Viewed by some as a monotonous torture device, the treadmill is actually an invaluable tool that can lead to faster run splits. Treadmill training offers an opportunity for athletes to improve their run mechanics while promoting mental resilience and discipline.
Treadmill running should be introduced in a training plan carefully. When beginning to incorporate quality treadmill running into an athlete’s plan, allow for 4-5 light to moderate intensity sessions before any high intensity is demanded of the athlete. This will allow the athlete time to develop body awareness on the treadmill and to build a tolerance to the machine itself. When running on the treadmill, set the incline to 1.5% to 2.0%. 2.0% best mimics the body position and point of impact a runner has on the open road. It can take some getting used to, but eventually the slight incline will feel more natural. The addition of one treadmill workout per week encourages changes in run technique and speed.
Improving Run Cadence on the Treadmill
A runner’s speed is a result of both stride length and rate of leg turnover (cadence). In the late stages of an Ironman marathon an athlete’s stride length can begin to shorten. When the stride length shortens, higher cadence becomes increasingly important to limit the rate of slow down. The simplest way to improve your run cadence is to run fast on the treadmill.
Every athlete has a natural cadence. In my experience, most newer runners tend to have a cadence in the 80s for single foot strides per minute. I prescribe cadence drills, short and fast intervals, and hill repeats to encourage quicker leg turnover. It is preferable for athletes to be at or above 90 strides per minute but any increase in baseline cadence is a step toward faster times. Increasing one’s cadence can take time. Using the treadmill can help hasten the process.
Below are two different workouts with the goal of improving an athlete’s cadence. The first session demonstrates the principle that leg turnover is not necessarily related to run speed. Whenever I prescribe a session like this one, I have a conversation with the athlete explaining the value of being able to maintain the same cadence at various speeds. The second session demands that an athlete naturally turn their legs over faster because they are asked to run at a very high intensity. For this session, I keep the coaching pretty simple: run hard.
60 Minute Cadence Drill Session
Incline set at 1.5-2% for entire workout
15 minute smooth running
Four rounds of:[3 minutes moderate intensity, baseline cadence + 4-6 strides per minute*
2 minutes strong intensity, baseline cadence + 4-6 strides per minute*
1 minute very strong intensity, baseline cadence + 4-6 strides per minute*
4 min smooth]
5 minutes smooth running
*To establish baseline cadence either use your running watch or count how many times one foot hits the ground in 20 seconds and then multiply by 3. That will give you how many single foot strikes you have in 1 minute. For the intervals, simply aim to increase that number by 6 single foot strikes per minute or 2 strikes per 20 seconds.
60 Minute “Minute” Efforts
Incline set at 1.5-2.0% for entire workout
15 minute smooth running
Two to three rounds of:
5 x [1 minute fast intensity, 1 minute smooth]
5 minutes smooth
Remaining time smooth running
Athletes can work toward a main set of 20 x 1 minute fast intensity, 1 minute smooth. The high intensity will demand a higher cadence without an athlete having to think. This session is great for anxious athletes who tend to overanalyze and overthink their sessions.
Outdoor running demands that athletes pay attention to their footing, debris on the ground, and their surroundings like cars, other pedestrians, or cyclists. The same external focus is not required for treadmill running. Athletes have more energy to concentrate on form cues like running tall, firing their glutes during extension, and what their arm carriage is like.
If visual feedback is available by way of a mirror near the treadmill, an athlete can see their form at various intensities. If, for example, an athlete notices their shoulders are rounded forward, the athlete can focus on pulling their shoulder blades back.
Athletes can also do an internal scan of their body position and make any appropriate changes. Body scanning is technique that enhances mental toughness, and when used on race day, it encourages resilience by keeping an athlete in the present moment. This technique can help an athlete endure the toughest parts of an Ironman.
Pacing & Internal Data
Age group athletes typically struggle to pace themselves in racing and training. An athlete’s inability to regulate their output over any distance is the result of a lack of attention to one’s body sensations in their daily training. Most age groupers fail at managing their output because they rely too heavily on external data like pace, power output, or heart rate. This data is valuable, but it can be misleading if used in isolation. Data reliant athletes can over reach early or under perform on race day as a result.
Output data must be triangulated with internal data for an athlete to perform their best. It is the combination of external and internal data that should inform an athlete’s behaviors in a race. Because the treadmill regulates pace for an athlete, the individual is repeatedly experiencing what even pacing feels like. Athletes can also learn to attune to their bodies, enough so that they can feel even the most subtle differences when the treadmill speed changes by .1 mph.
As a coach, I have to be thinking of how to encourage discipline in every workout I write. The treadmill can become problematic if its not programmed with this in mind. For example, if an athlete’s program calls for a 60 minute smooth run and it is going to be on the treadmill, an athlete might distract himself with a TV show or movie. In this scenario, the athlete missed out on an opportunity to direct their attention to their form, cadence, and internal states. What was an opportunity to strengthen one’s ability to focus has now become 60 minutes of lazy or even shit training. If an athlete is going to run low intensity on the treadmill, coaches must be creative and thoughtful in how sessions are written.
In this low intensity run below, the simple inclusion of a 1 minute light build allows an athlete to mentally break down the session. The structure of the workout also demands that an athlete pays attention to the time, felt intensity, and mental presence throughout the workout.
60 Minute Low Intensity Run
Set treadmill at 1.5-2% incline
20 minute warm up
3 x (9 minutes smooth, 1 minute build to strong)
10 min smooth cool down
As a coach it is important to know when to use a certain tool, cue, or intervention in the service of an athlete. The treadmill is a tool that most every athlete can benefit from physically and psychologically. If you tend too shy away from using the tready, give it a shot this winter and keep it up through your race season. It is likely you will see marked improvements in your run performance.