How to Do Long Runs on the Treadmill

How to Actually Enjoy Treadmill Long Runs in Winter

Winter poses a training conundrum for many runners. Popular spring races require training during the coldest winter months. Negative windchills, icy streets, and heavy snow are not the safest running conditions. So, many runners turn to treadmill running, even for their weekly long runs. These tips will help you complete your treadmill long runs this winter – and maybe even enjoy the hours of treadmill running.

Running on the treadmill for 3-5 miles is no problem for most runners, especially if you have an interesting treadmill workout to do. However, the physical and mental repetition of the treadmill can cause significant boredom when you are running for longer than 90 minutes. If you’re doing a 16 to 20 miler to prepare for your spring marathon, treadmill running can feel downright insufferable. 

That said, sticking to your training plan and getting your long run done is far better than skipping out on your long run. Treadmill long runs can be successful and possibly even enjoyable if you approach them with the right attitude and a plan to keep them interesting. 

Why Treadmill Running May Be Beneficial for Winter Long Runs

While outdoor long runs teach you how to pace, provide hills to build strength, and offer varied scenery to keep you entertained during your run, treadmill long runs can have their benefits as well.

  • Hydration and Nutrition: Most outdoor water fountains are shut off in winter so the pipes don’t freeze. Handheld water bottles and gels can freeze on very cold days. By doing your long run on the treadmill, you can keep your water bottle and fuel on the console for easy access.
  • Injury Prevention: A primary goal of race training is to make it to the starting line of a race healthy and ready to run. A bad fall icy roads can lead to both soft tissue and bone injuries. When the temperature drops below 15 degrees, the risk of straining or tearing a muscle can also increase. Taking your long run inside reduces the risk of injury during the worst of winter weather.
  • Better breathing: Cold air can irritate asthma and other breathing issues. (Learn more on the physiology of cold weather running.) By running inside, you breath better and stay healthy during winter running. 
  • Heat AcclimatizationTraining for a destination race or know that race day may be warm (such as the Boston Marathon)? Treadmill long runs can simulate a warm environment even during the coldest days of winter.

How to Enjoy Treadmill Running (Even During Long Runs)

Set it and forget it may be the easy approach to treadmill running. However, it is not the most exciting – nor the most physiologically beneficial. By using the buttons on the treadmill to adjust pace and incline often, you can beat both mental and physical monotony.

Run for Time

If you find you run slower on the treadmill than outdoors, aim to run for equal time on the treadmill. Running by distance can feel mentally defeating on the treadmill, when you feel like you have been running forever but you still have 15 miles to go. Instead of running by distance, figure out how long the run would normally take you outdoors. Then, run for that same amount of time on the treadmill.

Vary the Incline: 

When you run outside, the incline varies naturally, which works different muscles. On a treadmill, nothing changes unless you change it. If you always run at the same speed and incline, your risk of overuse injury increases. Some runners may also notice they are more prone to muscle cramps from repetitive muscle use on the treadmill.

Instead of sticking to a 0% or 1% incline the entire time, vary the incline of the treadmill often. Some treadmills now come with programs that automatically vary incline as you follow a simulated course. If you’re feeling ambitious, download your race’s course profile and mimic the hill climbs as best you can. Or, you can manually change the incline every few minutes.

These are the incline approaches I recommend to my athletes for treadmill running:

  • Repeat 5-8 minutes at 0%, 1 minutes at 6-8%.
  • Do a ladder: increase the incline by 0.5% every 3-5 minutes until you reach 4-5%, then decrease, and repeat for the entire run.
  • Repeat 3 minutes at 0%, 2 minutes at 3%, 1 minute at 5%.
  • Repeat 5 minutes at 0%, 5 minutes at 3-4%.
Vary the Pace:

Generally, I recommend varying incline as the best protection against overuse injury. However, varying the pace can also provide some mental variety.

If you vary the incline, you can adjust the pace with each incline change to maintain the same perceived effort. Even within an easy run, you can change the pace every few minutes within your easy effort range. For example, if your easy pace is a 9:00/mile (6.6 mph on the treadmill), you can vary between 6.3-6.9 mph throughout the run.

For a long run, you can add in pace variations similar to how you would vary incline:

  • Repeat 5-8 minutes at easy pace, 1 minute at easy pace + 30 sec/mile (easy-moderate effort).
  • Repeat 5 minutes at easy pace, 5 minutes 5-10 sec/mile faster.
  • Change the pace within your easy range with every new song.
Long Run Workouts: 

Easy paced long runs will still comprise about 50% of your long runs. However, for experienced runners, hard long runs will offer the double benefit of reducing treadmill boredom and improving your fitness. Long run workouts can include segments at a marathon pace or short pulses to threshold effort during the middle miles. 

For any long run workout, adjust based on your fitness and goals. These workouts should include a 15-20 minute easy running warm-up and cool down.

  • For an trail race/ultra: Alternate 1 mile easy, 1 mile climbing at 8%.
  • For the marathon: Alternate 5 minutes at marathon effort/5 minutes easy running
  • For half marathon (or shorter): Repeat 1 minute at threshold (moderately hard), 4-5 minutes easy.

The Secret to Treadmill Running? Mindset

If you refer to it as the dreadmill, your treadmill run will naturally not be enjoyable. The psychological side of running is powerful. Your mindset can influence how you feel during a run. Stop psyching yourself out about long runs on the treadmill or negatively framing them. Instead, do everything you can to create an enjoyable experience and embrace the fact that you get to run.

Avoid comparing your pace on the treadmill to your pace outside. Any pace comparison sets you up for a mentally rough run. Biomechanics are relatively similar on the treadmill to overground, but that does not mean the two running modes are identical. Heart rate and RPE may be higher because most treadmills have poor air circulation and are placed in warmer rooms. Some runners are faster on the treadmill, while some runners are faster outside. You never know how well a commercial treadmill is calibrated. Importantly, ignore whatever your watch says you ran; the more accurate distance is what the treadmill reports.

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36 Responses

  1. Im so glad Ive never had to do a long run on the treadmill. Although I used to run 10-12 miles on there just for fun! I remember in grad school I would go to the gym in the morning and study for exams while running on the treadmill. A few years ago I trained for an April marathon and it was tough getting in my runs with the bad weather. I remember starting a few long runs on the treadmill and finishing them up outside when it started to get a little warmer.

    1. I did the same thing in grad school – study on the treadmill while running 10-13 miles! That was definitely a way to pass the time on the treadmill…or maybe to pass the time studying!

  2. I always find that last part fascinating for myself. I seem to run faster and easier outside! I’m not sure if it’s because my pace is staring me in the face or my perception is off but it’s weird!!
    Right now I’m using the treadmill for one of things you mentioned – simulating warm weather running. I’m trying my best to bike and run in a warm room so I can prep for the Havana Triathlon!
    Great tips Laura – as always…

    1. Thank you! I get that too on the treadmill – so weird! I bet you’re right about the pace and that darn timer being in plain sight in the entire time. It’s harder to find that flow state. I bet the treadmill will help you so much for Havana!

  3. Now that I have YakTrax, I don’t really draw the line for running outside. I don’t have access to a treadmill on the weekends, so I just bundle up and get it done! Luckily it never gets cold enough long enough to bother me..sometimes I just have to shift around my long run day 🙂 These are great tips though because even for shorter runs (6 or less miles) I struggle with treadmill runs!

    1. I’m definitely a fan of doing long runs outside whenever possible – I’ve moved mine before as well for weather. I love your get-it-done attitude! And oh my gosh yes, I can barely make it through 5 miles on the treadmill.

  4. Great tips! I dread having to do runs on the treadmill, but have found that surges help a ton to keep my mind busy. This is the first winter I have had to regularly run on the treadmill and seem to be getting used to it… a bit 😉

    1. I have the Garmin 230 (which is similar to the 235) and the indoor runs works well on the treadmill! It depends on my stride and arm swing, so if I’m relaxed on the treadmill it’s accurate, but if I’m not running as I do outside it can be off by about 100 meters (which is actually a good reminder for me to run with good form on the mill). I haven’t tried it on an indoor track, but I would imagine that it would work the same on an indoor track as the treadmill!

  5. I think the most important thing to remember for long run treadmill running is vary the incline throughout the run, because otherwise the same muscle fibres, ligaments and tendons will get trashed with the monotony. Oh, and Netflix, podcasts, and the promise of a beer from the garage fridge as soon as you hop off! 😉

  6. The longest I’ve run on the treadmill at one time is 12 miles. I was “supposed” to run 3 more but I was batty so I jumped off and ran outside even though there was a foot of new snow on the roads. I got the bulk done so that was good enough for me. I have to constantly change the pace and incline to occupy my mind. Good music and/or tv show help tons too!

  7. I will avoid the treadmill at all costs…well….one because I do not have easy access to a treadmill, but I would also just prefer to be outside, even in some of the doom & gloom that January and February bring to Seattle. I think the longest I have ever been on a treadmill was 4-5 miles. When I am “stuck” on a treadmill, I definitely have to switch things to keep myself going mentally. Sometimes it can certainly feel like a greater accomplishment to finish a treadmill run vs an intense run outside.

    1. The doom and gloom (speaking of which, how did yesterday’s blue skies turn into this?!) is never as bad as the several feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures from back in the Midwest! A long run outside in the rain sure does beat a long run on the treadmill! I totally get what you mean about feeling more accomplished though – treadmill runs take so much more grit!

  8. Really the only place I draw the line for running outside is ice – which is often only on the sidewalks, in which case I find some unpaved trails instead! I think I’ve managed maybe ~4 miles on a treadmill, but it always gives me vertigo sooner or later.

  9. Long runs on the treadmill are definitely a challenge! One other advantage to doing long runs on the mill, especially in the winter, is the availability of bathrooms… for some of us, that’s a must! I’ve also used the treadmill to do “heat training” to help acclimate myself for a long distance race in a warm climate.

  10. I had to take a lot of long training runs to the treadmill this cycle. I looked at it as good training for the warm weather in New Orleans. I also break it into chunks. I have to restart the treadmill about every 5 miles due to time limits. So I would hop off quick, refill my water bottle and then just focus my mind on the next 5 miles.

  11. I am NOT a treadmill fan, though I have used it a lot in 2017 LOL My longest TM”run” is 5 miles(or maybe it was 6? …I was in such a mixed up mental fog, I honestly do not remember). I detest long runs on the ‘mill (like you said, they’re too repetitious and NOT good for me), but I don’t mind doing speed intervals (probably because they feel more like “drills” and not “runs”)

  12. “A bad fall icy roads can lead to injuries that will stop you from running for a few weeks or even a few months.” This. 100%. Totally not worth the risk.

  13. I definitely do run on the treadmill during the winter on occasion, but I’ve never had to do a run longer than about 6 miles or so…I can’t imagine being on a treadmill for 16! This is all really great advice. I should play around more with elevation when I do use the treadmill.

    1. The elevation helps so much! Especially if you normally run in a hilly area, it makes it feel more like the outdoors. I still can’t wrap my head around it when I hear people say they’ve done 16+ mile runs on a treadmill!

  14. I have signed up for my first half marathon. I am nervous as I have never ran that long before. Yesterday I got to 8 miles and my goal is to do 10 on Sunday even if I have to walk the last two miles. Any tips for a first time marathoner?

    1. Hi Tiffany! Depending on your previous running experience, short walk breaks may help with long runs on the treadmill (or outside). Even if you only walk for 30-60 seconds every mile or so, it will break up the run and make the distance seem less intimidating. The walk breaks will help you conserve energy for the end. I also recommend starting at a pace that feels very comfortable – long runs should feel all-out hard but should be at a restrained, comfortable pace. Please let me know if you have any other questions!

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