The Not-Such-A-Dread-Mill

Embracing The Treadmill

We are neck deep in winter here in the southeast. Or is Kentucky midwest? Who knows! Anyway, this is the time of year when runners have a lot of decisions to make when planning that next run. Unlike in the summer when the only real decisions to be made are when and where to run, the winter months force us into a daily cycle of questions like:

  • When is sunrise again? Oh, so I might need my headlamp.

  • When is sunset again? Oh, so I might need my headlamp.

  • What is the temperature?

  • What is the windchill?

  • Gloves or mittens?

  • Tights, shorts, or thicker pants?

  • To vaseline the living hell out of my face or no?

  • Do I just say “SCREW IT” and hit the gym?

Oh but that last one touches a nerve, does it not? We, runners, hate that treadmill. We drag ourselves to the gym or the exercise room in our house and reluctantly put in 30 minutes on the loathsome DREADmill. Then we make sure that everyone on social media knows how much we hate that DREADmill. We hate it!

But should we?

I’m going to try to convince you that the DREADmill isn’t quite as dreadful as we make it out to be. I will likely fail, but here goes!

Why We Hate It

Next Opportunity specializes in trail racing, so if you are reading this then you are likely a trail runner of some form. So you love being outdoors. You love the wind in your face, the smells of the forest, and the sights of nature all around you. So the thought of running indoors takes away everything you love about running. We can turn on the little treadmill fan all we want but that is not a replacement for actually feeling the wind rush through the trees as we pounce along a dirty trail.

The treadmill is also very constricting. When running on a treadmill we are basically enclosed by a plastic fence on three sides. We miss the freedom and primal joy of moving quickly through the world that we get from running. We can’t make decisions on a treadmill either. Gone is the freedom to decide, “Should I turn left or right here?” We are locked into this three-sided box that is dictating how we experience our run.

The treadmill also requires more work and overall hassle. Unless you are fortunate enough to have one of these DREADFUL devices in your home, treadmill running also requires that you have a membership at a gym or health club (which costs money). Then you must drive to said health club, change clothes, do your workout, and drive home. You can’t just put on your running clothes and head out the door like you would like.

Lastly, let me talk to my fellow introverted, socially anxious runners for a moment. The absolute, hands-down, undisputed, number one, king-of-the-mountain worst thing about running on a treadmill is this. YOU. ARE. NOT. ALONE.

OMG. So you are telling me I have to run with all these other people around?!?! That is simply nutso. Is there anything quite worse than when you are already mid-sufferfest on your treadmill and someone hops on the treadmill next to you? The nerve of that person to invade your personal space inside that public facility and make use of their membership as well!

Oh, and let us not forget the other obvious drawback of the treadmill: you aren’t really doing the work. Now I know that is not really accurate, but the point is that the treadmill can be set at a constant speed. All you need to do is keep up. Just keep your feet moving as the belt moves beneath you. You aren’t actually propelling yourself forward or upward against gravity the way you do on a normal run. So it is easy to just look at the treadmill as a sub-par workout.

Why We Shouldn’t Hate It

Now that I’ve reinforced everything you already know about why runners in general hate the treadmill, I have a confession to make.


A runner cannot improve unless challenged. The process of healing and regeneration after a hard workout is what makes your body better than it was before. You get stronger forcing your muscles to do things they are not comfortable doing. You get faster by running faster than what you find comfortable. When engaging in an overall fitness program either formally or self-led we use a lot of different tools: mobile phone apps, free weights, cardio equipment, weight machines, strength and flexibility techniques, resistance bands, and more. The treadmill is just another tool in your arsenal of fitness equipment.

In fact, I think the treadmill has a place in any runner’s training plan year-round. It is not just a necessary evil we must engage in when the weather is bad. But you have to look at the treadmill as a tool. It is a device that serves a very specific purpose in your training. Stop looking at it as the thing you run on when it is too cold outside. Like the bench press serves a specific purpose in strengthening specific upper body muscles, so the treadmill must serve a very specific purpose in your training plan - even in the summer!

Yes, I said it. Run on the treadmill even if it is a nice day!

There are some instances in which the treadmill can give you something that running outdoors cannot. Where else in nature can you find a consistent incline and run it for as long as you want? To the point earlier about how the treadmill does all the work for you, sometimes it is good to set that pace at a speed you find very challenging just to see if you can turn your legs over that fast for a set period of time. Approach the treadmill as a tool that you use to achieve a very specific goal. It is not just a necessary evil.

Here are a few treadmill workouts I use all year long.


Consistent Climb

I live in central Kentucky which is flat as a pancake. I have to drive at least 45 minutes to the nearest trail system that has anything you would call a “climb”. Even those climbs are relatively mild in terms of elevation. Most of the trail systems within a two hour drive of Lexington, KY won’t give you any single climb bigger than 500’.

Enter the DREADmill. I use the treadmill to give me a consistent climbing effort that I can’t find on an actual trail or road. After a good warm up, I will crank that incline number on the treadmill up to double digits. Most of the the treadmills I use have incline indicators that go up to 15. So I’ll set the incline, say, 13 and commit to running it for one hour. I am allowed to adjust the speed as needed, but I must be “working hard” the entire time. “Working hard” is a very relative phrase, but we all know what that means for ourselves. I usually need to back the speed down to a walking pace from time to time, but the point is that my feet keep moving at that incline level for ONE HOUR. There is nowhere in nature I can do that where I live.

The benefit is that you still get a really good workout of those uphill running muscles. Yes it is true that in such a workout you are not actually pulling yourself up against gravity as you would if you were really climbing up a hill. But at a high incline level on the treadmill you must still pick your foot up really high on every stride to meet the belt during your foot strike. This become extremely strenuous, so start slow. Maybe just start out trying to do 10 minutes. It’s up to you!

Consistent Pace

I try to do this workout once or twice a month. This workout consists of me hopping on the treadmill and setting a pace for something that is a little too fast for me to do “in the wild.” For me, that is running 6:00/mile pace for 30 minutes. These days I can hold a 6:00/mile pace for about 20 minutes on the road. That is it! And that is also maximum effort too. But on the treadmill - since I’m not need to deal with uphills and downhills and variations in the terrain - I can set the speed to something that is a little too fast for me normally and try to maintain that pace for a set amount of time.

This workout is, for me, an exercise in cadence and leg turnover. Can I keep my legs moving that fast for that amount of time? It is a chance to work on the explosiveness of those muscles and the flexibility required keep those legs turning over quickly. This benefits me in ultrarunning because I am able to build up quick footwork for those downhills and the speed to maintain a run late in the race.

10 On 10 Off

This one is a doozy. This workout lasts 90 minutes, but you can set the overall time and the intervals to whatever you want. Here is how it goes for me.

I set an alarm on my phone for every 10 minutes, but again you can do 5 minutes or 3 minutes or whatever you are comfortable with. After a good warmup, I hit the treadmill for 10 minutes at a 6:00/mile pace. For me that is working pretty darn hard but not max effort given the interval. When the alarm sounds at the 10 minute mark I hit a series of weights or machines for some intense lifting. I do that for 10 minutes then hit the treadmill again for the next interval. After each 10 minute treadmill interval I do some intense lifting for 10 minutes.

Here is an example of what it might look like for me:

  • Warm Up

  • Treadmill 6:00/mile pace - 10 Minutes

  • Various Kettlebell Exercises - 10 Minutes

  • Treadmill 6:00/mile pace - 10 Minutes

  • Squats, Leg Press, and other leg exercises - 10 Minutes

  • Treadmill 6:00/mile pace - 10 Minutes

  • Pull Ups, Rowing Machine, Lat Pull Downs, and other back exercises - Treadmill 6:00/mile pace - 10 Minutes

  • Treadmill 6:00/mile pace - 10 Minutes

  • Various Core Exercises - 10 Minutes

  • Treadmill 6:00/mile pace - 10 Minutes

That is just an example, but is something I like to do during an intensity period to really give my entire a beat down. I’ll need at least two days of complete rest after that workout.

These workouts are just some examples of how I make use of treadmill as part of my overall running and training. You can come up with your own to see what works best for you. The point is: C’mon, the treadmill isn’t THAT bad is it?

Michael Whisman1 Comment