3 Ways to Supercharge Your Easy Treadmill Runs
Here are some mental tips and low-key workouts for making easy treadmill miles less "blah" and more "woohoo!"
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Want to become immortal? Get on a treadmill. Set it to an easy pace. Then do your typical one-hour run.
Everyone you care about will age and crumble to dust. Civilizations will rise and fall. Snails will evolve into the dominant life form on Earth. And you’ll still be at minute 32.
Here are the facts. You have to run easy a lot to develop to your potential and stay healthy. Sometimes, that may have to be on a treadmill, whether due to smoky air, icy trails, safety or family responsibilities. And easy running on a treadmill makes time warp into a thick goop.
Most runners say that hard treadmill workouts pass more rapidly, and that makes sense based on psychology research. Want to make any bigger task manageable? Chunk it down into smaller parts (like intervals). Want to make hard efforts feel easier? Establish discrete endpoints, which will have the added benefit of making the intermissions feel heavenly. Want to make it purposeful? Clearly articulate the connection to goals (going faster makes you faster). Add a lack of self-awareness, and I think I just described Peloton’s business model.
The only thing it’s making me faster at is thinking of other sports to take up that might be more fun. Like Russian roulette. Or … baseball. That’s how you know things are bad.
Easy runs don’t have any of those things naturally. Yeah, they have a clear purpose to make you faster through long-term aerobic development, but try to tell that to a treadmill runner at minute 19 of a 4 a.m. slog. The only thing it’s making me faster at is thinking of other sports to take up that might be more fun. Like Russian roulette. Or … baseball. That’s how you know things are bad.
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Athletes who have to run on the treadmill ask me all the time what to do on easy days. There’s no set, scientific answer to it, but over the years, my athletes have had success with three different approaches to chunk down easy runs and add extra purpose by working specific skills. Let’s start with the warm-up.
Start with 10 to 15 minutes of climbing at a very easy jog.
As laid out in this article, starting with climbing could alter perceived exertion during the remainder of the run. At the very least, it gives you something to do instead of contemplating the meaninglessness of striving. Treadmills turn most of us into nihilists.
Set the grade anywhere from 5 to 15%, and start with a slow jog (or walk if needed to keep it easy). Keep it slow, but change up the grade every few minutes to mix up movement patterns. Because it’s an easy run, err on the side of lower grade than you would for a workout (I prefer athletes to use 6-8%). That will jump-start the aerobic system and prepare your body for the remainder of the run while keeping things chill. Now, you’re ready for the 3 easy run designs.
The Get It Over Easy
Start at 0% grade for 8 minutes, then every 2 minutes after, increase the gradient 1%. Once you get to 6%, start back over with 8 minutes at 0%
Purpose: Everyday run for sustainable aerobic development
This standard treadmill easy run mixes up movement patterns with changing grade, which some studies indicate could prevent overuse injuries. Plus the climbing has reduced impact forces, which is also good for injuries and recovery. Make sure you reduce the pace so that the run stays easy even as the grade goes up. Remember that you rarely get bonus fitness from easy runs being faster. Note: you can replace 0% with 0.5% or 1% if that feels more natural to you, but it’s probably not necessary (read this article for more).
Afterward, you may realize you don’t hate treadmill running. You only strongly dislike it. That’s change we can believe in!
This is the main one I ask athletes to do for easy runs. Each cycle provides 20 minutes of variable movement. Start nice and slow, and on each 20-minute set, you can increase the pace slightly if things feel good and it stays relaxed (and even end steady if that fits with your training plan). Afterward, you may realize you don’t hate treadmill running. You only strongly dislike it. That’s change we can believe in!
The Side of Speed
Every 5 minutes, do 30 seconds smooth and fast. Alternate grade between 0% and 2-4% on each 5-minute block if desired
Purpose: Aerobic development with neuromuscular and biomechanical stress for faster paces
This run works in a light fartlek that allows athletes to practice smooth and fast running without anaerobic efforts that could defeat the purpose of easy runs. It’s similar to the type of easy run used by athletes during a Lydiard or Canova base period, with some relaxed accelerations to work on neuromuscular economy without stressing the aerobic system too much. Even though the heart rate goes up, it’s unlikely to come with much recovery cost, and I let most athletes use these runs for any standard treadmill easy day unless it’s specified as pure, slow recovery.
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During the speed portions, increase the pace to something that feels smooth and quick, up to 5K race effort or a bit faster. Think about removing the tension from every part of your body, almost like one of those yoga classes where the teacher tells you to relax each muscle one at a time. Try not to fart. Based on my yoga experience, that may be impossible.
The Mountains for Dessert
Alternate 5 minutes at 0% grade with 5 minutes at 5%. Instead of 5%, do 10% every other uphill portion if desired (and add a 15% section if you’re really ambitious)
Purpose: Aerobic development with biomechanical and musculoskeletal climbing stress
I’m hating on the treadmill a lot in this article, but it’s out of love (mostly). The treadmill is effective, and it can be fun if you go in with an open mind. That sounds like the Tinder bio of an accountant.
The main thing that sets the treadmill apart for trail runners is the ability to do sustained climbs all year no matter where you live. While level ground running economy and uphill running economy are strongly correlated, there is evidence that practicing the unique biomechanical and musculoskeletal stresses of climbing could improve uphill ability long-term. Plus, the muscular endurance stress is especially important for trail runners that do races with lots of vert.
This climbing-oriented easy run allows athletes to practice relaxing on climbs, which could improve uphill economy (or at least form a strong feedback cycle between training on flats and ups). If you do an eight-mile easy run with this approach, you’ll likely have between 1000 and 2000 feet of climbing, depending on whether you stick to 5% or do some portions at 10 or 15%. On the flat portions in between, make sure you’re not putting too much stress on any part of the musculoskeletal system activated by climbing (like the lower legs).
If you want to chase breakthroughs this winter, you can add any of these treadmill runs to your current plan to do your own personal “trial of miles.” They can also work as second runs in a two-a-day. If a treadmill is in your house, you can even do them naked to save on laundry. But naked running is an article topic for another day.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.