Treadmill Tip of the Week: Translating Speed Work for the Treadmill

Baby it’s cold outside. Time to hit the mill!

Sometimes, no matter how hardcore you are you just can’t get in your workout outside. The tracks are covered in snow and ice. The temperature is double digits below zero. In my world, the kids are all sick and you can’t leave the house. The treadmill is always there. It can be a life saver for busy runners and those living in harsh winter climates. And for that, I and many many runners are supremely grateful.

When people say treadmill running is lesser than outdoor running, I say pish-posh! Treadmill running is great. But as I’ve said before, while it’s great and certainly not lesser than outdoor running, running on the treadmill is different and these differences intensify the faster you go. Because of these differences, not all runs translate from the roads or track to the treadmill. Some need modification for the mill.  Some just shouldn’t be done at all on the mill.

Let’s discuss.While treadmill running is not per se easier than outside running as some suggest, running on the treadmill does different things to your body than running outside, because of the movement of the belt:

– The treadmill encourages the recruitment of hip flexor muscles over glutes, so on the treadmill our glutes might get lazy on the treadmill.

– The treadmill encourages more heel striking and leg extension, which can put more strain on the knees, hamstrings and calves.

– The treadmill tells the brain that you’re running on an unstable surface, which activates your stabilizing muscles and can put more strain on muscles like the piriformis or those in your lower back.

THIS DOES NOT MEAN TREADMILL RUNNING IS BAD OR LESS THAN RUNNING OUTSIDE.

Running on hills does different things to our bodies than running on flats. Running on trails is different than running on roads. You get the picture. These are merely the differences and something to consider when deciding which runs you want to do on the treadmill.

So, when you have a training plan and you need to do your day’s run on the treadmill, here are some things to consider.

Easy Runs (Go for it!)

If your run for the day is easy, go for it! Make sure to focus on effort over what the treadmill pace display says. Keep the effort easy and enjoy it!

Long Runs (No problem with a little modification.)

If you have a long run on tap, those biomechanical differences are going to start adding up. I would highly recommend throwing in regular incline for 5-10 minute stretches of your run to distribute the work to other muscles.

Tempo Runs (Do it!)

Treadmill tempos are going to be fine for most people. It is good to get out and do some on your racing surface when you can (tempos are great race day practice), but during the winter or when you can’t get outside the treadmill is a great bet for tempos.  Go for it and as always with the treadmill, make sure the effort is right and don’t worry so much about what the pace setting says.

10k – 15k Pace (Probably fine, but be careful.)

 

If you see something like “cruise intervals” or intervals at paces equivalent to your current 10k-15k race pace on your training schedule, then this advice is for you. If you aren’t struggling with injury, these will probably be fine to do on the treadmill. These are similar to a tempo run, just intervals and the pace is a little faster.

Bacon Cheese Burger
Remember my favorite metaphor: treadmill running is a beef burger as outside running is to a veggie burger. One isn’t better than the other – they’re just different. But if you are looking for more fiber in your diet, don’t eat this and if you want to work on your race form, don’t run on the treadmill (unless you’re racing on one, of course)(Photo credit: powerplantop)

5k – 3k Pace (Use extreme caution.)

If you have the traditional track workout of 5k pace or faster intervals on your schedule, you should avoid doing it on the treadmill if at all possible. Any kind of workout that you do to improve racing form should be avoided on the treadmill. One of the purposes of these faster V02 Max intervals is to improve form (in addition to V02 Max and running economy). Therefore, good form is critical to performing this workout right. I would highly recommend not running this fast on the treadmill.  The reason I suggest not doing these workouts on the treadmill is that you won’t be getting the full benefit and your risk of injury will be elevated. It’s not worth it, in my opinion. I would either find a non-treadmill surface for the workout, move it to a day when I could do it on a non-treadmill surface or swap it out for cruise intervals or a tempo.

Strides or Sprints (Don’t do it!)

AVOID! Do not do these on the treadmill. The point of these is to work on turnover, but more importantly improve running form. It’s going to be really hard for you to maintain proper form on the treadmill and the injury risk is too great – absolutely not worth it, in my opinion.

General Tips

– The longer the treadmill run, the more important it is to throw in incline.

– When thinking about running on a treadmill, consider whether you’d do the workout on a slightly slippery surface. If you wouldn’t do it on a slightly slippery surface, I wouldn’t do it on the treadmill (treadmill running is similar to running on a slippery surface in that it stresses the stabilizing muscles more than running on more stable surfaces).

– It’s always better to run slower or do a different workout than hurt yourself.

– If you are struggling with injuries, especially of stabilizing muscles like calves, lower back or piriformis, really really be wary of doing fast stuff on the mill.

– Always remember when it comes to the treadmill, it’s the effort that counts, not the pace showing on the console.

– If you have found a system that works for you, keep on doing it.

Do you do speed work on the treadmill? 

 

For more Treadmill Tips of the Week go here!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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5 comments

  1. I completely agree with all of your advice, Salty. I think treadmills are awesome for regular runs, long runs and tempo runs, but are much trickier for the fast stuff. If I have a speed workout on tap and have to run on the mill, I usually swap it out for a tempo run so I can get a good workout in.

    The only thing I disagree with are not doing striders. I do a modified version of striders on many of my easy treadmill runs. I modify them so they are slightly slower than I would shoot for on the street, but I’ll do several 30 second pickups at a faster pace; then run 30 seconds slow during the last 5-8 minutes of my run. It is a great way to stay sharp and to remember to focus on decent running form, particularly when you are stuck on the mill for weeks on end (as I often am in the winter).

    1. Pick-ups are one thing, but strides at around mile race pace are a really bad idea. I’d keep the pick-ups to about 10kish give or take, but would not recommend going much faster.

  2. As someone who has to resort to the treadmill way more than I’d like, this is really helpful advice. I’ve done almost all of my speed workouts on a treadmill, as well as many 16-20 milers, and this is making me think twice about that for sure. I definitely experienced issues with my glutes and hip flexors, and can trace it back to the treadmill. Then again, the snow/ice running takes a huge toll on form and the stabilizing muscles too, so it’s 6 of 1, half dozen of the other!
    Thankfully, I’ve since discovered a full size indoor track that I can turn to for speed workouts. But I still have to rely heavily on the TM for the other stuff.
    As always, this is great food for thought and SUPER helpful to the treadmill-dependent types like me!

  3. How timely! As you know, I am a treadmill Janie-come-lately. Last week, I did all but one of my runs on the treadmill, including some 1600s around 5K pace. They seemed to go fine and I hit pace, but a few days later, on my long run, my hip flexor was really bugging me on the ‘mill. It seems fine now, but glad to know I was right in suspecting ol’ Tready!

  4. I prefer speedwork on the treadmill lately, at age 57 i never tried these contraptions, I LOVE IT for sub 5 minute pace for up to 1:00 or longer, after a buildup to that pace, don’t know how it translates to racing , but will see soon.
    Missed 4 months due to achilles, and the treadmill allows me to ‘run’ again.