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Understanding Treadmill Training For Maximal Results

Stuck inside because of the Polar Vortex this winter? Here are some treadmill tips.

Stuck inside because of the Polar Vortex this winter? Here are some treadmill tips.

With the Polar Vortex affecting most of the country, treadmills are being put to the test. I suspect that this winter not only will there be records for snowfall and low temperatures, but also for miles run on a treadmill. Here are my tips for getting the most from your treadmill time.

1. Vary your speed and incline

If you’ve worn a GPS monitor while running outdoors, you know that your pace varies from moment to moment and mile to mile. Your incline does too. Even on the smoothest, flattest road, there is variation in pace and incline. You invariable run curves to the left and to the right, in addition to turns onto different streets. Plus, you often run over slight (or even significant) uphills and downhills. I believe your treadmill running should mimic this variety.

Therefore, my advice is to vary the incline and speed on your treadmill runs. Don’t just set the pace and leave it. Run up some hills — some small and some large. Visualize your outdoor routes and mimic their terrain on the treadmill. And adjust your pace from time to time. Even small pace changes of .1-.3 mph can make a treadmill run more like an outdoor run.

2. Vary your foot plant

When running outdoors, no two foot strikes are exactly the same. On the treadmill, however, they usually are. There are no turns, no curves and the running surface is perfectly flat and smooth.

Since running injuries are essentially repetitive motion injuries, all of this slight variation in terrain and foot plant is important. Therefore, in addition to varying your speed and incline, I also suggest you wear different shoes from time to time. On some runs, wear your regular training shoes but on a few runs slip on your racing flats or lighter weight training shoes. Your legs will thank you for it.

RELATED: How Should Your Foot Hit The Ground?

3. Account for the treadmill lag

Here’s a biggie. Outdoors, you can change pace very quickly. On the treadmill, however, you have to wait for the speed (and incline) to change. This lag isn’t important when just going for an easy run, but when you are forced to do your race-specific workouts like repeats and intervals on the treadmill, it creates a significant problem. If you don’t adjust your workout to account for this lag, then your workouts will actually be much, much harder than outdoors. Here’s my simple (albeit not very scientific method) for overcoming the treadmill lag:

During your first repeat on the treadmill, count how long it takes for the treadmill to reach your goal speed and incline. Then, simply reduce the duration of your repeat by that amount of time. For example, let’s say it takes my treadmill 10 seconds to go from my recovery jog pace to my goal speed and incline. If my workout calls for five times three minutes at 5K race pace with one minute recovery jog in between, then I would simply run five times 2:50 with one minute recovery jog between.

It’s not an exact science but I find that this small reduction in time spent at your goal workout pace is matched by the increased time you’ll expend running fast while waiting for the treadmill to slow down after each repeat. Over the course of the workout, I find the athlete gets the same challenge as he or she would if running outdoors.

4. Take care of the body

Another difference between outdoor running and treadmill running is that outdoors, the ground doesn’t move underneath you. You push off against the ground to propel yourself down the road. On the treadmill, however, the ground moves underneath between foot strikes. While this is a subtle difference (and some researchers even argue that there is no difference), runners often find that they are more sore after a treadmill run than an equivalent outdoor run. Clearly, something is going on.

While you can’t do anything about any differences in mechanics (though I think following tips 1 and 2 can help), you can be aware of the increased stress on your body and remember that when you are forced to the treadmill, you need to increase your focus on staying healthy. Take extra care of your body after treadmill runs and, even during winter, keep your prehab routine routine.

RELATED: 6 Injury-Reducing Exercises For Runners

5. Overcome air resistance

This topic always gets a lot of attention when runners hit the treadmill. When you run outdoors, you break through the air as you propel yourself down the road. While air is certainly easier to run through than say water, it still does take some effort (i.e., energy) to overcome the air’s resistance. And, the faster you run, the more energy it takes. On a treadmill, however, your body stays stationary so the energy cost of treadmill running is slightly less than outdoor running at the same speed.

A commonly cited research study on outdoor or overland running versus treadmill running found that at faster speeds (7-minute pace per mile), setting the incline to 1 percent led to the same effort as outdoor running. This research sparked the usual advice to put the treadmill at a 1 percent incline to add the extra effort and make treadmill running more like outdoor running.

Now, most of us don’t run that fast so the energy difference between treadmill running and outdoor running is much less. Based on different running speeds, see my advice for how much to adjust the incline to equate treadmill running with outdoor running in the chart above. (Though as you’ve read above, I recommend varying the incline throughout your treadmill run.)

RELATED: Treadmill Workouts For Winter Training


The treadmill (or dreadmill) is a lifesaver for athletes forced inside by winter weather. Using the tips above, I believe you will find treadmill running more tolerable and your workouts more effective.


About The Author:

Greg McMillan, M.S. provides training plans and online coaching for runners of all abilities through his website Outside Magazine calls his McMillan Running Calculator the “Best Running Calculator” and his latest book, YOU (Only Faster), continues to receive rave reviews from runners and coaches.