January 5, 2021

Running On A Treadmill: The Pros And Cons

In this article, I’ll share the pros and cons of running on a treadmill and offer some tips for making the most of your treadmill training sessions.

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2021 has started with a lot of heavy rain here in Singapore, so I have been getting many questions about how to train effectively on a treadmill.

In this article, I’ll share the pros and cons of running on a treadmill and offer some tips for making the most of your treadmill training sessions.

Here we go.

The Pros And Cons Of Running On A Treadmill 

The Pros

1. Convenience. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of running on a treadmill is the convenience it offers. Just as a turbo-trainer is for cyclists, a treadmill is a brilliant tool that is always there for you. It’s not affected by weather and you can jump on while your kid takes a nap. Convenience.

2. The Softer Surface Is Easier On Your Joints. The treadmill running surface provides significantly less impact than a traditional road or pavement and will take some stress off your joints and body in general.  The lower impact can be beneficial when you’re trying to increase your mileage, rehabbing or returning from an injury.

3. Temperature Control For Climate Extremes. We’re fortunate not to have to battle the challenges of cold and snow, but here in the tropics, we have other issues that impact training quality. Heat, humidity and lightning can throw a spanner in the works, and a treadmill provides an excellent remedy for any weather-related problems.

If you’re new to training with a heart rate monitor and are trying to keep your HR down in hot and humid conditions, running on a treadmill in an air-conditioned room can help you achieve a higher output at the same HR and could speed your fitness progression.

4. You Can Simulate Race Environments. With advances in technology, some treadmills allow you to programme famous courses, like the Boston Marathon, into them to simulate the topography of the race. These simulations can be a fantastic way to prepare for a specific event if you don’t live close enough to access the course.

5. Hills For Flat-Landers. For those who live in flat areas, treadmills are an excellent option for running hill workouts. Hill sessions are essential for all runners and triathletes, and a treadmill allows you to run all sorts of hill sessions from general hilly runs to specific hill rep sets.

6. Safety. Luckily for us, safety is not such a concern in Singapore as it is in other places in South East Asia and the world. That said, it’s worth highlighting the safety factor that comes with running indoors. Do use common sense and follow your treadmill’s recommended use protocols to avoid any silly self-inflicted injuries from falling on the treadmill.

7. Repeatability And Predictability. Researchers in sports science often use treadmills because the athlete’s before and after results can be taken multiple times and trended with reasonable accuracy. For the recreational runner, this means that you can use the treadmill as a tool to gauge your progress, and do simple DIY experiments on what factors affect you the most. You can even film yourself running (or use a mirror) to observe your gait, posture and footwork.

Cut Race Times, Not Corners.

Racing at your potential and enjoying training is easy when you’re following the right programme.

The Cons

1. It’s Boring. One of the biggest hurdles to running on the treadmill is the boredom that many people (myself included) face. Companies like Zwift bring a little pizazz to the treadmill, which can alleviate some of the boredom, but it still doesn’t compete with the great outdoors for many. On the bright side, the tediousness of running on a treadmill can build mental strength when you persist through boredom.

2. You Don’t Recruit As Many Muscles. On a treadmill, the motorised belt alters the muscle mechanics subtly and the way you run. Instead of pushing off the ground and propelling yourself forward as you would outdoors, the treadmill does much of that for you. As a result, you use your quads to push off, but your hamstrings and glutes aren’t firing as much as they would if you were running outdoors.

3. Most Treadmills Don’t Have A Downhill Option. What goes up, must come down – except on a treadmill. Except for a few costly treadmills, most treadmills only offer possibilities for running on the flat or uphill. Downhill running requires greater eccentric contraction of the quadriceps and lower leg muscles and is a skill. If you don’t do it regularly, you’ll likely find yourself with an inefficient stride when running downhill.

4. No Fresh Air. The large majority of amateur athletes spend the bulk of their time inside working and sleeping. If you add training to that, likely, you’re rarely outside. Running outdoors is a great opportunity to get out in nature and to benefit from the fresh air. Spending time outdoors offers several health benefits, including increased happiness, improved concentration, and reduced anxiety.

5. Not Race-Specific. Unless you are racing on a treadmill or using it as a tool to replicate the typography of a race, running on a treadmill is not very race-specific. Like with all things training, you want to show your body what it will do on race day. If you’re training for a race that will happen outdoors, you want to simulate that in training to familiarise yourself with the conditions and what you will face.

6. You’ll Drop Your Chin. Having observed thousands of athletes running on a treadmill in our lab, I have noticed that many runners will drop their chin significantly more than they do outdoors. This drop seems to happen for two reasons. 1) They are looking at their foot placement, so they don’t trip, and 2) they are looking at the treadmill monitor to see their speed or distance. Dropping your chin can significantly alter your biomechanics due to your head’s weight and should be avoided.

7. Removes Pace Control. The treadmill will do all the heavy lifting. You set the speed and can switch your mind off. This fixed pace can benefit some specific sessions, but overall, it lowers your intuitive ability to pace well and hold even splits.

How To Run On A Treadmill

If you plan to do some, or all of, your training on a treadmill, here are some pointers to help you optimise your sessions.

Set The Gradient To 1.5%

Keeping the gradient at zero is a common mistake many runners make when they train on a treadmill. You need to set the gradient above 1% to reflect the same energy costs of running outdoors. In our lab, we set the gradient to 1.5% and that works well. If you don’t set the gradient, you’re getting less benefit than when you run for the same duration outdoors.

Vary The Gradient To Simulate Hills

I recommend using a gradient between 4% and 8% to simulate hilly runs on a treadmill. Gradually move between the gradients to simulate an undulating hill run or select a fixed gradient to do some specific hill reps. Some of the pre-programmed hilly courses can be great for general hilly conditioning runs too.

Adjust The Speed To Ensure You’re In The Right Zone

If you’re running to heart rate, adjust the treadmill’s speed as needed to stay within your targeted zone. Most treadmills will show speed, so if you’re training to pace, you’ll need to convert that to pace to ensure you are training at the right intensity and achieving the session’s desired benefit.

Carefully Straddle The Treadmill For Static Recovery

If you’re running hill reps or an interval set and you are taking a static recovery, carefully straddle the treadmill with your feet to the side of the belt between reps. Use this opportunity to bring your HR down and recover for the next rep. As you get back on, carefully lower yourself onto the belt so that you don’t get thrown out the back of the treadmill.

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Ben Pulham

Ben Pulham is the founder of Coached, a personalised training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.