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From Treadmill to Trail

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While no trail-simulating treadmill has been invented (yet), you can still develop strength and speed indoors


Illustration by Daniel Yagmin.

Jenny Spangler, winner of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, is no stranger to treadmill running. After her daughter’s birth, she did virtually all of her Trials training on the “mill.”

In 1994, Alberto Salazar, Olympic-level coach at the Nike Oregon Distance Project, crushed Africa’s hot and fast Comrades Ultra Marathon course record by training with treadmill mile-repeat sessions and a heater blasting in his face.

The indomitable Matt Carpenter, who is arguably the U.S.’s best mountain and trail runner, credits his most successful racing seasons to bi-weekly bouts on his garage treadmill. On his website, Carpenter writes, “One of the fastest ways to improve is to train with someone better than you … [my treadmill] does not care what the weather is like, what time of day it is or even how I feel.”

Ultrarunner Michael Wardian is achieving top-level road and trail feats, thanks in part to many miles pounded on a treadmill. He was a 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier (2:17.49), USATF Ultra Runner of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and silver medalist at the 2011 World Championships 100K.

“My wife and I bought our treadmill the day our second son, Grant, was born,” says Wardian. “I watch both our sons most mornings, and with a treadmill, I can spend time with them and still do my workouts.”

Let’s face it, elite or not, work, city living, busy schedules and inclement weather impact our trail time. If you are forced inside, here is what you need to know to treadmill train.

The Mill’s Hill

When it comes to hill workouts, 2008 Olympic marathon qualifier Magdalena Lewy Boulet opts for the mill because it negates the impact of running back downhill between reps, which Boulet says helps keep her healthy: “I’ve found that I can stay injury free while running slower [on the treadmill] up a steep hill.”

Brad Hudson, who coaches the elite Hudson Training Systems group in Boulder, Colorado (, touts the mill’s uphill benefits. He often has his athletes run a six-mile progressive treadmill hill tempo run, starting out at a two-percent grade and finishing at a six-percent grade, saying it makes it easier to maintain a controlled tempo pace than the same workout outdoors.

Zero-Grade Speed

There are also benefits to running on no incline at all. “Some athletes use a flat grade so they can run faster,” says Hudson. Running a fast time not only gives a mental boost, it provides a performance-enhancing neuromuscular effect: by employing a faster turnover rate during training, you reinforce a faster muscular response, which eventually allows you to run the same pace, unaided, outside.

For normal running, or outside-simulating speed work, the widely accepted rule of thumb is that running a given pace at a 1.5-percent incline equates to the same effort at the given pace outside on a flat, even surface. The small grade takes into account the lack of indoor wind resistance.

Two Effective Treadmill Workouts

Incorporate hilly runs, tempo runs, intervals, hill repeats and the all-important long run into your treadmill training. A treadmill luxury: precise pace control, which means no guessing splits or having to adjust pace due to outside factors.

The Long Haul: Three-Mile Hill Climbs

The workout should be completed at a pace that is difficult but sustainable for the entire three-mile repeat.

> Warm-up 15 minutes at 1.5-percent grade

> 1st mile at 4-percent grade

> 2nd mile at 6-percent grade

> 3rd mile at 8-percent grade

> Cool-down 15 minutes at 1.5-percent grade

Zero-Drop: Flat Speed Sessions on the Belt

The goal is to run slightly faster than you could on the track because you are running sans any grade or wind resistance. For example, if your hard 800-meter pace is 3:00 outside, aim for 2:55 to 2:57 reps on the treadmill.

> Warm up 15 minutes at a 1.5- or zero-percent grade. With treadmill on a zero-percent grade, run six to 10 x 800 meters hard with a 400-meter recovery jog between each. Cool-down 15 minutes at a 1.5 or zero-percent grade.

> Warm up 15 minutes at a 1.5- or zero-percent grade. With treadmill set to a zero-percent grade, run 10 to 20 x 400 meters hard with a 200-meter recovery jog between each. Cool down 15 minutes at a 1.5- or zero-percent grade.

Caitlin Chock set the National High School 5000-meter record (15:52) in 2004. A runner for life, she now works as a freelance writer and artist (

This article originally appeared in our April 2012 issue.