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The Treadmill Is Your Secret Run Speed Weapon

Use your time on the treadmill to your advantage with this advice from coach Lance Watson.


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Triathletes know that the winter time is the best time of year to lay down some aerobic base miles. It is also a good time to retool your run form. While those in San Diego and Florida can still pull on run shorts and sleeveless tech tees, there are many in the northern states and north of the border who need creative solutions to get it done in the snow and ice. The treadmill is a useful tool for working on fitness, and a very effective instrument for working on skills. So, a word of warning to triathletes in the south: northern treadmillers may not just be simply leveling the playing field for the season ahead, they may be actually gaining an advantage. Even if you live in a place where winters are sunny and warm, you might want to consider hopping on the treadmill for a bit of targeted work.

RELATED: 10 Treadmill Workouts for Triathletes

Photo: Getty Images
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Treadmill Training Basics

Today’s treadmills may have a lot more bells and whistles than past versions, but their premise remains the same: convenient indoor running. Treadmills have been successful simply because they work. Running is the best exercise you can do in terms of calorie burning and building fitness, and no other piece of cardio equipment is as efficient at calorie burning, because no other piece requires full weight-bearing like the treadmill.

The same basic training principles apply to all workouts, whether they are done outdoors or inside on equipment, and the treadmill can be quite useful in specific instances. Treadmills allow you to jog, run, sprint, climb hills or even resistance train by easily and accurately varying grade and speed. Many top triathletes and runners use treadmills as a regular part of their training as they have several advantages over traditional methods of cardiovascular exercise.

The advantages of treadmill training

The main advantage of treadmills is of course that they are used indoors in a controlled environment. This means they are not affected by weather, traffic lights, or safety concerns. When you get on a treadmill you know the temperature, you don’t have to stop for anything and you don’t have to worry about where you are going. Obviously this aspect of treadmills will appeal to people who live in places with extreme climates (cold or hot), big cities, or unsafe neighborhoods. And when traveling, a treadmill provides the ability to get in a workout without worrying about such factors in an unknown place.

A second advantage of treadmills is that they are more forgiving than the road as they absorb shock better and are thus less likely to cause impact injuries. This will help you to run as efficiently as possible, and can be a great help to someone coming back from any injury.

A third benefit is being able to program an exact speed that you want to maintain. This is ideal for training at a certain pace for intervals or the entire workout to ensure you are running at your planned pace. This can also be useful if you are preparing for a specific event, as many treadmills allow you to program an exact course. For example, pros regularly use a treadmill to simulate specific courses they will compete on later in the season. Occasionally they even take this to another step by doing these workouts surrounded by portable heaters—if the race they are training for is held in a hot climate. This is a great motivator as well as a very specific training adaptation to prepare their bodies as best as possible for race day.

Treadmills also allow you to work on correcting your running form. Most gyms have mirrors near the cardio area, so taking note of your form and try to improve at least one aspect of your technique each session. This is a great way to help pass the time during your easier runs.

A final benefit to using a treadmill is that you can build a lot of mental toughness since there are not many distractions like there are on the road or trail. You have to focus on your workout, your pace and your technique. Although it may be boring to some, for others this is just what they need to get that hard session done.

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Get outside, too!

Like any training technique, the treadmill also has its negative aspects. There are four main problems associated with treadmill running: biomechanical changes, inaccurate readings, heat and boredom.

Treadmill running is great when you cannot run outdoors, but you should not use it as your sole venue for running as you may find the transition to road running somewhat uncomfortable. This occurs because of several biomechanical differences that occur when you run on a treadmill vs. the road:

  • When you run on the road, you must exert more energy to overcome braking forces.
  • You have to face air resistance outside which forces you to work harder to run the same speed.
  • Your stride length is shorter outside because the ground doesn’t move under your feet the way the tread does.
  • Your feet are always on a smooth, flat surface on a treadmill so that your neuromuscular system does not get any work on propriocetion the way it would on a road or trail.

All of these factors mean that you will fatigue sooner and be more susceptible to injury if you mainly run on a treadmill and then try to transition to outdoors.

Treadmills can also be inaccurate, as they are usually calibrated when they are first put together and wear and tear can knock them off calibration. As a result, it can be hard to determine how far you actually have run, or the exact speed at which you are running. This can be a big detriment if you are using the treadmill for a specific workout.

Many treadmill users also complain of getting overheated when working out. This occurs because of the lack of air resistance that helps in cooling when outside. The easiest way to combat this problem is with a properly placed fan; if that is not possible you may find yourself sweating more than normal. Ensure that you are staying hydrated if this is the case, as you will quickly lose electrolytes in your sweat, causing fatigue and dehydration.

The most common criticism about treadmills is that runners find them boring. Running in one spot with no change in scenery is not particularly stimulating. Although it may help build mental fortitude, it can also cause people to shorten sessions or avoid treadmills altogether. If you fight boredom on a treadmill, but want to continue using it as a fitness tool, then you need to spice up your workouts a bit. To keep things fresh and interesting, use your treadmill time to focus on the specific elements of your run. Not only will this give you a purpose and focus, but you’ll also find this work will make you a faster runner.

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Treadmill workout focus areas

Cadence

Running well, and particularly running well off the bike, requires a mastery of cadence. When quads and glutes are fatigued, stride length suffers. You can learn to rely on foot speed (high cadence) and cardio output when you are too muscularly fatigued to toe-off and stride-it-out.

Interestingly, proper run cadence mirrors correct cycling cadence. Taller athletes (6 feet-plus) men should aim for 80+ strides per minute (counting the foot strike of one foot only, i.e. your right foot), while smaller athletes (5’5” and under) might shoot for upper 90s. Some smaller, elite Olympic distance triathlete women will run to a 34 to 35 minute 10 kilometer split at a super quick 110 strides per minutes. Most of us look for a cadence in the range of 88 to 93. As we run faster, cadence should increase, but the trick is to not have it slow down too much as we run slower. If you do over-stride (run with a long stride and slow cadence) you may be tricking yourself into thinking you are doing a better job than you actually are. With a lopping stride, you might feel great pressure on the ground with your toe off and good reach with each stride, but you are recruiting the fibers and the range of motion used for running fast, while neglecting rhythm and turnover and training your aerobic energy system in an economical manner. You will find you can run longer at a set pace and with a lower average heart rate once you have become comfortable with a quick, smooth gait. If you are an Ironman athlete, your aerobic running pace and aerobic efficiency will dictate your marathon potential.

The treadmill is a perfect tool for learning set cadence at different paces. It is common to time splits in a pool or on a running track to learn pacing. Learning to quantify your cadence versus pace and heart rate and cognitively associating these data numbers with effort or internal perception of movement will give you another level of understanding about how you perform and your efficiency. The treadmill gives you even pacing, allowing you to practice running a set cadence at different speeds. Try 90 strides per minute at your slow jogging pace, your high end aerobic pace, and then at tempo running or race pace. Take note what your heart rate does. It may be elevated initially, but as you get comfortable at higher turnover, you will note that it levels off. Over time, you can determine your most efficient cadence at different speeds for prolonged durations.

RELATED: The Tricky Business Of Treadmill Pacing

Technique

The treadmill is a great coaching tool, as it allows the coach to watch the athlete move in a very controlled environment on stable surface. It is worth getting videoed on the treadmill at some point. Watching in slow motion lets you isolate biomechanics and also compare what one legs is doing relative to the other. Another solution is to run with mirrors, preferable in front and on both sides. Acquire a tall mirror that you can move easily throughout your session.

When reviewing your form, look at the feet, knees, hips, torso and shoulders. Look at yourself head-on or from behind (on video) to see if your foot strike is even, and from heel to toe off. Look for inward or outward rotation of the foot and if note if your ankles collapse. Check that knees are driving straight and that hips are even. If one hip or shoulder is higher than the other, it may be causing lower limbs to move slightly out of equilibrium. Look for excessive side to side or rotational movement of the hips or shoulders. Make sure shoulders aren’t too high or too tight. Check heel lift and knee lift. Are they balanced? One heel lifting higher than the other could indicate several things, including quad flexibility imbalance.

Efficient running is the act of controlled falling, actively catching yourself and propelling yourself forward into your next step. Examine your form and posture from the side on. You should be running “tall” through the hips and shoulder, but with a slight forward lean overall. Keep your chin slightly down and your eyes fixed on the ground about 10 feet in front of you to encourage keeping your center of gravity slightly forward. Check your foot strike from the side view. It should be directly under your center of gravity. A heavy foot slap is often a sign that you are foot striking too far forward and reaching for your next step. Be conscious as to whether you are too collapsed through the hips and running slightly “seated.” Note if you are squeezing your shoulder blades too much or holding your chin and head too far back, which would be effectively working against gravity, or stopping yourself from “falling forward” into your next stride.

RELATED: Want to Run Your Fastest Olympic Distance? Train on the Treadmill

Basic Drills

Try the following drills on the treadmill to get you in tune with different components of your run stride. They are great for isolating areas of need for improvement.

  • Basic knee lift: Run with exaggerated knee lift, and work from moderate to extreme, while maintaining cadence. Make sure your knees are tracking straight, and not traveling outward.
  • High heel lift: Gradually work your heel lift from slightly higher to lightly kicking your butt (if they make it that high). Maintain normal run cadence. Look for imbalances and work on quad flexibility.
  • Partner posture drill # 1: Have a partner put slight hand pressure on your very lower back at the sacrum as you run (make sure you feel balanced and stable first and that the hand pressure is quite light). Feel forward lean in your hips and compensate slightly by lifting your heel about 1 inch higher on recovery after toeing off, while maintaining cadence.  Visualize this lean once hand pressure is removed.
  • Partner posture drill #2: Have your partner put slight hand pressure between your shoulder blades, and feel forward lean from your chest. Try to run tall through your hips and feel your center of gravity move forward from the sternum. Don’t collapse at the hips.
  • Partner posture drill #3: Your partner places slight hand pressure on the top, center of your head. Think about running with a low even gait, and having no excessive bounce. Afterwards, visualize running under a low ceiling. Excessive bounce would bang your head. This will emphasize forward lean.

RELATED: Five Steps to Perfect Run Form

Build Strength

Running hills at different speeds is a great way to build run strength, another winter running goal. The best part about treadmill hills is that you can run uphill limitlessly, and you can also do multiple hill repeats with short rest. You don’t have to run back down the hill between intervals.

Here are 3 great sets:

  • Aerobic Strength: 5-10 x (4 minutes Run HR Zone 2 @ 5% grade, 2 minutes walk vigorous @ 10% grade)
  • Threshold Strength: 4-6 x (5 minutes HR Zone 3-4 @ 5% grade, 5 minutes jog Zone 1 @ 0% grade)
  • Hill Speed: 8-12 x (30 seconds at 5k PR pace @ 3% grade; 30 seconds off straddling the mill). Keep the mill running so you get every seconds worth of your fast running.

Many triathletes cringe at the thought of spending long sessions running on the spot. Frankly, stepping on a moving belt for one to two hours at a time without a clear plan will put you on the fast track to burn out. Most of us multi-sporters are goal oriented, so let’s use our type-A tendencies to our advantage! You can integrate these drills into a myriad of aerobic, hill and threshold sets to make them interesting and effective, and to quantify performance gains through heart rate, cadence and pace.

RELATED: 5 Exercises to Bolster Your Run Form

This story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Triathlete magazine.

Lance Watson, head coach of LifeSport, has trained a number of Ironman, Olympic, and age-group champions over the past 30 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels.