Updated: Feb 7
Every time we drape our microfiber towel over the front bar, drop our water bottle into its holder, and start hammering the up arrow, you might feel like you’re stepping onto a nineteenth-century prison torture device — probably because you are.
Happily, what was once a tool for punishment has been reimagined as a tool for training. Though it may still be a machine of personal expiation, the treadmill is highly effective if you know two things: how to use it, and how to keep it interesting.
Looking forward to your treadmill session is possible. Perhaps it is time to reimagine your workout, too. Approach it like yoga and set the intention of your workout before you start. Question your expectations: what can you get out of this today? Is your goal realistic? It is important to understand how to collect the most benefit from your time on the clock.
What it’s Useful For:
• Finally ratcheting down your intentions to incorporate interval and speedwork training.
• Running at a consistent pace, which incidentally teaches your body to breathe evenly across a steady workload.
• Mixing up your peeps. Keep up a conversation with the friend that doesn’t show up to the group run but would love a training partner or run comfortably beside the friend you usually have to chase.
• Testing out new hydration and nutrition plans in a controlled environment.
• Recreating road race course conditions.
• Efficiency (no finding a trailhead, mapping a course, traffic, etc.).
• Burning fat. Ramp up that incline — try upping the grade two clicks every 0.5 miles — and do not be afraid to hike. Your body will engage more muscles and work harder to keep up in two ways instead of one: forward and up.
• Hills. An incline is not a hill replacement, but you will quickly discover gains in your climbing endurance with regular hill intervals incorporated into your running plan.
• Redundancy. The secret to mastery is repetition. A treadmill removes the external stimuli (crosswalks, dogs, curbs, road camber, and so on) that distract you from good form.
#1: Have a Goal
The advantage of the treadmill is the extreme amount of control it offers. You always have data at your fingertips and on the screen in front of you. Manipulate it to quantitatively measure and push yourself. Name the desired result from each workout ahead of time so you start your workout with a purpose.
Use the machine in new and different ways frequently. This will become easier once you start. Screenshot the workout beforehand and do not press start until you know your goal. This will challenge the boundaries of your self-discipline.
There are tons of ideas online, and some machines offer preset workouts to select. Do not leave that belt until the work is done.
#2: Use the Incline Buttons
Overuse of any muscle group is a quick way to find yourself with a painful repetitive strain injury (RSI), tendonitis flare-ups, and sore knees. Plantar fasciitis? Another form of RSI. Punching up the grade during your warmup, your workout in intervals, and even as the start of your cool-down is a great way to challenge your heart rate and breathing, plus it will engage your glutes, hamstrings, and calves to work against gravity.
Long flat runs at a steady pace is not a productive goal. Though possible, the biomechanics of your gait and stride are not functioning naturally or ideally. The design cushions your landing and the moving belt facilitates faster leg turnover. Redundancy works both ways. If you are practicing poor form during your treadmill workouts and softening your long runs, the only things you are mastering are poor running habits and unrealistic conditions.
Runners notoriously worry excessively about pace, but stick to your plan. The treadmill’s power will be in shocking your legs and strengthening your cardiovascular system. It is not built for running repetitively at a constant rate daily. If you always do the same thing, you will always get the same results.
#3: Plan Ahead
Variation is not only important to keep your legs happy. A New York prison guard in 1824 infamously said that is the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity” that “constitutes its terror.” Boredom is the universal complaint of the treadmill. Nothing is worse than pounding in place watching Food Network, without subtitles, for 60 minutes at the gym.
The irony is that as a runner, you are willing to be uncomfortable. During a race you will confront suffering, but you’re not finished yet, so you continue forward. Approach the treadmill as an exercise in mental perseverance, not just a sweat factory.
If you force a curious attitude (“How long can I stay at 8% incline today?” or “How hard can I work in 45 minutes?”), your willingness might invite a new experience. Avoid the feeling of punishment.
Splurge and download new, energetic music. Make a treadmill pop playlist and do not listen to it off the belt. Save your favorite sport beans just for treadmill runs or use those workouts to experiment with new electrolyte drink mixes. Treat yourself to a large unsweetened green tea or a coffee after. Reward your hard work.
Thankfully we are not prisoners, and the treadmill is no longer the luxury injury machine of the 50s. 52 million Americans lace-up and use the machine to increase their fitness every year. If you know your goal, plan a structured workout, and switch things up often to keep it interesting, the treadmill can spice up your mental running game and challenge your running quo.