Given the choice the vast majority of us would rather run outside on the roads or trails, feel the wind in our face and watch the scenery go by rather than be relegated to the treadmill. I get it. But with little daylight and having to navigate sometimes icy and slick running surfaces, the treadmill can be a brilliant tool to get quality training in during the winter, and for many with hectic schedules, a necessity year round. This winter is time to stop thinking about the treadmill as the “dreadmill” and embrace the machine that can make all of us better runners. There are countless examples of professional athletes and coaches using treadmills to improve the quality of training by avoiding inclement weather, improving the specificity of a workout, and other purposes that we all can take advantage of.
Treadmill vs Outside
There is a common notion that running on a treadmill changes your running gait, but research has shown there to be no practical difference between running outside and running on a treadmill as it relates to form and mechanics. As many of you have likely experienced, particularly if you rarely run on a treadmill, the pace on a treadmill tends to feel quicker than the same speed feels outside. However, this sensation is more perception than reality. Running fast on the treadmill does have a different sensation that running outside, but once you get used to the difference you’ll typically find the treadmill to be similar or even a bit easier than running outside. At speeds slower than 7:30 – 8:00 minutes per mile there is research to suggest the speed on the treadmill is of equal effort to the same speed outside. For the speedier among us running at 7:00 – 7:30 pace or quicker, the wind resistance experienced running outside has a greater impact so adjusting the treadmill to a 1% incline most closely mimics the effort to running outside.
Footing in Winter
For the areas of the southeast that get occasional, or frequent, ice and snow, the treadmill is a way to avoid treacherous surfaces outside in the winter. While many of us would prefer to layer up and get outside there are times where that decision can significantly raise your risk of injury. When the footing is poor because of wintery conditions or you can’t see where your feet are landing because it’s dark when you run before work and when you run after work, the risk of injury increases dramatically. I have seen countless runners go out in snowy or icy conditions and come back with achilles, hamstring, calf, and hip flexor injuries due to slipping and sliding every step, not to mention the injury risk due to slipping and falling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the treadmill can be used for acclimating to warmer temperatures during the winter months. This is particularly helpful for spring races that have the potential to be unseasonably warm. An unseasonably warm race day in the spring can be particularly problematic because, as opposed to the fall, you haven’t spent the entire summer getting used to the heat, rather you’ve spent the entire winter getting used to the cold. And by nature, with every day passing day in spring, there is an increasing chance that the warmest day of the year is going to be your race day. By doing some indoor treadmill running you can improve your ability to deal with an unseasonably warm day.
Climate control is not the only time treadmill running can be an opportunity rather than relegation, and being forced to it some in the winter months can be the gateway to exploring some other benefits of treadmill running. The treadmill allows for greater control over the specificity of a run than you can generally get outside. One area where this is particularly useful is for course specific preparation. For example, training for the Boston Marathon starts in the winter months. The course at Boston is unique in the way the first 16 miles of rolling downhill running beat up your legs, and in order to prepare properly you should plan on doing some specific preparation for that challenge. For many, doing a long run where the first 10-12 miles are predominately downhill is a logistical challenge, but on a treadmill you can control for it with either a negative incline or by propping up the back of the treadmill with lifts. Using the same principle you can prepare for any type of course more specifically than you often can outside.
Similarly, the treadmill allows you to do workouts that might otherwise be challenging logistically, most notably hills here in the southeast. The winter is a perfect time for incorporating hill training into your routine in order to build strength and improve economy of movement ahead of more specific workouts for spring and summer racing. Additionally, our head coach at ZAP, Pete Rea, uses the treadmill for a unique workout called “minute-minute-minute cycles.” This is a sustained uphill climb that starts 30-40 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace at an incline of 1%. Run that pace for 1 minute then for the 2nd minute pick the pace up .1 mph and increase the incline to 2%. For the 3rd minute bump the pace another .1mph and the incline to 3%. After the 3rd minute go right back to the 1st minute and repeat the sequence up to 2-3 times before moving on to the next 3 minute sequence, which will start .1 mph faster than the previous sequence. You can do up to 5-6 three minute sequences following the same pattern. Not only does it provide a great uphill workout to build muscular and aerobic strength but all that button pushing makes the time go by quickly on the treadmill.
Get away from the “dreadmill” mindset this winter and use the treadmill as an opportunity to take on new challenges and put in a winter of training that supports big spring goals.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the January 2018 Issue of Running Journal