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 Acclimatization: Training 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.