One thing professional triathlete Thomas Gerlach has discovered through years of training and racing is that the treadmill is an important key to success for any multisport athlete. “Sure, on beautiful days it’s always easier mentally to get outside, and on cold, rainy days the treadmill seems more ideal,” says Gerlach, who finished second at the 2014 IRONMAN Louisville. “But regardless, the treadmill is not something I ever dread — I think of it as a necessary part of the process for becoming a better athlete.”
When it comes to run training, treadmills offer consistency that you won’t find on the open road where terrain, temperature, and traffic can all make or break a workout. That reliability goes a long way in insuring the successful execution of key training sessions. “A predictable environment also allows you to better track your own fitness and gauge your efforts,” adds Gerlach.
The effectiveness of this type of training hinges on whether or not you’re making the most of your treadmill workouts. Here are some of the most common mistakes triathletes make on the hamster wheel to help you avoid the same missteps and get the most bang for your buck.
You don’t have a plan: Since there is no tangible finish line on a treadmill, it can be easy to simply step off the belt at any given moment. Research has actually shown that we fatigue sooner when we don’t have a defined end point. This is why it is imperative to go into a treadmill workout with a predetermined plan. “They say failing to plan is planning to fail and I couldn’t agree more,” says Gerlach. “If your goal is to complete an event, running on a treadmill for time might get you to that goal, but if you are planning on competing, then you are going to have to structure workouts in such a way that maximizes your potential.”
You don’t warm up: Just because the treadmill provides a time efficient workout doesn’t mean that you don’t need to ready your muscles for a hard effort. “I would do the same thing before a treadmill workout as I would before outdoor running,” says Ryan Bolton, a coach, Olympian, and IRONMAN champion. He suggests doing drills in a gym or hallway and then hopping on the treadmill for an easy jogging warm up and strides prior to any fast bouts. Alternatively, some athletes benefit from foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and glue activation exercises prior to running.
You’re not effectively using grade: For many years people have insisted that setting a treadmill at a 1 percent incline mimics outdoor running. A well-respected Harvard doctor, however, recently challenged that idea, suggesting that the 1 percent rule only simulates the workload of “real” running for those who were traveling at a 7:09 pace or faster. Bolton says that the biggest reason to vary the grade at which you’re running is to mimic the effort required by different types of workouts. “On the treadmill you can replicate a harder, faster effort by bumping up the grade and running slower,” he explains. “This is how you can incorporate strength or hill work, too.”
Your form falls apart: The treadmill is the perfect place to practice good form, but for some reason, athletes often tend to run differently on a treadmill than they would outside. Common mistakes include getting crunched up toward the front of the belt and holding the arms tight and close to the body. “Try to maintain your normal running form on the treadmill,” advises Bolton. “You can never totally let go of focus.”
You’re going too slow: Research has demonstrated that most athletes tend to run slower on a treadmill than they do outside, so be sure to make a conscious effort to keep track of your pace. “The treadmill is not very effective if you say, ‘I’m just going to go run for an hour,'” says Bolton. “The treadmill workouts I write for people tend to have a lot of specificity alternating speed and grade to keep an athlete’s mind happy and engaged.”
You don’t add any spice to your workouts: There’s no doubt that treadmill running can be pretty boring. Lethargy with the task at hand can lead to diminished form, as well as loss of focus. Gerlach advises keeping things interesting with music and changes in tempo and grade. “I have music sorted in such a way that I save the most motivating songs for the toughest workouts,” he says. “As for variability, I generally am pressing buttons to increase and decrease speed and incline on the treadmill every minute, so it gives me something to do.”
Thomas Gerlach’s Favorite Treadmill Workouts
Remember, Gerlach’s threshold pace is around 5:25, so you may need to adjust these to fit your own training and racing goals.
- Warm up 10–15 minutes at 6mph, increasing by .1mph ever 15 seconds (Gerlach goes up to between 10.8–11.2, which is around his threshold pace)
- 2–3 minutes easy recovery jog
- 20 minutes starting at a little below threshold pace and increasing speed by .1mph every 3 minutes
- 5 minutes easy recovery jog
- 20 minutes at a .2mph faster than you started the last set and increase by .1mph every 3 minutes
- Cool down 5–10 minutes
- Warm up 10 minutes starting at 6mph and increasing .1mph every 15 seconds, holding at 8mph
- 40 minutes starting at 8mph, increasing by .1mph every 1 minute
- Cool down 5–10 minutes
Originally written for IRONMAN by Mackenzie Lobby Havey. Posted here with permission by IRONMAN.