Embracing the Dreadmill
Love it or hate it, old man winter is here to stay. The Midwest hot a massive cold front last week and experienced temperatures that made Antartica look like a tropical beach. Thus, triathletes and runners alike had to burrow their way to the gym or personal pain cave. Due to its ability to make one of most enjoyable sports (or already least enjoyable depending on your perspective 😝) entirely monotonous, treadmills everywhere have earned the loving nickname “dreadmill”.
As my athletes prepared to mount their least favorite machines, one of them asked why it felt like it was harder to run the same pace inside vs outside. That is: why is an easy aerobic 3-5% slower at the same perceived effort?
Well, the answer is: it’s complicated.
Treadmills have a couple pros and cons. The downsides are:
It can alter your stride.
Most people are somewhat afraid to fall off the back of the treadmill for obvious reasons. The result is that they run with their belly basically bumping up against the dashboard. Unfortunately, this forces them into an anterior pelvic tilt and limits their knee drive. The force of each step is then misplaced throughout their bodies, rendering them inefficient with a higher likelihood of injury.
0% incline is actually easier.
Unfortunately for those of us who think treadmills are harder, they aren’t. Since the machine is doing the bulk of the forward momentum for you, all you have to do is lift your legs. This is still challenging but to a slightly lower degree (thanks a lot physics).
This is likely one of the main reasons that treadmills feel harder! Most athletes have set routes or run out a certain distance or time before turning around. Both of these options make it challenging to stop until you’ve returned to the starting point. Treadmills are the opposite. It is always easy to stop. Plus, it is harder to slip into that zone where you tune everything out and get lost in your thoughts or conversation with training partners because it’s often loud with a million distractions. As the saying goes, a watched pot never boils. This is true for treadmills as well. Watching as the distance increases by .01 of a mile or the time ticks by in seconds can be excruciating.
However, there are a few upsides to treadmills as well. They are:
Get advantage of uphills without damage of downhills.
Despite the fact that treadmills can negatively change form, they can also improve form! Uphill running is one of the most effective ways to work on form because it forces you to drive your knees and your arms, push off with your glutes, and minimize ground contact time. The downside of outdoor hills are downhills. Downhills can cause a lot of issues (mostly in the knees) because your quads act like brake pads. In fact, I was more sore after a marathon with an overall downhill grade than I was after an Ironman! Add variety to treadmill runs by finishing with 4-8 x 15s at 5-10% with full recovery or do a workout with .25 - .5 at between tempo and threshold pace but a 4-5% grade.
Focus on pace.
Workouts are much more manageable on treadmills because it is simple to lock in your paces. Progression runs are some of my favorite treadmill workouts because you simply pick a certain distance to increase the pace. I am a fan of a proper warm up (1-3 miles at aerobic pace) followed by a 5-10 mile progression increasing the pace every .5 miles in the first half and .25 miles in the second half. It is amazing how your body responds to an increase in pace even when it starts to get hard! Once it becomes a struggle to maintain motivation for an entire .5, stepping up the speed sooner actually makes the workout feel more manageable because it breaks it up mentally. Running truly is a mental sport!
Focus on cadence.
Treadmills are a great way to practice hitting a more specific cadence. Of course, don’t listen to a metronome for every single run you do indoors, that would be just as excruciating as watching the time and distance! My favorite way to introduce this is to mix it up. Try starting with a metronome in the first mile to set the rhythm or finishing with a metronome during the last mile when fatigue is setting in and you find your cadence dropping.
A lot of athletes struggle to bring nutrition with them on runs because its cumbersome to carry. Treadmills have space for that, so figure out what works for you or what the race will offer on course and practice with that. Personally, I use (and highly recommend to all my athletes) a product called Infinit, it is fully customizable and built to help eliminate stomach problems during training and racing, There is almost nothing worse than a race going sideways because your nutrition was off and not your fitness!
So, if we put all of that in a blender, here are the things you should do when you crank up the ole dreadmill:
Run in the middle of the treadmill, not the front (or the back!).
Set the incline at 1-2%. 1 works for most people, the faster you are the more you might need to bump it up.
Train with music, train with friends. What motivates you more? A bumpin’ playlist? Or running .1 mph faster than your friend just because?
Mix up the workout entirely by running a few miles then hopping onto the rowing machine, pull-up bar, spin bike, etc.
Intentionally add hill repeats into your workout, and mix up how you do it!
Replicate your race pace or lock onto workout pace and throw a towel over the dashboard to really feel it, not compare it to the clock or distance. This way you’re don’t need to constantly check your Garmin when you race!
Use a metronome, or create a playlist that has a fast enough BPM that you automatically start turning your legs over more!
Dial in your race nutrition!
What is your favorite treadmill specific workout?