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Think Outside The Mill: How To Make The Most Of Treadmill Running

Top athletes and expert coaches explain how to progress your fitness without ever stepping foot outside.

Top athletes and expert coaches explain how to progress your fitness without ever stepping foot outside.

“Treadmills are for wimps.”

While they may not say it outright, plenty of runner purists have thought it. It is with a bit of shame that some of us hop on the treadmill, afraid of what others may think; are we being soft for not sucking it up and heading outdoors?

RELATED: The Importance of Varying Your Running Surfaces

Would you consider Michael Wardian, silver medalist at the 2011 100k World Championships and USATF Ultra Runner of the Year in 2008, 2009, and 2010 a wimp?

“I tend to use the treadmill like I am outside and that means I use my imagination, I pretend I am coming up to a tough section of the race and then increase the incline or speed or then I am crushing down the hill and I might speed the treadmill up,” Wardian explains.  A large number of his 120 miles per week are done on his downstairs treadmill. “We got our treadmill the day our second son Grant was born…I watch both our sons most mornings and I can still do my workouts and spend time with them.”

When The Treadmill Is A Better Option

Family is one reason runners may turn to the treadmill, another is safety. “We use them as frequently as we need to, when it’s not safe out or for evening runs,” explains Brad Hudson who coaches elite runners in the Hudson Training Systems group. “Some athletes, like Tera Moody, will use them a lot more, but typically the athletes will use them on easy runs or beginning season workouts,” Hudson continues, “we try and save our hard runs for outside but sometimes we can’t and will do them on the treadmill.”

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Between weather conditions and early twilight hours, sometimes by not going outside you can avoid winding up with an injury or get in a more quality workout. “I would suggest picking an indoor run over running outside when the roads are snowy and icy or the wind chill is dangerously low,” warns coach Jenny Spangler and winner of the 1996 US Olympic Marathon Trials, “or if you need to get in a quality workout and the weather outside would not allow you to run hard.” She turned to her treadmill for nearly all of her training leading up to the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials, wherein she was the first Masters finisher and 9th overall. Along with iced-over roads, she also had a 2 ½ year old daughter to take care of. “I couldn’t obviously push her in the jogger during the winter.” Instead, relying on the treadmill she was able to safely push the pace. “The one good thing is that the treadmill keeps you on pace so during a tempo run there is a tendency to back off when you start feeling tired, the treadmill won’t let you do that unless you push the button!”

Equating Your Indoor Workouts To Those Outside

So how can you tailor the workouts done on the treadmill to best simulate the conditions you’ll inevitably face back outdoors? Obviously you’d be hard pressed to find any races done on a treadmill, but that doesn’t mean you can’t master the transition; the key is being aware of the differences and adjusting as such. “[Treadmills] allow you to get everything you want whenever you want it…you just have to remember to change the variables,” states Wardian. “I am trying to do hills a few times a week. That is a weakness, or has been, so I want to fix that…for me that means hours of running up vertical inclines, sometimes fast sometimes just a long grind, but always pushing to get better.”

If you have a weakness, work on it–a sound philosophy regardless of the training environment. Still, Wardian cautions, “Something I try and keep in mind is that the treadmill is really consistent and even but outside things are constantly changing and each change takes energy and thought, so I remind myself not to zone out while outside.”

Another factor to keep in mind is that because the belt is constantly running, it will be dragging your legs under and behind you during your stride cycle. By doing this, your hamstring muscles (which would typically be doing this work when outside) will be working less and you will be relying more heavily on your quads. Be mindful of weakened hamstrings if you’ve spent a lot of time on the treadmill when you move back outdoors; though, strength work in the gym can counteract this.

Workout Of The Week: 2-Speed Treadmill Threshold Run

Grade tends to be one of the more obvious questions that comes up with treadmill running. Being that there isn’t any wind resistance indoors, a widely accepted rule is to set the incline to 1.5% and that will translate to an equal level pace effort of running outside. “Some athletes put it at one to two percent…we also set up fans,” states Hudson, “ but some athletes use no grade and like to run a little faster.” Getting a faster turnover can help neuromuscular training in addition to a bit of a mental uplift. Much like downhill running, by getting your legs used to a more rapid stride cycle, you are laying the groundwork for their ability to run the pace themselves unaided.

Gaining Strength From Hill Climbs

While the Hudson Training Systems’ group prefers to hit their key workouts outdoors, when delegated to the treadmill they don’t necessarily adapt the workout as it ultimately comes down to the effort put in. Hudson further acknowledges that for certain workouts, such as long hill work, a treadmill is an easier logistical solution.

“We’ll do a hill climb on the treadmill, a progressive tempo run that starts at 2-percent and raise it up to 6-percent by the end.”

Wardian is a proponent for long hill runs too, and if you aren’t lucky enough to live in a region where there are miles and miles of hills to climb, the treadmill brings those mountains to you.

Treadmill Workouts That Work


Hudson Training System’s Mixed Fartlek Workout (

  • Warmup
  • Sequence of 1-2-3-2-1-2-3-2-1 minutes hard with equal recovery (34 minutes total)
  • Cooldown

Coach Jenny Spangler’s Progressive Tempo Run (

  • 2 miles at marathon pace
  • 1 mile at ½ marathon pace
  • ½ mile at 10k pace

(Work up to 3 miles at marathon pace/2 miles at ½ marathon pace/ 1 mile at 10k pace)

More from Two Treadmill Workouts For Fast Fitness


About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.