Can I Train for a Sub-3 Marathon Exclusively on a Treadmill?

If you can't handle this, then training for a spring marathon up north means lots of treadmill time!
If you can’t handle this, then training for a spring marathon up north means lots of treadmill time!

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of running in the cold. I really can’t tolerate much of it. I can maybe handle one or two runs a week in sub-freezing temperatures before I scream for mercy. Yet here I am training in the midwest for a spring marathon. I’m running Pittsburgh in about four months. Last year was the winter that made us question everything we believe in as Northerners (polar vortex, anyone?). Despite our historically snowy and cold winters here in Cleveland, I picked a spring race with a booming American development program: I don’t want to just finish it, I want to crush it and run significantly under my current PR of 2:58:54.  The Pittsburgh Marathon barely comes when the snow has melted, and that doesn’t leave winter-wusses like me much outdoor time in final weeks leading up to the race. That means making progress as a runner while training mostly on the treadmill for several months.

So here I am wondering whether one can run a fast marathon on the roads off of almost nothing but treadmill training?

 When it doubt, look to elites for inspiration.

For those of you in a similar predicament this winter, let’s make Annie Bersagel our idol. You remember her– She’s the attorney at the NY Marathon who lives in Norway and runs with the front american professional pack. A little geography review: Norway is cold. Most of her miles are logged inside on a track, treadmill and even an underground tunnel. That’s badass. Bersagel ran a very strong race in NYC taking 10th place, 2nd american in the women’s race and is a real contender for the third spot on the American Olympic team in 2016. Her feature article in the NY Times a few days before opened with a picture of her training inside on a treadmill. (It was a really, really nice woodway treadmill, but still it’s just a treadmill.) She is the hero that proves that you really can train mostly inside, be a professional businesswoman rather than a professional runner, and still be among the top in the world. If Annie can make it through Norwegian winters and still be a top american runner, I say the rest of us can remain competitive through winter too.

It’s all about adapting.

I’m barely back into what I would call a real training season, but I’m already making progress, and I’m doing almost all of it inside. Not just inside, but I’m doing it in my own house on a treadmill. You really can run intervals, tempos, marathon pace runs and long runs on a treadmill. Anyone can do it. It is not as trite as it sounds. Once a week, I fire up some music videos and run intervals. I work my way through TV shows and movies while putting on easy miles. I ran my first indoor cruise intervals and marathon pace miles this week. You know what? So far I love it!

In sub-sub-sub freezing Saturday morning, the Pittsburgh Marathon kickoff run wan replaced with a virtual treadmill kickoff run. My entry.
In sub-sub-sub freezing Saturday morning, the Pittsburgh Marathon kickoff run wan replaced with a virtual treadmill kickoff run. My entry.

In a few months, I’ll be ready to run outside every day again. Right now it is nice to work through some TV shows that have been on my list for years. Running intervals without thinking about pacing has been enjoyable. Time will tell if it’s as effective as the speed work I did outside preparing for my last marathon over the summer and in the fall.

Some little tricks and tips I’ve discovered so far that might help you!

Wear the treadmill safety strap, duh! I can’t believe I have to put this on the list. Those of you who laugh in the face of the safety cord know who you are. We’ll be pealing you off of the carpet with a spatula some day.

Run workouts by time instead of distance. Speed intervals and cruise intervals are supposed to be run by time anyway. When we run them on a track, measuring them as revolutions on a track make more sense. But on a treadmill, you really can run a 3, 4, or 5 minute interval and recover for 2:30 — or whatever your workout is because you don’t have to make it back to the starting line. It is also much easier to keep track by time than distance. Hint: when you take a rest on a cruise interval, you can leave your treadmill going at 1 mph so the clock keeps counting.

Turn your heat off and let your house cool down before you run workouts. I do these in the morning and just leave my house cold from overnight night until I am done and turn the heat back up. A fan also helps a lot — including finding a good place to put it that works for you. Why they don’t have fans and “cold rooms” at gyms is beyond me. If a gym near me put in a cold cardio room that they kept at 55 degrees, I’d be all over it in the summers.

Put your treadmill in a nice room, in front of a nice TV. You might as well enjoy the time you spend on it. Mine is in front of a 115-inch screen with surround sound and a computer hooked up to it. I can watch anything on the internet including Netflix, Amazon Prime and music videos on Youtube. It’s really helped to make the miles fly by.

 ***

I know I’m not alone and I know many of you out there are curious whether a runner can be successful with this strategy. Well, there’s one way to find out!

So over the next few months, each Monday Salty is going to post my training log on the front page so we can all witness how this grand experiment unfolds. Will my treadmill lead me closer in my quest for elite marathoner status? Stay tuned!

Have you successfully trained for a marathon almost exclusively on a treadmill? Please share your stories, tips and advice! 

 

 

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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15 comments

  1. For my first-ever marathon, when I was living in Bozeman, Montana, I trained exclusively on the treadmill. I think I maybe ran three times for the three month build outside; twice I was traveling to a warmer climate! I think the treadmill is a great tool to work on specificity and it forces you to go certain paces that you may otherwise struggle with, whether you are alone on the track, it’s a windy day, or it’s slick on the roads. All of the tips you mention are perfect; I would emphasize that having a fan nearby is crucial! I also like to use headphones instead of just listening to the TV because the belt speed and feet thumping can make it more difficult to hear what’s going on in the episode of America’s Next Top Model. 🙂

    Saving TV shows just for the treadmill is motivating, and having someone there to motivate helps too. I became really great friends with the guys that worked out and worked at the gym, so I would watch them lift weights or talk to other people while I was cruising in a 2hr run. I MISS IT! This post makes me want to find a gym that has a good crew, good treadmills, and start training again!!

    PS I think you can do it! My first marathon was one of my fastest to date (3:19) and I think it is because I had consistency in training.

  2. I’m training for a spring half in Florida, and I’ve been doing my speed work on the ‘mill, as well as one paced run for an hour, once a week. For the paced run, I’ve been adding layers, trying to simulate running while hot. It’s the only way I can think of conditioning myself for the warmer conditions I’m sure to encounter!

    But don’t think that I’m loving this. It’s so boring…

  3. I trained last winter (in the snow belt/polar vortex) almost exclusively on the treadmill. I think I made it outside approximately 8 times before the spring marathon. I PR’d that marathon. The only issue I had was after running on the soft treadmill all winter, the ground was harder on my body and I tweaked my hip a few days before the race. Still PR’d, but wondered how differently the race would have gone had I not been injured!! This winter in still doing most of my training on the treadmill, but am trying to get outside at least once a week to avoid the same issue!!

    Good luck! You can totally do it!

  4. After coming to love my TM last winter, I’ve become a winter weather wuss. I’ll go out for easy runs; but when pace & effort count, I’m on the mill.

    I put my TM in the basement – where it’s cool and comfortable all year round. And, it has built-in fan; if it didn’t I’d rig up something else – that sensation of “speed” is critical to my TM enjoyment.

    Not having a TV, I use my tablet for entertainment. I like to read eBooks while just jogging. Faster long efforts, I enjoy watching marathons on YouTube – London, Berlin, New York, etc. – makes it almost feel like I’m there, running along effortlessly, touring the city on a beautiful day.

    I’ve found that I do lose road speed at my usual training efforts. I run by heart rate, whether I’m on the TM or the pavement. After a week or two without any road running, I’m considerably slower and it takes a few weeks of road running to get back up to pace.
    This year, to combat this, I’m forcing myself outdoors as ice permits.
    Anybody have any other suggestions for keeping the speed?

      1. Ha! I can only read up to jogging speeds (10:00mm / 6:0mph) – so, I save it for a late-afternoon shakeout. And, I turn the kindle font size way up!

        (I can’t do a water bottle on the TM. For some reason, it’s much easier on the road.)

  5. I have a tough time running on the treadmill. My problem is not with the boredom factor, and I see the value of it for all the reasons you mention above. And it’s necessary for winter quality training (case in point: the 2.5 feet of snow we just got in the Boston area)! But I find I can’t relax while I’m on it, my perception of effort is all thrown off, and I develop niggles from whatever changes in my stride it invokes. Anything to do to help with this besides just keeping at it and practicing?

    1. Start really slow! Don’t worry if it’s way slower than outside. I run slower on the tm for all those reasons you mention and it’s not like Im not used it!

      1. I’m seconding slow. You can also always wear a HRM. I’m not the one to sell the run by HR dream, but it is an often used and useful tool. Once you start running real quality runs on it, perceptions on it start to come in line. Still, remember most of your miles should be easy anyway and easy is a very broad speed.

        The man JD writes about treadmills and that he found, “A nice finding (that we had not thought about ahead of time) was that when the over-ground run was with a tail wind equal to running speed, then VO2 was equal to VO2 on the TM, which sure suggests that the only difference between TM and over-ground running is because of the air-resistance you create when running outside. Stride rates were identical when over-ground was compared to TM.”

        it is hard to believe when you are on it — yet it really is just perception. Don’t forget to add a little bit of variety too like speed changes and incline changes. I need that reminder myself. I’m guilty of warming up then setting my run speed and going.

  6. I’m training for Pittsburgh also and it is my first marathon. I live in North East Pennsylvania and I am struggling with snow covered roads. I’m using the Hanson’s beginner plan and i find the easy run days are better on the treadmill than outside. When I do the easy days outside I run too fast and my SOS runs suffer. So I set the easy run pace and listen to an audible audio book. I will let you know may 4th the day after the marathon if it worked!good luck!

  7. I ran 5k PRs coming off winter treadmill training! If I recall correctly, the only outdoor speedwork I did leading up to my 17:14 was strides and a handful of races. For marathon training the tricky part will be getting your mind back into controlling the pace after letting the treadmill set the speed for so long.

  8. Try sonething called a zero runner by octane fitness.It is a cross between a an elliptical and a treadmill that perfectly duplicates running with no impact.It is used by elite runners apparently. I comleted a 10k in 48 :12(69yrs old) my best time in 3yrs by aqua running exclusively.I can’t wait for my zero runner as it seems to end injury potential.Exclusive pavement running destroys my body.