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!]