The treadmill can sometimes seem like a tool of punishment straight out of Dante’s Inferno. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” would make a good inscription above a row of gym treadmills. But used strategically, the treadmill can be a huge benefit to your training. And it can be pretty fun, too.
For trail runners, the treadmill has a specific benefit: never-ending hills. Treadmill climbing allows you to practice a steady power output while ascending, unlike actual trail running, where output varies a bit based on terrain. Consistent, rock-less climbs could make you a more efficient climber by letting you maximize power output without having to adjust for the terrain.
Also, treadmill climbing means that your geography doesn’t have to determine your training plan. Treadmills can turn Houston into the Himalaya, allowing you to climb a K2 worth of elevation in your basement.
Finally, after climbing a treadhill, you don’t have to go downhill. While downhill running is essential for training downhill-specific leg strength it also comes with extra impact forces that may increase injury risk. On top of that, mixing up your stride dynamics using hills may decrease injury risk. Repeat the same motion and steady power output over and over, and any weak spots in your stride may be more exposed to breakdown than if you mix it up with changes in speed and gradient. Treadhills could let you do the work without having to pay the piper.
Remember that it’s important to maintain your speed and work on flat-ground running economy, so you shouldn’t just do climbing. It’s also easy to overtrain since your heart rate will be higher on uphills; if you don’t practice easy running too, the stress will mount.
But for athletes marooned on the treadmill during the winter, or wanting some extra vert during the summer, the treadmill can be an indispensible tool. Here are some guidelines.
Easy Treadhill Runs
Most of your running should be easy. Treadhills can break up your easy runs and mix up stride dynamics in a way that lets you train intelligently without going crazy. Some examples:
The Escalator: 40 minutes to 2 hours alternating between 0-, 2-, 4- and six-percent grade every four minutes, reducing speed a couple notches with each increase in grade. This is a staple easy run that mixes up movement patterns without much thought.
Miles of Smiles: 4 to 16 miles easy with every other mile at five-percent grade. This run is engaging without too much button-mashing.
Moderate Treadhill Runs
It’s okay to add a bit more spice to your training curry a few times per week. These workouts let your body get moving without too much mental anguish.
Sergeant Surge: During a 40 minute to 2 hour run, at 15 minutes and every 5 minutes after, do 1 minute at 8-percent grade moderate, with the rest easy. This is a variation of the classic surge workout and is a great option for a moderate run you do often, including your long run each week. It mixes up stride dynamics without spending much time above aerobic threshold. You can make it an easy, everyday-style run by shortening the surge to 30 seconds.
The Burn Ladder: 40 minutes to 2 hours with 5 minutes at 2-percent grade, 4 minutes at 4-percent grade, 3 minutes at 6-percent grade, 2 minutes at 8-percent grade, and 1 minute at 10-percent, including 5 minutes at 0-percent between each ladder set. Have the 0-, 2-, 4-, and 6-percent sections be easy and the 8- and 10-percent sections moderate. You’ll likely find yourself straddling aerobic threshold during the middle sets and approach lactate threshold on the 10-percent intervals. If you do races with lots of hiking, you can add two minutes at the top of each ladder, power hiking at 12 to 15-percent grade.
Hard Treadhill Runs
Major stresses should be reserved for special occasions, emphasizing full recovery afterward. These workouts are hard, but rewarding, improving comfort with difficult climbs. Only do them if you have a well-constructed base, a lot of mental conviction and a good idea of your training goal.
The Infinity Buzzsaw: 10 minutes easy at 0-percent grade, then 4 to 10 x 2 minutes at 15-percent grade, 2 minutes at 12-percent grade and 2 minutes at 8-percent grade, finishing with a cool down of 10 minutes easy at 0-percent grade. The 15-percent grade is a power hike or slow run, the 12-percent grade is a moderately hard run and the 8-percent grade is an easy run, focusing on recovering as much as you can while going uphill. This workout acts similar to a cruise interval session targeting lactate threshold. Our athletes often use a variation prior to major ultras, like UTMB or Western States (very advanced athletes will even use it as a second workout on key days)
It Burns So Good: 15 minutes easy at 1-percent grade, 4 to 10 x 3 minutes moderate/hard at 8-percent grade with equal recovery at 0-percent grade, 15 minutes easy at 1-percent grade. These intervals have more recovery, targeting an effort slightly harder than lactate threshold. They are good for maintaining strong form while putting out lots of power.
The only limits to your treadhill adventures are those from your imagination. Practice good form and be sure to start warm and watch for calf, achilles or plantar irritation from the climbing. Staying healthy and happy matters most of all, so adjust your plan using these general principles (rather than focusing on the specifics) to super-charge your treadmill time.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.