Make Treadmill Training Match the Real Thing
The mistakes you make running on a machine—and how to combat them.
This time of year, extreme weather and early morning darkness can send even the most hardcore runners inside. You might dread them, but treadmills provide a great outlet for maintaining fitness: The soft belt is easier on joints than concrete, you always hit the desired distance and there’s no cheating on pace. Still, the workout isn’t necessarily as great—mimicking hilly terrain is tough, doing intervals can feel inexact and your form can go out of whack.
We consulted with several running experts to compile some tips to overcome the common pitfalls of treadmill running and keep all your indoor workouts up to speed.
Your form changes
Treadmill running affects your proprioception, or sense of body in space—which can lead to a shorter stride and reduced range of motion. And some argue that hoofing it on a machine is a totally different motion than running on roads because you tend to just pick up your feet and put them back down on the belt rather than propelling yourself forward from the ground.
The Cure: Beware of striking your heels and make sure you’re getting that push-off motion by running with a base with at least a two or three percent incline, advises Matt Barbosa, a coach for Chicago Endurance Sports and Fleet Feet Chicago.
You Lose Time During Intervals
Because it can take the machine up to 10 seconds to accelerate and decelerate, some time will slip away while you’re getting to goal speed for repeats. “You might lose a bit, but it’s not significant—unless you’re doing a super-short distance,” says Rick Morris, author of Treadmill Training for Runners. “But if you’re really strict about repeat and recovery times, the delay can throw it off.”
The Cure: The goods news? The fix is easy. Simply clock the time it takes the treadmill to speed up and add those seconds to the end of the repeat; same goes for recovery sections. Better news: This is one instance when it is okay to keep the incline at zero percent, Morris says, to replicate the effect of running on a completely flat track.
You Can't Go Downhill
More high-end models feature a decline setting, but it’s likely that the treadmill in your home or gym doesn’t. The problem with no downhill running? Your quads get off easy. Plus, it can cause you to run with bad form when you do pound the pavement. “A lot of people tend to overstride on the downhill,” explains Morris. “So if you’re on a treadmill and the quads and shins aren’t learning how to maintain proper downhill form, you’ll overstride when you go back outside.”
The Cure: There’s no perfect way to replicate that muscle memory you gain going downhill, but adding some lunges and slow squats at the end of your exercise can supplement some of the upper-leg toning that you’re missing.
No End in Sight
During a run outside, passing lines on a track or other visual cues lets you know how much distance remains and reminds you to run hard to that point. “Without that light at the end of the tunnel, intervals can get discouraging,” says Barbosa.
The Cure: Some machines have virtual tours of real race courses to keep you engaged, and most include a 400-meter digital track. Pick up the pace for every other lap, or just imagine each loop like an actual track, with each corner as about 100 meters and each straight as 100 meters—and envision yourself stepping closer to the finish line.