How to Effectively Train for a Race on the Treadmill

How to Effectively Train for a Race on the Treadmill

For some runners, the treadmill is the only realistic option to fit in their training. Perhaps they work long hours and can only run during the dark hours of the morning or on lunch breaks. Maybe they have a small child (or two or more) and can only fit in runs during naptime or playtime. Whether it’s time, safety, or convenience, choosing train for a race on the treadmill is what allows them to train consistently.

There are disadvantages to the treadmill: it lacks wind resistance and other weather elements, the belt sets the pace rather than you, and the unvarying surface can be too repetitive. When it is your only option, however, it certainly beats not running – and it can actually be a highly effective training tool. When you are strategic and creative about your training, you can effectively train for a race on the treadmill – and have a successful, enjoyable race day.

Try Treadmill Specific Workouts

On the treadmill, you can control the pace and incline with precision and adjust them with the touch of a button. You can use this to your advantage and structure your workouts for the treadmill specifically. If you live in a flat area, you can do more hill workouts; if you normally train on hills, you can do some flat runs. You can easily change paces in a workout or learn how to hit your goal pace. The options are endless! 

Try some of these treadmill specific workouts:

Treadmill Workouts for Winter Training  
Treadmill Incline Workouts for Runners 
Treadmill Workouts for Race Training from the 5K to Marathon 
6 Treadmill Workouts for Runners

Utilize Incline

A strong runner is a fast runner. In addition to mileage and strength training, one of the most effective methods for building strength is hills. 

Increasing the incline will make road running – especially road racing – feel easier. While there’s no perfect equivalence of mimicking wind resistance or outdoor hills, it will be easier if you build up strength for more than a pancake flat treadmill. 

There are several treadmill-friendly incline workouts: long climbs, rolling hills, or hill repeats of varying lengths. Some treadmills even feature preset hills or simulation routes, allowing you to train on the hills of Boston or the mountains of Washington. 

Focus on Effort, not Pace

Assuming that your treadmill is calibrated, you may notice dissonance in how a pace feels outside vs how it feels on the treadmill. Some runners run faster on the treadmill, others slower. One factor is how your brain perceives effort without changing scenery. Your gait also changes on the treadmill compared to outdoors and you be more or less economical. 

Don’t try to force the same paces on the treadmill as you run outdoors. Instead, focus on effort. An easy run should feel comfortable enough to carry on a conversation. A tempo run should feel comfortably hard. Intervals should be hard enough to make it difficult to speak. If you find perceived effort unreliable, you can utilize heart rate training. (However, use your own heart rate monitor, not the built-in one on the treadmill, as that can be inaccurate.)

Vary Your Runs as Much as Possible

 Variety in your running provides both mental and physical benefits. From a mental aspect, variety prevents burnout. If you feel like you are on a hamster wheel every day, you will fatigue of your training and lose motivation. However, if every run is slightly different, the novelty makes training more exciting. 

From a physical aspect, variety optimizes your training time. A majority of runners benefit from a variety of easy runs, long runs, speed workouts, hill workouts, and tempo runs. This approach – often referred to as polarized training – maximizes all aspects of fitness, thus making you a better runner at a variety of distances. 

Variety does not mean doing a treadmill interval workout every single day. This is a quick way to burnout or injury. Rather, variety means changing certain factors while maintaining the purpose of each run.

For easy runs, vary the duration, incline, and even pace (within the appropriate range). Do a wide range of workouts during a training cycle to build all aspects of fitness and engage yourself mentally. Include an incline on some runs and make others flat. 

Do Your Highest Priority Run Outdoors

While weekdays pose the logistical challenges of work schedules and childcare, the weekends often offer more flexibility. Schedule your most important run of the week on the weekend. If you are training for a marathon or half marathon, this is likely your long run or a long run workout. For 10K and 5K runners, this workout is may be a speed workout or tempo run. 

However, do not schedule a long run and a hard workout such as intervals or a tempo run on consecutive days. That hinders recovery, which hinders adaptation. 

Build Mental Toughness

The treadmill can be dull and monotonous, especially for longer runs. But rather than bemoaning the treadmill, use it as an opportunity to build mental toughness. The more your mind learns to cope with monotony, the better you will be able to handle the middle miles of a long-distance race. Sticking out long intervals or a tempo run on the treadmill will improve your mental ability to withstand physical discomfort. Whenever the temptation emerges to hit the stop or pause button, push yourself just a little bit longer (unless you need to quit the run for a good reason) – and you will find it easier to dig deep on race day.

Don’t Neglect Injury Prevention

The softer, smoother surface of the treadmill does not equate to no injuries. The repetitive surface of the treadmill can increase the risk of overuse injury for some runners. Surface impact also isn’t the sole cause of injury. Doing too much too soon and poor mechanics will still cause injury, no matter what surface you are on. 

Variety and preventative strength exercises minimize injury risk. Vary your treadmill runs as much as possible: include easy runs and hard workouts, change the incline, run for various lengths of time throughout the week, and even try to run your easy runs at slightly different paces. Injury prevention exercises (such as these) can be easily included as a warm-up before a run or immediately after your treadmill run. 

Have a Positive Attitude

You can lament being stuck on the dreadmill, or you can embrace it as an effective way to train. A treadmill run is still a run – and better than no run at all. If you view treadmill training with a positive mindset, it will be more enjoyable.

Have you ever trained for a race on the treadmill?

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9 Responses

  1. I could never do it! However, I have a friend that has trained for multiple marathons on a treadmill and really crushed her races. The mental aspect would be the toughest for me

    1. I’ve always hated the treadmill…until this year. Living in northern Alberta, Canada, outdoor winter running can be difficult and often dangerous with the cod and ice. The gym I go to has amazing treadmills, 100s of preset workouts (hills, high incline, decline, virtual races/courses), and has Netflix, YouTube, Spotify and a slew of other apps! I’ve been changing up the type of runs I’ve been doing each time I go (aiming for 3-5 times a week; a minimum of 2. Just depends on my husbands work schedule and what the kids have going on). It’s made winter training bearable. I’ve been able to PR a 10k in 6 weeks of training already, so I’m excited to see what my times will be like once it’s warm enough to get back outside.

  2. I’m really grateful for all your treadmill tips. I’m not a fan and I like what you said about not worrying about pace; run by effort. Instead of worrying about miles, I run for time on the treadmill. I’m glad I have a treadmill but I’ll always prefer running outside!

  3. These are such great tips. My current schedule (toddler mom problems) doesn’t let me run outside much, so treadmill it is. I utilize incline whenever possible to shake things up, but always wonder if it’s enough to prepare me for road races.

  4. These are great tips, but there is no way I could do it. I think my longest mill run was 6 miles and it was brutal. In addition, the humidity here is so bad, all year round – there’s just no way I could manage it if I didn’t run outside more than once a week. Yay, Florida LOL.

  5. I love these tips. And I totally agree about highest priority runs being outside. The treadmill is nice to have but better to do those tough workouts and/or long runs outdoors!

  6. Always the outlier, I love training on the treadmill. I have one in my basement with a 22″ TV and Roku mounted in front. I use the Peloton App to coach me through a wide variety of run types and lengths (20-60 minutes, endurance runs, hills, speed, intervals, HRZ, Theme runs and Music runs), and I find a couple of the coaches excellent at pushing me harder than I would on my own. For longer runs I watch a variety of YouTube nature running videos (some up to 2-hours in length) combined with Spotify or an audio book.

    My default incline for all “flat” runs on the tread is .5%, and for shorter runs it’s 1%. If I’m training on a Peloton App program and it calls for increasing incline, I just start at .5%, and add what they call for.

    So the treadmill works great for me, but then I’m not interested in competing or running in any kind of commercial “races”.

  7. Thanks for this article. I’m training for a 1/2 and need to supplement treadmill runs to beat the crazy summer heat wave we’re having. 115 degrees! I also have young kids and and work. Glad to know it’s a tool to make it work.

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