Treadmill. The dreadmill. The hamster wheel.
Running in the gym brings with it so many negative connotations, of boredom and of wasted opportunities to spend time in the sun, out in the fresh air. But although I would never dream of switching to treadmill running permanently, there are benefits to it which you just can’t get fully from pounding the pavements or the trails.
Firstly, and most obviously, it offers the opportunity for running when training outside just isn’t an option. Whether it’s for snow, wind, rain, heat, or just a lack of safe running routes while travelling, the treadmill is a chance to continue training when you can’t hit the pavements without risk. In winter, I hate running in the wind and rain, so I move many of my workouts indoors.
But there are also more benefits which are not mentioned, leaving treadmills to be denigrated for being “boring” or “unhelpful” or even “unhealthy”.
I’ve talked in previous round-up posts about the ability to set your speed – whether for tempo runs or, conversely, for controlling recovery runs. I don’t have a running watch, so my outside runs are normally run to perceived effort – and the final pace can often surprise me when I check the time after I stop.
Controlled speedwork – running by a pace – ensure that you get maximum benefits from your run, as you can push yourself harder than you would on a fixed-pace run. It helps to improve your aerobic fitness, and by running faster for a short period of time you will also improve your naturally slower “normal” speed.
Generally, tempo runs (speedwork) are split into a warm-up mile or so, then a set number of “sprints” of a pre-selected number of metres, with rests in between. To end, again there is a mile or so to cool down. Runners tend to use the track for outdoor speed work, as this makes the intervals easy to measure and gives a good surface for the legs – so you don’t have to think about anything more than just propelling yourself forward.
The problem is that these intervals can be hard to measure if you don’t have a watch, or if you don’t have a track to measure all the distances. Living in the countryside like I do, the only straight tracks for miles around me are roads, and I just don’t feel comfortable sprinting up and down them and having my wits about me enough to avoid any oncoming vehicles. So, I turn to the treadmill.
For tempo running, the ability to set a desired pace and moderate the distances has obvious benefits. Having a belt underneath ensures that you can’t slow down, forcing you to maintain consistent throughout the entire repeat. It also means that you can’t go all-out on the first repeat, then regret everything after that (guilty as charged…).
It is also easy to work out your desired paces, and even plan a “ladder” exercise (where your intervals get shorter as the pace increases, and then decrease again as you extend the distance) if you have a machine in front of you doing all of the work. And, not going to lie, it’s fun to just all out sprint on a treadmill and challenge whoever is near you in the gym to even attempt that same speed.
But I also use treadmills to control my speed in another way – to control my recovery runs. If I run by myself, I automatically settle into a comfortable 8:00-8:30 ish pace depending on distance, and it is very hard for me to break that – especially on shorter runs. Nonetheless, when I’m recovering from a long run, my target is always around a 9:30 pace, because the point is not to stress my legs any further.
The only way I can control this in the outside is if I run with a friend, chatting, or if I listen to a podcast. For some reason, no matter what the podcast is, it always slows my pace more than a good playlist of motivational tunes. But I still normally end up going faster than I had planned – I just can’t maintain a slow pace for that time without getting bored.
Unless… I use the treadmill!
Using a treadmill, I can set a slow pace, and then just jog along and watch TV for however long I want. This ensures that, again, I maintain my own set pace and don’t stray from the slower recovery workout that I had planned. On these workouts, I tend to play around with the incline so I don’t get very bored, but otherwise I just keep the same pace. I know that this wouldn’t be possible outside.
And the final way I use treadmills? Very, very occasionally, I get bored of running on roads. Living in the countryside andbeing able to run 5 times a week straight from my house is a gift, but it means that it is easy to get a bit bored of the same roads, the same stretches which seem to last forever with only zooming cars for company. So, treadmills help me to switch this up, and motivate me when all I want to do is not do the workout I had planned. This even stretches to my long runs.
Some weeks, I will set out on a long run and just can’t get into it. My brain will refuse to do what the body knows it can do and, if I’m on the roads, it is easy to just turn back or cut my loop shorter with the temptation of water at home, or gel, or … y’know … chocolate. At the gym, I feel like I am there for a reason and, especially since I have to drive there, that I have no good reason to cut my runs shorter. The abundance of water, people watching, and self-motivational competition also helps!
After yesterday’s post, I had several people wondering how I managed to run 16 miles (just under 2.5 hours) on the treadmill, in one session, without getting bored or giving up. Honestly? I’m not sure, I just continued pushing and pushing. I did get bored, but I get bored at points during all of my long runs, and the whole point is just to never give up.
I downloaded a few episodes of Casual and Turn on Amazon Prime, and set them going. I put a cover over the top of my treadmill so I couldn’t watch the distance, or the time ticking in an ever-slowing cycle. I set a maintainable (if slightly slow) speed, and just ran.
I ran 10 miles, then hopped off the ‘mill for some water and a gel. Then, back onto it for another 6 miles – which I justified in my head as even less than an hour. Easy. I did get a little spaced out, I can’t tell you exactly what happened in the middle, but that’s what happens on my long runs anyway!
Would I recommend running all the time on a treadmill? Nope. It’s not healthy for your legs, it’s not as stimulating for the muscles and, of course, you would miss out on so much from running outside. But, if the weather is awful or if you have a specific goal in mind, the treadmill is not something to be feared. You can easily use it to your advantage, as long as you don’t mind occasionally feeling like a hamster!
What is your relationship to the dreaded treadmill? What’s your longest gym run? How do you cope with bad weather and running scheduling?
Drop me a comment below, or follow me on Instagram (@primallyimperfect) to let me know your thoughts and feedback.