Zach Bitter’s Tips For Mentally Grappling With the Treadmill

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As a midwest native, I have run in -10 degree temperatures, through blizzards, thunderstorms, tried to do pick-ups on ice-glazed streets, and taken extra days off all in an effort to avoid the treadmill. Of course, I’ve eventually had to suck it up and hop onto the device more times than I would have preferred — or risk frostbite.

Despite how familiar I’ve become with the contraption, there has never been a time when I haven’t reached mile one feeling like a caged rat as I plodded down the scrolling ramp, thinking I should at least be twice as far along, and wondering how to make it suck less. I know I am far from alone in these sentiments; it gets its moniker “dreadmill” from somewhere.

So, who better to speak to about how to grapple with the mental torment that is the treadmill than NordicTrack athlete Zach Bitter, holder of the world record for the fastest 100 miles run on a treadmill? Bitter completed the virtual distance in 12 hours and 9 minutes last May. His speed is what garnered the world record, but for me the real point of impression is that he ran on a treadmill nonstop for over 12 hours! I’ve never made it to 12 miles.

You may suspect that Bitter is an anomaly. I imagined he simply slips into a lulling, euphoric hypnosis on the machine, that it’s his place of flow. But, as it turns out, Bitter is not immune to the same mind-numbing repetition wrought by the treadmill as the rest of us, he simply has mastered the mental game of dealing with that boredom and figured out some physical hacks. Here are a few of his tricks.

Zach Bitter on his treadmill during his world record attempt.
Photo: NordicTrack

Regain a Sense of Control

Most people, when complaining about the treadmill, lament the monotony of the experience. You aren’t going anywhere, just running like a hamster on a wheel. That includes Bitter.

“For me the hardest stuff on the treadmill is some of the longer slower efforts, which sounds weird because I targeted a 100 mile and 12 hour record on the treadmill,” admits Bitter. “But whenever I find myself just trying to run on it without changing anything from paces to incline that’s where I think it’s most difficult.”

Part of this has to do with surrendering control of pace to the machine. The difference, Bitter notes, between running on a treadmill as opposed to running outside is that outside you make “micro adjustments” in your pace giving you a sense of control. Even if the splits are relatively even, you’re still speeding up and slowing down at least a little bit throughout the run. On the treadmill, however, movement is much more precise and robotic.

“You’re almost forced into this real exact motion, which almost feels like you’ve psychologically lost that sense of control and you’ve given it up to the machine, so to speak,” says Bitter.  “One thing I really like, especially if it’s a longer session, is to kind of build in those pace fluctuations.”

This can be done by manually adjusting the treadmill every so often to add variety to the pace. Bitter likes to use the iFit program that comes with his NordicTrack X22i Incline Treadmill. The program has various course options that automatically adjust the treadmill’s incline and speed to mimic running on an outdoor course.

“It does those micro-adjustments for you, so that you can kind of set it and forget it and still have that kind of experience.”

If you don’t have a similar program, you can also predetermine the adjustments you will make on a treadmill beforehand to create a running “course” for yourself. For example, spending 5 minutes on a slight incline, 10 minutes on even ground, 3 minutes on at a faster pace, 3 minutes at a slower pace, and 5 minutes on a decline. (Repeating depending on how long you want to be on the treadmill.)

Do Speed-Focused Interval Workouts

One way to accelerate the process of adjusting to the treadmill is to do pickups or another type of interval workout on the machine. At least, it works for Bitter. The psychological battle, he says, gets more difficult in the longer treadmill efforts, whereas sometimes he finds it easier to do speed sessions on the treadmill.

“When I’m getting on a treadmill and I am just running a very similar pace even if it is a little varied, that’s where it takes a little longer for me to kind of adjust to it,” he says. “If I’m doing a specific workout of short intervals, where I’m constantly changing my pace in a fairly big margin — so like warm-up versus a short interval, or a recovery jog versus a short interval — those sort of workouts I adjust to right away, and sometimes I actually prefer them being on the treadmill.”

Bitter claims that he enjoys this more because of the immediate feedback and ability to go on autopilot during fast intervals.

“The hardest part about a speed session sometimes is just the amount of mental energy it takes to stay focused on maintaining that higher intensity,” he explains. “When you’re on a treadmill you have a little bit of an ability to let that relax because you have the peace of mind that the machine is gonna produce the pace, and therefore you just have to focus on hitting the pace versus that noise in your head of ‘Am I pushing hard enough?’ or ‘Is this hurting appropriately?’”

Bitter is fond of shorter interval workouts on the treadmill so that he’s not doing anything for too long before switching pace. He typically does anything in the range of 30 seconds on / 30 seconds off (a high intensity, VO2 max-style workout) to 12 minutes on, 6 minutes off (a longer interval session focused on lactate threshold or tempo run target pace).

Add a Social Aspect

For Bitters world record, he was fortunate to have around 30 people willing to virtually join him, sharing stories of their accomplishments and other tidbits throughout the long day during the livestream.

“I probably spent about half the time watching that and listening to that as I was kind of doing the run myself,” says Bitter. “That was kind of a nice distraction.”

We know that having someone to run with can have a powerful impact on our run. The social bonding through the shared experience adds enjoyment to the run, and having someone with us has been shown to boost motivation.

“Research is pretty consistent out there that there’s more adherence to exercise if you’re part of a group or have a partner,” says Dr. Deborah Feltz, a sport and exercise psychologist and  a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University who has done research on social motivation and virtual workout partners. This is because you have someone to hold you accountable to show up, additionally the social conversation and sense of companionship can add encouragement and joy to the activity. Furthermore, says Feltz, setting goals with a running partner helps to add in social obligation to boost performance on a run. For example, how far to run, where to run, and what pace.

Although we currently live in the era of social distancing, we also are fortunate to live in a time of a multitude of social technologies like Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype in which it’s easy to virtually run with someone. According to Feltz, most of the benefits found in having a real-life running partner can be achieved through virtually running together, including the ability to set goals with a partner. This can be done synchronously using a program like Zoom on a smartphone or tablet and scheduling a time to virtually “meet up” with a running partner to do your workouts together on your treadmills. You can agree on a set amount of time to run, such as 30 minutes, and even do a time-based interval workout together. (Or, check out the Zwift app.)

“One of the things that I think is an advantage in doing this on a treadmill with a virtual partner is that it doesn’t matter if you are not similar in terms of ability,” notes Feltz. In other words, you can run with someone who may be going a faster or slower pace and still be “running with them” without getting dropped or doing the dropping. “The treadmill allows you to have a much broader range to pick from in terms of training partners.”

If you have a partner you’d like to run with but your schedules don’t match up, you can also do this “asynchronously” by video recording yourself and sending it to your training partner or vice versa. This, says Feltz, allows your partner to see you working hard and perhaps motivating them through a recorded message. You could even turn the camera around to show your distance, time, and pace so that your partner knows you aren’t bluffing when they watch.

However, Feltz warns that you consider your own limits when you’re doing a virtual treadmill run. You don’t want to get egged on by your partner to go past your limits and end up falling off your treadmill.

Get Some Air Flow

Zach Bitter during his world record attempt.
Zach Bitter running on his treadmill during his 100 mile world record attempt. Photo: Nordic

Though much of the loathing for a treadmill run can be psychological, one of the most physically unpleasant aspects of running on a treadmill is gauging optimal temperature. Not only is the scenery not changing, the run feels stagnant.

“The nice thing about running outside is that even if it’s hot you’re kind of creating a little bit of a breeze just like moving through the environment you’re running in, versus on a treadmill you’re stationary even if you’re moving,” explains Bitter. “So the heat from you and the machine kind of create this little humid bubble around you.”

When Bitter did his world record attempt, his team tried to drop the room’s temperature as much as possible by putting a single room air conditioner and fan in the room. (Unfortunately, the set up channeled so much power into one side of the house that the livestream glitched every so often until the problem was fixed with an extension cord.)

“The more circulation you can get the better,” advises Bitter. “More open rooms tend to be a little more forgiving for that type of thing.”

Appreciate the Benefits of the Treadmill

Finally, consciously understanding some of the benefits of running on the treadmill can help us feel like it’s less of a degraded version of running on the ground.

On a treadmill, you’re able to get more precise measurements in your fitness progression without having to factor in things like irregular winds, weather and terrain.

“That’s where I think a treadmill is really valuable, is that ability to control variables,” he says. A treadmill is superior for him, he says, “If I’m trying to build up fitness and I want to be able to kind of track that and see some tangible evidence that I’m making progress.”

Bitter notes that it’s easier for him on a treadmill to see, for example, how his pace processes in an hour time trial: “I can hop on a treadmill and know I can have the temperature the same, the terrain the same, and everything in the environment the same from one attempt to the next. So if I go, say, a quarter of a mile further after three weeks of training then I did previously then I know that progress is there and I’m not trying to tease out a lot of the noise that you get from kind of running outside.”

So, if you have to use a treadmill, why not schedule in a few time trials? Many of us do all that we can to avoid the machine, but if we’re stuck on it we may as well capitalize on the unique advantages it does offer. Happy (or, at least, bearable) treading!

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