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Turbocharge your Treadmill Workout

For runners, spring is race season; for the majority of those living in the northern hemisphere, that means that the heart of the training takes place in the middle of winter.

While it may be tempting to run outdoors on a beautiful day after fresh snow has fallen, it’s not always a great idea to get in your speed or strength work on the icy roads. I usually find a nice warm and safe treadmill to complete the key workouts that’ll help me get closer to my goals. Following is some advice about getting the most out of running on a treadmill, as well as two boredom-busting workouts that can also help build speed and strength.

General Treadmill Running Tips

Work on your cadence

An easy and quick way to get faster is by increasing your stride frequency. If you have a low stride turnover, you’re more than likely producing more vertical oscillation, which means the energy you’re producing is projected upward, instead of forward. You want to aim for 180 forceful foot strikes per minute, with your foot strikes directly under your hips.

Think about your form

When you’re on a treadmill, your distractions have been reduced to near zero – no need to worry about the terrain underfoot, the weather, passing cars, dogs, whatever. This is the ideal time to focus on your form, and to work on biomechanics and running economy. It’s hard to give more specific advice here since everyone’s form is different, but if you have some known problems, this would be the ideal time to work on them. If you don’t know what your issues might be, you might want to find a coach who can give you a gait analysis to identify areas of opportunity to become more efficient.

Use incline to your advantage

When the treadmill is set at 0% incline, it is similar to running down a slight decline on the road.  And because the treadmill’s belt is moving underneath you, it is easier to over-stride a bit and lose your correct running form. You should set your treadmill incline to at least 1.5% as the baseline for all your runs. Steep inclines help with your knee drive and proper foot strike, so instead of always increasing the speed, try to increase the incline while keeping the speed constant.

Treadmill workouts

Before doing either of the workouts below, you’ll want to figure out what your ‘base’ pace is. It can be useful for high-mileage runs, indoors or out, and it’s a starting point for the speed and strength workouts below.

There are a few ways to determine your base pace. The general rule is your base pace should be 1-2 minutes per mile slower than your 10K race pace, which should be within your aerobic zone.  You can also determine your base pace is by wearing a HR monitor and keeping your bpm in the range of 65-75% of your max HR.  Another way, which is what I tell my athletes to do on base pace runs, is to determine the pace based on feel.  There a lot of variables (weather, fatigue, diet, stress) that can affect your pace and heart rate. When you finish a run at “base pace,” you definitely should feel like you went for a run, but you shouldn’t feel exhausted or wrung out. If you’re numbers-oriented, another way to think of base pace is to run with an RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion on a scale of 1-10) of around a 3 (when on an incline of 1.5% on a treadmill).

Strength Workout – Hill Progression

This is a strength workout in which you focus on holding your base pace and only change the incline. In this workout, you build up to a comfortable pace during warmup, and then hold it for duration of the workout.

Warmup: 10 minutes, build to base pace @ 1.5%

Main Set: Hold pace established at end of warm up, then alter the incline as follows:

  • 5 minutes at 3% grade
  • 3 min at 1.5%
  • 4 min at 5%
  • 4 min at 1.5%
  • 3 min at 7%
  • 5 min at 1.5%
  • 2 min at 8%
  • 6 min at 1.5%

Cool Down:  5 min walk


Whitney Lehr, trainer at Athletic Republic, ramps up the intensity on the treadmill.

Speed Workout

This workout is designed to improve leg turnover, anaerobic capacity, and sustained speed.  Make sure you pace yourself on these, so you can make it through the entire workout. This workout should be done with the treadmill at an incline of at least 1.5%.

Warmup: 10 minutes build to base pace

Main Set 1:  Keep pacing on all intervals

  • 1 mile @ 75 sec faster than base pace (RPE 8)
  • ¼ mile @ 30 sec slower than base pace
  • Repeat up to 5 times (depending on your fitness level)

Main Set 2:

  • ½  mile at an all-out effort
  • ½ mile at base pace

Cool Down: Slowly decelerate over 5 minutes to a brisk walk.

A note about music: You probably want to minimize distractions during your warmup, so that you can work on your form as you build up to base pace. This is the time when you want to be totally conscious and engaged. When you’re on the main set(s), go ahead and crank the tunes if that’s going to help you get into the workout. But do keep in mind that some races forbids headphones, so you might want to suffer through it without your own tunes. It never hurts to practice how you’ll play, so to speak.

Photos by Ian Matteson

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