Trail running training on a treadmill is like being a mountain goat stuck on a hamster wheel.
It is repetitive; there are no rocks and dirt; and the only rivers are the Class V rapids of sweat spilling onto the treadmill belt, splashing your neighbors on the elliptical.
But while potentially boring, treadmill time is also a major opportunity to control your training and make the most of your limited time. So grab a really good pair of wireless headphones, download fun music or interesting podcasts and try these nine workouts designed for trail runners to break up the monotony and jump start your winter training.
On Aerobic Days
The bulk of your running should not be hard. You should be maintaining an aerobic heart rate while rapping along to your music. These aerobic days are also a chance to improve running economy, or the amount of energy needed to run a given pace.
Upper-level aerobic runs can form anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of your winter training, depending on your goals. Here are two (mostly) aerobic workouts to make sure you don’t throw away your shot on the treadmill.
The Barracuda: 40-80 minutes easy with a fast 30 seconds every five minutes (starting at 15 minutes)
The pace chart of the Barracuda looks like sharp little teeth. The fast sections act as strides that improve your running mechanics and make you faster at all effort levels. On the strides, try to go the quickest pace you can while staying totally relaxed.
The Stairway to Heaven: 40-80 minutes easy with 50 seconds at 10-percent grade every six minutes (starting at 15 minutes)
This workout adds a strength component and changes up running dynamics, which is important because repetitive motion can increase injury risk. On the “hills,” think about a springy, powerful stride.
On Hard Days
Hard days are the butter sticks of training. Aerobic toast works on its own, but butter makes everything better.
However, you don’t want too much butter (nor to subsist on a diet of butter alone). After you’ve run your aerobic base miles, add some hard workouts to improve your VO2 max, lactate threshold and endurance.
The Progression Panda: 15 minutes easy, 4 x 30 seconds fast/3 minutes easy, 4 to 8 x (three minutes easy/two minutes moderate/one minute hard), 15 minutes easy
Start all hard workouts with an easy warm-up jog, followed by 30-second strides with full recovery to get your blood pumping and prepare for what is to come. The Panda starts soft with three minutes easy, but you soon learn the panda’s true nature as a ferocious killing machine when the bear comes out—two minutes moderate and one minute hard. Do four reps if you are a lower-volume runner, and up to eight if you are advanced. This workout is engaging and incorporates every energy system you will use in a trail race.
The Surprising Sloth: 15 minutes easy, 4 x 30 seconds fast/3 minutes easy, 8 to 15 x 1 minute fast/2 minutes easy, 15 minutes easy
This workout is mostly a sloth, with 43 to 57 minutes of easy running. But the claws of the workout are surprising with 10-17 minutes of fast running that jump-starts your VO2 max and improves your running economy. On the fast portions, focus on going the fastest you can sustain with straining. Similar to the Panda, do more intervals if you are a higher-volume runner, but never sacrifice quality for quantity.
The Long Liger: 90 minutes to two hours alternating between three minutes moderate, three minutes at 6-percent grade, and four minutes easy
Long runs are where many of the most important aerobic adaptations take place. The Long Liger has all the benefits of a long run while mixing up multiple stresses to keep you engaged. After an easy warm-up, break up each 10-minute set with some moderate running, some hill running and some easy running.
Winging it and Singing It: 60 minutes to two hours with every other song moderate
Do you hate numbers? Then cover the treadmill readout with a towel and just run by feel. When the song changes, increase the pace. When the next song comes on go back to easy effort. You can use this method any day of the week, even breaking it down by verse (for example, a hill repeat every time the chorus comes in). Let’s just hope that your playlist doesn’t have four-hour experimental jazz tracks.
On Purely Easy Recovery Days
Some days, even the aerobic runs are too much and you just need to slow down and smell the roses. Unfortunately, there is nothing that smells like a rose in the gym. So here are some ideas to break up the monotony of super-chill recovery days.
The Slow Climb: 40-60 minutes alternating five minutes level, five minutes at 2-percent grade, and five minutes at 4-percent grade
Start with the pace comically slow and keep it slow, just alternate the gradient every five minutes. Changing up your form in the hills will ensure you limit the repetitive pounding on your joints and bones.
The Invigorator: 40-60 minutes starting extremely slowly and increasing pace by 0.1 miles per hour every two to four minutes
On days you really, really don’t want to start, the Invigorator can get you moving. Start with a pace that is up to two times slower than your 5K pace. As you work into the run, increase the pace gradually. Ideally, at the end you’ll be moving and grooving, ready for runs to come.
Most importantly, remember that summer goals require winter focus. Go to work and punch the clock now—on the treadmill, roads or trails—and you’ll get to cash the checks when it counts.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a runner for HOKA One One and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.