In my first 10 years running, I stepped foot on a treadmill just a few times. On each occasion, I increased the pace gradually to what would be my normal easy effort outdoors. Everyone says the treadmill should be easier, right? That’s not how it worked for me. I felt like the treadmill belt was about to fling me off the back, through the wall, through the next wall and out into the street.
It just felt fast. Unsustainable. Possibly designed by Lucifer himself. Come to think of it, I imagine that if Lucifer took human form, he’d look like that guy over there grunting on the 24 Hour Fitness squat rack.
So I trained through each winter without using the treadmill, from New York City to Washington DC to Colorado to California. I was joking on that last one, because California skips winter by alternating between 11 months of seasonless paradise and one month of apocalyptic firescape.
Brogan Austin used the treadmill to fuel his 2018 California International Marathon win. Erik Blake used the treadmill to become one of the best trail and road climbers ever. Tons of the athletes I coach have used it for incredible trail races and fast marathons. They’d even say … they loved it. Was I being Punk’d?
However, I saw how useful the treadmill could be for performance. Brogan Austin used the treadmill to fuel his 2018 California International Marathon win. Erik Blake used the treadmill to become one of the best trail and road climbers ever. Tons of the athletes I coach have used it for incredible trail races and fast marathons. They’d even say … they loved it. Was I being Punk’d?
Treadmill Climbing Warm-Up
So I tried one more time with the help of my wife and coach, Megan Roche. She gave me a treadmill climb workout, asking me to set the gradient to 15%, starting at a light jog and increasing from there. It was tough, but I was able to do it. Take that Lucifer! You don’t even squat with proper form!
But here’s the cool part. Immediately after finishing up the workout, as I turned the grade back down to level for a cooldown, the old unsustainable paces felt totally easy. I clicked the speed a bit faster. And faster. Suddenly, I was able to run as fast as the treadmill would go without issues. It wasn’t hard anymore … I loved it.
Megan and I tried a similar approach for other athletes that hated the treadmill with a burning passion due to it feeling too hard. Most of them had a similar experience. For many of those athletes, something about doing output at a steep grade led to reduced perceived exertion at 0% or 1% afterward.
Or maybe we were just biasing the participants by giving them insight into the purpose of our recommendation. This approach is purely anecdotal, so it might not work for everyone. Heck, it might not work for anyone. I write lots of articles, by the law of averages, some of them have to suck.
Changing Perceived Exertion
If there is a mechanism of action, it’s likely related to how perceived exertion works on the treadmill. A 2014 study had 18 male runners do a 10K time trial on the track and on a treadmill. The mean velocity on the treadmill was lower. That stands in contrast to the voluminous body of literature that says that energy demands on the treadmill are usually lower due to the effect of reduced air resistance and energy saved by the moving belt (though studies are all over the place). In other words, for some athletes there may be an offset between what they think they are doing and what their physiology is actually doing. The treadmill perceived exertion calibration may be set to “This Is Hell on Earth” when the body is performing at sustainable outputs.
Some articles talk about that perceived exertion offset possibly being related to visual cues, patterns of focus and dissociation or airflow. What’s the theory for how moderate climbing can overcome those obstacles? My guess is that it’s related to output metrics and familiarity.
At 15%, many athletes will self-select a grade-adjusted pace that is higher than they would on flat ground. (For a great incline treadmill—which tilts up to a crushing 40% grade—check out our review of the NordicTrack Commercial X22i Treadmill.) For example, this calculator says that 15% and 12-minute miles is equivalent to approximately a 7 minute mile on flat ground. But those 12-minute miles usually feel more sustainable for athletes I coach (possibly due to it feeling less like they’ll be flung off the back). As they work through faster paces while climbing, they can often get to grade-adjusted equivalents that they would rarely touch if they were actually on flat ground. On top of that, maybe the climbing is just a gentle introduction to the treadmill, making the foreign feel more familiar.
One Treadmill Warm-Up Protocol
For whatever reason, for myself and some of the athletes I coach, that grade-adjusted-equivalence makes it feel easier to do higher outputs on level ground after. Here’s the protocol we have used for athletes that hate the treadmill:
-start at 15% grade with a fast walk for a minute or two
-increase the speed at the same gradient until you transition to running motion, keeping it easy for 5 minutes
-gradually increase the pace over the next 15 minutes until you feel like you are exerting moderately but sustainably
-turn the grade down to 0% or 1% and increase the pace for whatever planned run you have, whether it’s an aerobic run or a hard workout
Some of the athletes we coach have said that it makes 0% or 1% feel like downhill running, where they find themselves running into the display rather than flying off the back.
If you think you hate the treadmill, this perceived exertion reset may work for you to get in some quality indoor workouts when the trails are icy or smoky. Worst-case scenario, it gives you some bonus climbing practice. Well, I guess the worst case scenario would be tripping and flying off the back and screaming in a dramatic, high-pitched way that leads to you being the star of a viral video taken in the 24 Hour Fitness …
… uploaded by a man doing a lot of grunting …
… in the vicinity of the squat rack.
You win this round, Lucifer.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.