One aspect of training for running in mountain climates such as the Truckee-Tahoe area is the treadmill. There are 3 general camps with treadmill running: some people love it, some people hate it, and some people tolerate it. Depending on your training and timing of winter, or spring, races it may be a necessary component of your plan. It can also be a useful tool for accumulating vertical miles (walking or running) in the winter months.
Let’s take a look at 3 components of treadmill running:
- Running Mechanics. Running on a treadmill can often feel different than running outside. One major factor is that we may not be used to the softer surface of a treadmill (depending on the type) and it could make us feel unstable. Newer treadmills are typically firmer and avoid this problem. In terms of the other mechanics, a 2020 meta-analysis was conducted that looked at 33 different studies. In terms of biomechanics, it was found that treadmill running was largely similar to running on ground. There were some differences such as knee angle and foot angle at footstrike that were more significant but did not impact overall mechanics. One noticeable area for change was that running on a treadmill often shortens our stride, leading to a higher cadence, which can feel more aerobically taxing at first at similar speeds. Relatedly, there may be a reduction in force through the foot while running on a treadmill compared with running on pavement or dirt. In terms of energy output, a 1996 study found that running on a 1% incline on the treadmill more closely mimics the energy output of running on a flat surface outside than the 0%/flat setting.
- Treadmill Mechanism. An important aspect of running on a treadmill is to take into account differences between treadmill models and types. In many gym and home-use treadmills, the speed may not be calibrated. Most gyms and home-users are not testing the speed of their treadmills and as a result, the display speed may not correlate to the actual speed of the belt. It’s not to say that it’s way off, but it’s important to acknowledge there may be subtle differences between treadmills in terms of the display speed. As mentioned in the previous point, the softness/stiffness of the treadmill surface can also impact how the mechanics feel. Generally, we should aim to run on newer treadmills where the running belt is tight or where they use slats rather than a belt which also results in a firmer running surface.
- Keeping it Variable. Running on a treadmill is different that running outside as we are often running at a more consistent grade/speed than we do on outside surfaces. As a result, it can feel very monotonous. One piece of advice to plan out a workout that will provide some variety of effort, speed, and incline on the treadmill. This will make the session feel more productive but also more focused. Alternatively, you can adjust the incline or speed every so often on a longer run to create more variety and more closely mimic the experience of running outside. It can also be helpful (and still productive) to take some breaks to either spin on a bike or even take a walking break on the treadmill. This can give us a mental short mental break which allows for a more sustainable long run training session.
Overall, running on the treadmill will allow you to maintain your running fitness through the winter. Keep in mind the rule of keeping the treadmill at a 1% grade to more closely mimic the effort and power of flat running outside. The mechanics are not too different, but if you are training for a race, it’s important to get some trail or road time to get some time in on the race surface. There are differences in power and cadence on a treadmill that will impact you training over time. If you need to get significant running on a treadmill in for training, find ways to mix it up to ensure focus and quality of your sessions. Lastly, if you’re using a treadmill sporadically during storms, travel, etc. it’s important to note that the mile pace display might not perfectly reflect the speed of the belt and the speed you are running at.
Have questions you want answered by a coach? Reach out to Martin at email@example.com. If he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll find someone who does! The goal is to be a stronger and healthier runner, so you can put as many miles in as you want.