Treadmill Tip of the Week: Try a Time Trial

We’re now in the brunt of winter, the point in training where it becomes really hard to stay the course. It’s like you’re 2.3 miles into a 5k and you want to puke or start walking. It’s at this point where persevering is most important! You’re almost there.

One way to stay the course and mix up your treadmill routines is to try a time trial on one.

“What? You mean race all out on a treadmill?!”

Yep. Whether its on the ‘mill or off, a time trial is challenging both mentally and physically. It is meant to simulate race conditions. Often, if done off of the ‘mill, it is done with a small group of runners. But taken to the ‘mill, it’s all you. And that can definitely boost your mental prowess as you head toward spring racing season! 

I recently completed a 5k time trial, an all-out effort outside of a race setting, on the treadmill. It was pretty much what I expected: easy to start, challenging around 1.5 miles, and then absolutely dreadful the last mile. However, it was the dreadful part that provided the most benefit. I was able to see where I tend to struggle during a 5k and how I respond to that struggle. But enough about me, I learned a lot in my experiment and thought I’d share these lessons with you!

Here are my tips for successful and productive treadmill time trials!

1. Pick a shorter distance

I experimented with a 5k and found that it’s probably best to stick within the range of a mile to a 5k for a treadmill time trial. Anything shorter might see you hitting the wall behind the machine. I’ve done as short as all-out 200s on the treadmill and while it’s doable, it feels less controlled, as if I might end up being in the next #fail gif you send to your friend.

Anything longer than 5k at race pace is going to tax you mentally and physically. An hour plus at race-pace on a ‘mill? Even a Buddhist monk would find that mentally exhausting. Not to mention, the physical toll it would take. Why do this to yourself outside of a race setting? The shorter distances time trials have the benefit of being good tune-ups and ones easy to recover from.

2. Cue the music!

Don’t fear the music just because it’s a time trial. I’m one to leave the music at home when racing on the roads. With it, I feel like I lose my instincts and focus. However, on a treadmill it can be beneficial. You aren’t racing anyone so your instincts get a break and you can focus entirely on the movement, using the music to your benefit. Make a playlist ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about skipping a song you don’t like.

3. Save the TV for the warm up and cool down, though

A time trial is not the time to focus on a plot, news story, or reality show, as tempting as that may be. I mean, I’m sure you can do it, but the point of a time trial is to practice focusing. It would be hard to focus on the running when simultaneously focusing on visual entertainment. That said …

4. Monitor the monitor

To my surprise, I found it more helpful to be able to see the treadmill’s display, but not constantly look at it. I will usually cover up the monitor when on the treadmill even for workouts, so I started the time trial with it covered up, only looking when I was approaching the time I expected to hit a split.

After a mile of that, I felt like I wanted to see my progress. Sure, I was worried I would keep looking at it, but in actuality, I was lifting the cover on the display every few minutes anyway. Removing it removed that distraction.

After I removed the cover, I looked at the blank TV monitor and focused on my breathing instead of wondering how much time had passed. I listened to the motivating music and observed how my body was working. If you do find yourself tempted to keep looking at the monitor to the point of distraction, try setting the display differently to remove the metric that distracts you the most.

5. Vary the pace

I’d recommend starting a bit slower than the overall pace you hope to maintain, five to ten seconds per mile. Since you won’t be able to change gears as naturally as you would on the roads or track, it’s best to start a little slower so you can experience the different gears. It also helps break up the monotony of parking yourself at the same pace for the entire trial.

It’s also best to set the treadmill at a goal distance .1 extra of what you plan on doing. For instance, 3.1 becomes 3.2, and then wait .1 to begin so that you can start right on the pace you want to.

For my time trial, I hit a rough patch where I slowed down the speed. It lasted roughly three minutes total and some 20 seconds off my intended pace. This was challenging because I had to consciously and intentionally slow down; it didn’t feel as natural as a brief slow-down would in the middle of a regular race. However, I told myself that I just needed a few seconds to regroup and that’s all it was. I was then able to finish the last three minutes running the fastest pace of the entire workout.

6. Keep it flat

Leave the ego at home. Who cares if that one guy in your running club constantly talks about how easy treadmill runs are unless you jack the incline to 2%. Completing a treadmill time trial is hard enough. If you’re one of the 1% incliners, who always sets it that way, then do it for the time trial. If not? Don’t worry about.

I’m personally fine with no incline. Completely flat terrain creates the ideal conditions for practicing the physical and mental challenge. It allows you to observe how you handle the discomfort of racing and your racing strengths and weaknesses. One of the weaknesses I discovered is that I pull my arms up and in when starting to fatigue. I might have never known that without my treadmill time trial experiment and I didn’t need to make it harder on myself with adding incline to appease some purist or my own insecurities.

7. Forget the PR

The purpose of any time trial is not necessarily to PR or even to run a time you think you could do right now in a race, and that’s true whether on or off the treadmill. The point of a time trial is to practice racing in a controlled environment. Sure, it is possible to PR, but setting that expectation up for yourself is less than ideal. Let it be a nice surprise if it happens, but not an expectation. (Also, if you do PR in a time trial, be careful about considering it one.) For a general idea, you’ll probably run 30 seconds to a minute slower than what you’d likely run in a real race. For my time trial, I ran 22:13 and my PR is 21:35.

Have you ever tried a treadmill time trial? If so, feel free to share some of your own tips!

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. I love this idea! I’ve only run three 5ks in my life and two of them were fun for charity and the third was, yup a timed trial on a treadmill. It’s also my unofficial PR hahahaha
    My tip is that even if you think a speed is too fast, try for ten seconds. Just ten seconds, and surprise yourself. Repeat your mantra in that last mile and remind yourself you can do hard things 🙂

  2. I’ve done a few time trials on the mill, and also some races that were cancelled due to weather ended up happening on the mill. Specifically an 8 mile race (I know you said keep it short LOL) last winter was cancelled so my coach had me do it on the mill- it was a PR but definitely not 100% what I was capable of but it was a great way to still get the miles in and take advantage of the fact that I was planning on racing that day anyways. Agree on all the tips though, but I would say some long TT than 5k can be good too- because the treadmill really helps you practice learning to pace. Like you said, start a little slower but this can definitely be put to use for any distance!

    1. This brings up the calibration issue … If you’re machine isn’t calibrated recently, you can’t really assume it’s going the pace you think it is. BUT! For workout stimulus, if it feels like the right effort it’s good enough. This is why you can’t trust it for “official” PRs and I would at least try to switch machines frequently or consider getting a calibration done on your home machine if looking to nail a goal pace down on it.

      1. Oh definitely! But, I think the practice of pacing, not even set pacing can be huge on the mill. It doesn’t matter what the pace is really…but learning to start slower and finish strong is the basic premise. I strongly attribute my negative split pacing skills to years of treadmill work. Less about a specific number and more about the method to it. It’s helped me learn to negative split, or also hold the same pace (whatever pace) for an extended period of time, etc.etc.

      2. Last winter, I did the bulk of my training on the mill– practicing my half marathon goal pace all the time. I was always so pleasantly surprised when I ran on the road and that pace was locked in for my legs and my Garmin confirmed it!

    2. I agree with everyone here! I have found treadmill does help best with pacing – so that calibration isn’t too big of an issue and I wouldn’t report a tm PR as an actual PR. I have another one scheduled for tonight if my stuffed up head and nose allow me!