While cardio equipment from rowing machines to ellipticals have gained popularity over the decades, treadmills remain virtually unchallenged as the most popular cardiovascular training apparatuses around. A stroll through the cardio section of your local gym will often confirm — treadmills are a favorite of many cardio enthusiasts.
But just because everyone’s hopping on board doesn’t mean they’re making the most out of their workout. The question is, do you know how to use a treadmill properly? Though it offers both similar and unique benefits to running outside, training on a treadmill requires its own approach.
Here, pro distance runner Matt Daniels and distance coach Daniel Ozan will walk you through their top tips for running on a treadmill. Read on to learn how to make the most of your next indoor running session.
- Introducing the Experts
- Treadmill Running Vs. Outdoor Running
- Top Tips for Running on a Treadmill
- Benefits of Running on a Treadmill
- Workouts for Running on a Treadmill
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Here to help you understand all of the nuances of running on a treadmill are two certified experts in the art of bipedal locomotion.
Matt Daniels is a professional Nike trail runner. In college, he was a 12-time NCAA Division 2 All-American in Cross Country. Since that time, he has been a fixture among the top-10 finishers in major ultra-distance runs for more than a decade.
Daniel Ozan is the distance coach at Mt. San Antonio College, which proudly possesses one of the most accomplished junior college running programs in the United States. Since 2015, he has coached nearly 70 runners to All-American status in track and field and cross country.
Daniels says some of his trainees have trained exclusively on treadmills and “still done really well in races.” Conversely, Ozan insists that although a runner can become competent by training solely on a treadmill, they would be unable to do so “and compete at a high level.”
If you take the statements of the two coaches at face value, they are not mutually exclusive. In theory, a treadmill could conceivably turn you into a very good runner without enabling you to become a great one.
So which differences between treadmill training and outdoor running are most likely to account for the gap between competency and true excellence?
Outdoor Surfaces Are Harder
Your legs interpret the strides you take on treadmills far differently than those made on fixed surfaces. The artificial surfaces of treadmills are rigged for shock absorption; natural surfaces tend to be far less forgiving on joints and muscles. (1)
As such, grass and concrete have been shown to produce far greater peak muscle activity and variability than treadmill running. (2) The tradeoff, of course, is that your joints take a bigger hit when you’re training outside.
The Joint Angles and Impact Timing Are Different
The technical differences between treadmill running and outdoor running might be imperceptible to the naked eye. When you slow things down, you’ll find that your feet spend more time contacting the running surface on a treadmill.
Likewise, the angles of your knees and ankles at your strike point are lower than they would be outdoors, while your propulsive force is reduced. (3) If you’re training for race day, you’ll likely want your mechanics to be as similar as possible to your race terrain.
Your Body Responds Differently to Each Surface
Although performance improvements can be made on any running surface, most markers of health improve more rapidly in response to training outdoors. (4) And then there is the matter of skeletal muscle mass, which has sometimes seemed to decrease in response to treadmill training. (4)
You might be a proponent of the idea that all running is created equal, but there are special considerations for running on a treadmill that simply don’t exist in an outdoor setting. Here are tips from the pros to help you navigate your indoor runs.
Start With a Low Incline
The ability of a treadmill to incline is one to use to your advantage. All the same, you want to take care to use the incline feature properly, being mindful not to overuse it to avoid potential injuries.
“Starting off, an ideal incline would be a one-percent to three-percent grade,” says Daniels. “Building too fast before your body is ready could lead to injury. Once your fitness level is right, you can work your way up to a six-percent to 10-percent grade.”
Focus on Minutes Instead of Miles
Because the treadmill tracks each meter you run with precision, there can be a tendency to focus on the distance you’ve covered with hawklike vigilance. While there are appropriate times to train with miles in mind — especially if you’re training for a major distance event like a marathon — it’s often more advantageous to think in terms of time.
“To start, training sessions can focus on minutes,” advises Ozan. “If someone is just starting off, I would suggest some easy ons and offs rather than focusing on miles. The more consistent you are, the faster your pace will become, which means you are able to cover more distance in that time. Focusing on that for a few weeks can make training easier — then you can focus on miles.”
While you may be running on a treadmill thinking that what you’re doing is identical to propelling yourself along solid ground, that is not the case. Instead, you are keeping pace with a platform that is in a state of constant motion. Mechanically, that means that you may instinctively look to compensate for this difference in ways that are unhealthy for you.
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“You want to be aware and not overstride, as overstriding on a moving belt can lead to lower leg injuries due to the force of the belt moving in the opposite direction,” says Daniels. “When the belt moves underneath you, this can result in slightly different muscle activation patterns compared to outdoor running, where you must generate all the forward motion yourself.”
If you only rely on treadmills for post-lift cooldowns or moderate warm-ups, it’s easy to find reasons to forego outdoor running in favor of a treadmill. This is especially true if you’re wholly unconcerned with outdoor competition.
A clear disadvantage to outdoor running is the uncertainty of knowing how quickly you’re moving from one moment to the next — unless you’re using a well-calibrated fitness tracker.
Treadmill workouts eliminate the guesswork by dictating the pace of your run, forcing you to keep up with the movement of the belt. For that matter, it also acts as a governor to prevent you from moving at too quick of a pace.
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“I think one key for treadmill running, regardless of level, is the ability to improve pace consistency,” Ozan tells BarBend. “If you’re looking to keep your runs at a specific pace, the treadmill can definitely make it easier. It can also condition you to eventually hold that pace outdoors.”
Avoiding Inclement Weather
Facing varied weather conditions is a mandate of outdoor running if you want to compete at some stage of your career. This means it’s best to get out on the open road with regularity so that you know how to contend with everything you might have to face on race day. However, no rule obligates you to face every dangerous storm that passes through your city.
“If you live in a place where it’s 30 degrees and windy all the time, then by training on the treadmill consistently, you may be able to get in better training and runs and be more fit,” offers Daniels.
Ozan agrees, adding: “If it’s pouring outside or too hot, running on the treadmill can be a huge benefit, especially if you’re following a training schedule and need to adjust.”
Tuning Out Distractions
The convenience of modern treadmills practically begs you to invite distractions into your workout routine. These distractions can range from display screens that shift your focus to less vital metrics, to phone messages that take you completely out of your workout. With that being said, outdoor running has its own distractions that the treadmill can help you avoid.
“On a treadmill, you don’t have to worry about tripping over a curb, making a wrong turn, or worrying about traffic or other elements that can be distracting and cause a mental shift during a run,” said Daniels. “It’s a good way just to shut off and get the run done.”
Building Specific Muscles
Outdoor running — especially if you’re not training on a well-maintained track — contains uneven twists, turns, and other inconsistent obstacles to navigate. This makes it difficult to uniformly train specific leg muscles with balance and precision in these environments. This is when treadmills step in to deliver a muscle-training solution that natural settings simply can’t.
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“Training on a treadmill can help with running economy and speed, and incline treadmill training can help with building muscles and gaining endurance,” said Ozan. “Depending on what you’re looking for with incline treadmill training, I think it is a great option to increase the incline for a certain amount of time.”
When you’re recovering from an injury and you want to maintain some semblance of cardiovascular training regularity, a treadmill may be a better option than outdoor training.
“If a runner is recovering from an injury, a treadmill can provide a lower-impact surface and controlled conditions that are gentler on the joints,” Daniels says. “It allows runners to gradually reintroduce running while monitoring their progress and reducing the risk of re-injury.”
There are countless ways to arrange a workout during runs, but there are some frequent fixtures of running-based workouts. When these training styles are used with treadmills, they often take on slightly different forms than when they’re performed outdoors.
If you’re looking to get the most out of your body while preparing your heart to handle explosive bursts of energy, you might consider engaging in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on a treadmill.
Going all out on a surface that softens the impact on your joints can be an attractive proposition. This is especially true if you have no pressing need to prepare your body for outdoor exertion.
“I think HIIT is a great way to get some very useful anaerobic training, plus it’s a great way to burn calories and lose some extra pounds,” said Ozan. “It definitely saves on some time as well when you do not have much time to get in a workout.”
A treadmill offers a safe and consistent environment that makes it an excellent conduit through which you can engage in tempo running.
Tempo runs are extended runs, often lasting between 30 minutes and an hour, in which participants run at or near the peak pace they can sustain for that period For distance runners, it can be a key tool for boosting aerobic thresholds.
“Treadmills are great for tempo runs if you are looking to ensure the pace is consistent, or if you are trying to keep it at a constant effort,” said Ozan. “Another plus is the treadmill surface is soft, so there isn’t too much strain on the body over that distance.”
A treadmill will permit you to establish a steep incline for yourself and to preserve that incline for as long as you want. This capability can make treadmills practical devices for preparing you to tackle the more unpredictable hills you might encounter outdoors. You also won’t have to travel to find the biggest inclines to safely climb.
“I like to have athletes intentionally use the treadmill for continuous hill work to get a bigger cardiac output without as much stress on the joints,” said Daniels. “For example, I’ll have athletes do their tempo runs at an incline of eight to 12 percent at a slower pace. With a bigger output, they are still getting in great work with less of an injury risk.”
Recovery runs are runs taken primarily to boost total running mileage, but they are usually performed at such a low-intensity level that they provide little challenge to you. That’s intentional — the lower intensity limits the potential of inflicting additional damage to your body. These runs are, after all, about recovery.
“With a treadmill, you can set the machine to a pace you know you can sustain for proper recovery and keep it there for the duration of your run,” said Daniels. “When the pace is set for you, and you are doing that low-end aerobic work, you can focus on form, breathing, and effort.”
If you prefer to play with different speeds during your training, a treadmill is a tremendous tool for using precision to play around with different speeds. That’s where fartlek training comes in, derived from a Swedish word that means “speed play.” Instead of relying on a personal assessment of your effort, you can use the treadmill to enforce a fixed pace and go to work.
“Fartleks are one of my favorite workouts to build fitness,” affirmed Ozan. “On the treadmill, staying at a constant pace for the interval can assist with keeping the percentage of effort at the right level. It’s also a great way to mix up the training a bit.”
Where No One Should Fear to Tread
Whether you’re a competitive runner, a strength athlete who enjoys an occasional run, or somewhere in the middle, a treadmill can be your new favorite training tool. If you’re looking for a place to boost your cardiovascular intensity, or a way to recover from an injury, a treadmill will help you stride with confidence, even if you’re occasionally forced to tread lightly.
Take it from these seasoned coaches — running on a treadmill is sure to boost your fitness, especially when you know how to properly use it. And now you do. So get out there and run.
- Colino E, Felipe JL, Van Hooren B, Gallardo L, Meijer K, Lucia A, Lopez-Fernandez J, Garcia-Unanue J. Mechanical Properties of Treadmill Surfaces Compared to Other Overground Sport Surfaces. Sensors. 2020; 20(14):3822.
- Yaserifar M, Souza Oliveira A. Surface EMG variability while running on grass, concrete and treadmill. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2022 Feb;62:102624.
- Van Hooren B, Fuller JT, Buckley JD, Miller JR, Sewell K, Rao G, Barton C, Bishop C, Willy RW. Is Motorized Treadmill Running Biomechanically Comparable to Overground Running? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cross-Over Studies. Sports Med. 2020 Apr;50(4):785-813.
- Singh G, Kushwah G, Singh T, Ramírez-Campillo R, Thapa RK. Effects of six weeks outdoor versus treadmill running on physical fitness and body composition in recreationally active young males: a pilot study. PeerJ. 2022 Jul 27;10:e13791.
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