They get a bad rap. Some call them hurtful names like “The Dreadmill” or “Hamster Wheel”. Others want to blame them for their knee problems. Some just use them as expensive clothing racks. Shameful.
I am here to dispel some of the garbage that is out there and tell you why you SHOULD own a treadmill if you are serious about improving your running. I will also give you some tips on how much and what type of training the treadmill is most useful for by answering a few common questions and rebutting a few common misconceptions.
The treadmill, like a bike trainer, free weights, and your pull buoy, is a tool that aids in training. Like any other tool, it can be misused, overused, and neglected. And like any piece of equipment, it can break if not maintained, and is one heck of a scapegoat when you have issues with your body. But if maintained and used properly, it can catapult your training to new heights.
WHY ARE TREADMILLS SO DARN USEFUL?
I am clearly on Team Treadmill. But don’t confuse my enthusiasm for extreme bias. I am not being paid by anyone and I paid a chunk-o-change for my treadmill. But I invested in it for several reasons.
One, it takes out ANY excuses I might have for not getting in my run workouts. It’s never more than a few steps away. The weather can’t stop it (barring loss of power). I don’t have to drive to a gym to get on it. It has single handedly held me accountable to my running over the last few years. This increased accountability means more consistency. And we all know consistency trumps volume, intensity, and even frequency over the long term.
Secondly, a treadmill, like a computerized bike trainer, allows you to complete very specific intervals at a consistent pace. You don’t have to worry about things like crossing streets, hills, other people, dogs, among hundreds of other distractions. You can just focus on form, breathing, and hitting your marks. This added quality can (don’t mistake that for WILL) bring about quicker improvements because the workload is much more controllable.
Last but not least, treadmills are great for course simulation training. In fact, my treadmill allows me to create any course I want with Google Maps (for $99 bucks a year). I can run that exact course and it will adjust the incline anytime there is a hill on the route. As I cruise along, Google Street View actually provides a visual of all the sites along the actual course.
For people who live in places like say…Memphis…where the biggest hill is less than a quarter mile, the added specificity to their training is invaluable.
DON’T TREADMILLS INTENTIONALLY HURT PEOPLE?
Treadmills don’t hurt people. People hurt people. While the treadmill is a great training tool, there are a few things you will want to pay attention to while you run.
- I’ve seen a tendency for people to run too slow on treadmills, thus altering their gait. It’s true that the belt aids a little in movement, but it can also cause extra impact if you are landing out in front of your hips. So, you will want to pay special attention to your heel lift and cadence at your easy paces.
- Unless you are running with incline, you won’t get a lot of work on extension so it’s always good to actively change up your cadence and incline if you are using the mill for easier or longer runs. Slower cadence going uphill (focusing on pushing backward), and quicker cadence when it’s flat or down (lifting those heels quick and flexing the knee beyond 90 degrees).
- Some people say to always run at a slight incline, but that isn’t going to help much if you are running with too low of a cadence. Plus, each treadmill has a different zero incline setting, and some have levelers and calibration capabilities.
Long story short, if you can’t run pain free on a flat, unvarying surface, you have some other issues to address.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD I USE A TREADMILL VERSUS GOING OUTSIDE?
If you have the time and weather conditions to never set foot on a treadmill, congrats! You are probably single and live on the West coast (I’m not offended if you are offended).
Do I recommend doing all of your training on a treadmill? Absolutely not. There are a lot of necessary musculoskeletal adaptions that happen when pounding the pavement. At the same time, the rebound of the treadmill surface is slower than harder surfaces like pavement. This different timing can definitely affect your leg turnover if you spend too much time running on a treadmill.
Rule of thumb is to not do more than 2 runs indoor each week if you can help it. If possible, you should never do 100% of any specific type of run workout (i.e. hill work, speed, tempo, etc) on the treadmill in any given month.
All that said, a completed run is always better than a missed run.
SHOULD I DO MY LONG RUNS ON A TREADMILL?
I rarely recommend doing long runs (much over an hour) on a treadmill unless it won’t get done otherwise. The early onset of fatigue due to the pounding of the road and muscular vibrations is a real thing.
If you’ve never done a long run on the road, and plan on racing on the road, you are going to be in for a rude awakening because your body won’t truly be prepared for the workload it’s going to have to endure on race day.
Have I done long runs on a treadmill before? Absolutely. But I did it because it was my only option for getting it in at the time.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR IN A TREADMILL?
There is a huge variety of treadmills out there with different sizes, functions, motors, and the list goes on. I have used, owned, and ruined a few different treadmills in my days. Here are the things I believe to be the most important and what is not.
Don’t Skimp On:
- A stronger motor, 3 Horsepower or more for runners. Anything less and it’s not meant for the amount of use and pounding it will get.
- At least 12mph max speed. This will get most athletes through some serious speed work.
- A sturdy steel frame with a solid warranty. If it gets enough use, the frame will likely be the first thing to give out. I know this from experience.
- 20+ inch wide belt. Any less and it might cause you to run more narrow than you would on the road.
Don’t Worry About:
- Max incline. Most go to at least 12. Some to 15+. But if you are needing to train with more incline, you might as well get a stair master.
- Folding or Not. Rigid frames use to be the only thing that would hold up more than a couple years, but now a lot of manufacturers are making very durable folding frame models. Semi-commercial they call them.
- Music or TV capabilities. If you have it in your house, you likely own a stereo and a TV. Don’t blow extra money on those unless they come on a model that has another function you really want.
Avoid At All Costs:
- Models with sliders to change speed
- Models with adjustable flex in the bed to make it a softer feel (you need the impact, and it’s one more part to squeak or break)
- Models with wood anywhere in the build of the bed
- Any model you see on late night infomercials
Recommended Because It’s Cool:
- iFit compatible with GPS maps and iPad control capability
- Variable speed fan on board (literally cool)
HOW HARD IS IT TO MAINTAIN A TREADMILL?
If you keep up with it and wipe it down after each use, not hard at all. You really only need to lube some parts a couple times per year, the most important being the actual bed the belt travels over. At some point the belt will likely need to be replaced, but that’s about it.
I DON’T HAVE THE SPACE
Ha! I’ve seen people have a treadmill in a 300 square foot studio apartment. They can fold up and out of the way, and many models aren’t terribly heavy to move. If you are a triathlete, and you have space to set up a bike trainer, you have the space for a treadmill.
THEY ARE TOO EXPENSIVE
I can vouch that it’s an investment. But over the many years of added consistency, it will pay for itself 10 fold. Think of all the other racing and training related things you spend money on. This tool is no less important for a competitive athlete looking to improve.
You can always check the local sales forums and garage sales. I’ve seen decent treadmills for as little as $400 on Facebook sales pages. A good time to look is about 4 weeks after the New Year when folks give up on all those resolutions they made. Point being, with a little leg work, you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a valuable training tool.
I CAN’T STAND BEING ON A TREADMILL
Get over it. Someone is getting better than you because they are training and you keep making excuses why you can’t.
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