortable breathing.

DeWitt’s Progression Run: “This is my all-time favorite workout to do on the treadmill because it is much harder to do accurately outside. It also incorporates a long warm-up which we often skip.” Start the treadmill at 15 seconds/mile slower than normal easy pace for the first five minutes. Then every two minutes speed up one ‘click’ (which equates to 0.1 miles/hour). Continue this progression until you’re unable to finish a full two-minute segment. Allow time for an easy cool down after your progression. Hill Version: Start at 0% incline, but keep the pace the same (normal easy pace). Instead of increasing speed, raise the incline by 1% every two minutes. Compared to the flat version, you’ll max out much quicker, so lower the grade back to 0% and start the progression all over again. Try two or three progressions. Again, finish with an easy, flat cool down.

Puzey’s Speed Play: “If I’m training for a race that will require a bit more turnover or heat training—a road marathon or faster ultra—I’ll do intense efforts on the treadmill.” Warm up for 15 to 20 minutes. Do four to six 20-second strides to prime the legs. Then, run for 30 to 60 minutes incorporating random one- to five-minute surges at 5k to 10k race effort. Recover by jogging for the same amount of time as the repeat you just ran. Cool down by jogging for 15 to 20 minutes. If the goal race course is rolling, adjust the treadmill’s settings to incorporate random inclines.

Overcoming Treadmill Obstacles

“As soon as I wake up, I pay homage to the Buddha, and I try to prepare my mind to be more altruistic, more compassionate during the day to come so I can be of benefit to beings. Then I do physical exercise—I walk on a treadmill.” –the spiritual leader Dalai Lama

The treadmill isn’t for everyone. In this online survey, several runners described the device as “awful,” “soul-sucking,” and “fast food.” Let’s face it; it’s unnatural to run straight ahead on a monotonous surface that’s forever spinning toward you at unwavering speeds with every foot strike being the same as the last. If you use the treadmill on a consistent basis, consider these tips to enhance your experience:

  1. Set the treadmill at a 1% incline to counteract the lack of wind resistance created when running outdoors.
  2. Alter slope and speed throughout the workout. You can do this manually or some treadmills come with the ability to pre-program these variables.
  3. Unless you’re trying to achieve hot and humid, use a large box fan to mimic outdoor air movement and assist with evaporative cooling.
  4. Explore the use of non-motorized treadmills, like the Woodway Curve, in order to save money and energy and work harder.
  5. Tune in to a favorite podcast, crank your favorite music, or watch a movie.
  6. Consider going social with supported treadmill programs like Zwift and Peloton.
  7. Use a treadmill pace conversion table to determine equivalent efforts relative to pace and slope.
  8. Add ancillary training to your routine. By strengthening muscles used in lateral movements (which you don’t do on a treadmill), you’ll be less likely to wind up injured. Incorporate resisted monster walks, lunges in all planes, and side-lying leg lifts.

Most people prefer to run outside. However, when the realities of life are weighing you down, the treadmill will, at the very least, keep you moving.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Share your treadmill-running hacks! How do you keep it interesting and fresh with entertainment or workout variation?
  • What role does treadmill running have in making sure you get your training in during bad weather, unsafe conditions, and complicated/full life logistics?
  • Is there anything about outdoor running that you find can’t be properly replicated on a treadmill?

Photo courtesy of Jacob Puzey.