Ask a Running Coach: Treadmill Running

Ask a Running Coach: Treadmill Running

For some runners, the treadmill is their lifeline for running. Others not-so-affectionately refer to it as the dreadmill. No matter what your opinion on the treadmill is, it’s a useful training tool for runners everywhere. The treadmill makes winter running, training with infants and toddlers, and zero dark thirty runs more feasible for the casual runner and dedicated marathoner alike. 

While it’s the closest substitute to overground running, there are some physical and mental differences between outdoor running and treadmill running. I asked runners on Instagram for their questions about the treadmill. From why the treadmill feels hard to how to maintain your normal stride, here are the answers to your top treadmill questions! 

Ask a Running Coach: Treadmill Running

Why does the treadmill feel harder than running outside?

A 2019 meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine concluded that endurance performance suffered on the treadmill compared to overground running. Why? While the researchers did not conclude a reason, the treadmill affects one’s perception of effort. You cannot mentally measure distance or speed with the visual passage of landmarks. 

One way to counter this effect is to run by time and effort, not distance or pace. You may easily run 7 miles in one hour outdoors, but need to slow down to a 9:00/mile pace on the treadmill.  

For hard workouts, you can adjust the workout to maintain the same effort level on the treadmill. Since heart rate and RPE are both higher on the treadmill than outdoors, you might not be able to run the exact same workout on the treadmill as outdoors. You can, however, scale the workout to maintain the same purpose and intensity. 

For example, tempo runs are notoriously difficult on the treadmill – and that makes sense in light of the meta-analysis. Instead of trying to run five miles at a 7:30/mile pace, just as you would outside, scale the workout for the treadmill. You could slow down the pace to a 7:35-7:40/mile so that it feels equivalent to your outdoor effort. Another option is to insert short recovery intervals (~60 seconds) after each mile or every 10 minutes while maintaining your normal pace. Ultimately, your workout achieves the same purpose. 

Why does my Garmin read differently than the treadmill?

I hear this question from my athletes all the time. For some, their Garmin reads faster/a longer distance than the treadmill. Others are frustrated because their Garmin reports a slower pace and shorter distance. The reason? I explain the reasons in more detail in this blog post, but the Garmin indoor mode relies on your arm swing, which can differ outdoors than compared to the treadmill. 

If you use a footpod, your Garmin will likely read more accurately on the treadmill than the wrist-based tracker alone. However, if your stride is different than outdoors (see below), you may still get an inaccurate reading. 

Typically, you can rely on the treadmill to be relatively accurate. Don’t dwell too much on the data; focus on the purpose of the run and how you feel. 

How can I keep my stride similar to the road?

Most runners slightly alter their stride on the treadmill. A 2014 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined the gait of fifteen male competitive runners on the treadmill. These runners ran 10km at a constant pace on a 0% incline. While their overall running form remained the same, they did increase their step length and decrease their cadence on the treadmill. 

If the findings of this study can be extrapolated to a majority of runners, you likely change your cadence and stride length on the treadmill. In order to maintain a similar stride as to the road, you want to be mindful of your cadence on the treadmill. You do not need to count steps, but focus on a quick turnover and landing with your feet beneath you (since overstriding decreases cadence). 

Some practical tips for maintaining your normal cadence and stride on the treadmill:

  • Clip yourself into the treadmill and allow yourself to settle into the middle of the belt. Many runners run close to the front of the treadmill, which can alter their stride. 
  • Set the incline to what feels most comfortable and natural to you. For some runners, 0% incline changes their stride length because they reach forward more. 
  • Vary the incline and pace (within the range appropriate to the purpose of your run) to activate different muscles and mimic how your stride naturally changes with the variations of outdoor running. 
  • If possible, opt for a treadmill with a wider, longer belt.

Why does the treadmill suck so much?

There is an actual psychological reason for why some people hate the treadmill. Originally, the treadmill served as a form of punishment in 19th-century English prisons due to its mind-numbing monotony. (This original iteration of the treadmill, also called the treadwheel, resembled the modern stair climber more than the modern treadmill.)

However, electively running on the treadmill is far different than walking for hours on end in depressing prison conditions. Your mindset makes a significant difference when on the treadmill. If you convince yourself that a treadmill run is going to be boring and feel awful, then it will. 

Have multiple tactics for coping with the monotony of the treadmill:

  • Have a podcast, audiobook, or playlist to entertain you; if you really struggle with motivation, reserve this for the treadmill only. 
  • Rather than setting the belt to one speed and incline for the entire run, toggle the incline and speed buttons throughout. When you run outdoors, your pace will naturally vary (even within the same effort) and you likely encounter some variations in terrain.
  • Convince yourself that this will be an enjoyable run. Positive self-talk is shown to reduce the perception of effort on a run. Tell yourself that you feel good and are enjoying the run. 
  • If all else fails, use it as an opportunity to develop mental toughness. 

Try one of these treadmill workouts to make your run more engaging:

Treadmill Incline Workouts for Runners 
Treadmill Workouts for Race Training from the 5K to Marathon
6 Treadmill Workouts for Runners
Easy Run Treadmill Workout to Beat Treadmill Boredom

Linking up with CoachesCorner

What questions do you have about treadmill running?

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3 Responses

  1. Thank you for answering my eternal question about why I run slower on the treadmill than I do outdoors! You would think that because it’s flat, you’d be faster. Not me! I like to do intervals on the TM, helps pass the time.

  2. I heard that story about how the treadmill was invented; it’s so comical!
    When I’m on the treadmill, I have my best music with me or more typically, I have a podcast that I’ve been saving.

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