Coach Brett Sutton calls the treadmill the number one improvement tool for weak runners and shares a staple workout to try.
When it comes to treadmill training it seems that people are split into two camps with no grey area in between. You either love it or you hate it. I have trained people from both sides of the fence.
So while the treadmill was used sparingly for an athlete like Chrissie Wellington, I have used it intensively for nearly every Olympic-distance triathlete’s preparation since 1997: Siri Lindley, Jackie Gallagher, Emma Snowsill and Loretta Harrop are all names that spring to mind, with Loretta doing almost all of her work exclusively on the treadmill.
This week I put the current Olympic champion, Nicola Spirig, through her paces on the treadmill using the exact same set that I used with the men’s bronze medalist, Jan Rehula, at the Sydney Olympics 15 years ago.
So I thought I would pass on my thoughts on the treadmill to pro and age-group athletes as I have found it to be the number one improvement tool for weak runners.
Here I must acknowledge Jan for not only stimulating my use of the treadmill, but for being a willing partner in testing and developing theories of treadmill use that I still use to this day. His early feedback has proved critical for many a future athlete’s career.
Why critical? Because the treadmill used incorrectly will slow you down and can come with its own unique set of injuries waiting to happen.
So let’s address these issues first:
The usual run injuries one has to deal with—hamstring, thigh and niggly ankle problems—aren’t so much an issue when using a treadmill. With its smooth, flat surface, it takes away from those rolling injuries that sometimes occur during our “safe” trail running. Hamstring strains and tears are totally minimized because the moving floor promotes turnover and shorter stride length. There is no high back kick, which is the culprit for many a strained hammy.
However, the Achilles tendon is very vulnerable on a treadmill. We therefore need to be careful to build into speedwork. Any athlete of mine that has not been on a treadmill in the last seven days does not do any speedwork on it until they have completed at least three session to adjust to it.
Lower calf pulls can also be a treadmill-specific injury. These can happen when an overachiever does a set that his or her body is not yet ready for. The calves tighten up as they would for any run, but because the treadmill allows you to press on a little harder than you would on the road or track, we see athletes overdo it. The calf tightens and ping! You can be walking on your heals for 10 days.
The last injury is lesser known to many and is usually attributed to the bike. From my experience, the hip flexors can also be hurt on a treadmill. It sounds crazy, but it’s very true. The hip flexors work at a much faster rate than normal on the treadmill and with the floor moving they activate every step that is taken.
So with all these injury concerns, why do we push on with the treadmill? Because while some biomechanists may argue it teaches poor mechanics, nothing can be further from the truth. The treadmill promotes shorter, more efficient strides with higher cadence, which is the absolute jackpot for distance runners who have had to deal with a bike leg beforehand. It is a dream machine for teaching the body to run efficiently with less power.
The Staple Treadmill Session
Jan and I spent a season and a half getting it right, which has become a staple for my squad ever since. Jan was from the old school of non-drafting triathletes—a good swimmer, super biker and a runner who would just get home with whatever he could. However, he wanted to go to the Olympics (a drafting event which heavily bias the faster runners), so we had to try something radical. Cue the treadmill.
We tried all sorts of distances, gradients and workouts trying to find a combination that would develop not just his aerobic function, but stimulate his turnover and build muscle strength to give him the drive forward that as a “natural” runner he just didn’t have.
The session we found that activated all three in a way that the body could adapt to without injury was this:
2x[30 seconds at 2%, then 30 seconds rest]
2x[30 seconds at 4%, then 30 seconds rest]
2x[30 seconds at 0%, then 30 seconds rest]
Run six times with an extra 30 seconds rest between each set of six intervals.
Speed was at race pace for the entire workout.
This short rest model helped with keeping condition and the aerobic function was maintained through the six repetitions.
Any less than six sets and the aerobic component would be compromised, any more and you lose the neuromuscular advantage as the body gets too tired to hold the required speed. Similarly, any more than 4 percent and we lost the advantage of being able to hold the gradient at race pace losing the strength or muscle adaptation we were looking for.
That set is the diet of every run-challenged athlete that walks into my door and wants to improve—pro or age group. As mentioned, it was completed two days ago by the current Olympic champion, just as it was done yesterday by two of my age group athletes. The only difference was a 5K an hour drop in speed.
There is nothing to dread from the treadmill if it is done right. Join me on Trisutto.com for you triathlon journey.
In addition to mentoring some of the sport’s icons, including current Olympic gold medalist Nicola Spirig and four-time Kona winner Chrissie Wellington, Brett Sutton has coached three individual Olympic medal winners, 15 ITU world champions and his athletes have amassed over 100 70.3 and Ironman championships. He is now head coach at Trisutto.com, where his focus is on providing coaching knowledge and services to age-group athletes.