Many runners perceive the treadmill as boring. If you do not change the pace and incline the entire run, the treadmill will feel mind-numbingly boring. Think of outdoor runs: you have variations in pace and incline, even slight changes on a flat easy run. These six treadmill workouts offer fun treadmill options for everything from easy runs to interval workouts.
All these treadmill workouts reinforce aerobic development. Base-building phases typically include controlled intervals, hills, and lots of easy running – the same as these treadmill workouts. (Read more here for what a base building phase includes.) Most likely, you are in a base training phase during winter, which is when you are probably also spending the most time on the treadmill.
(These quick guides to training paces and the different types of running workouts are helpful for understanding these treadmill workouts!).
Easy Run Treadmill
When you run outside, you are likely to encounter some variation in terrain. Even a slight 1% incline or decline, you change your pace and mechanics. You can mimic these changes on your treadmill easy run by varying the elevation and pace throughout.
The simplest approach is to vary the incline every few minutes. You can be structured or unstructured with the incline changes. The exact incline you use will depend on what you typically do outdoors. Most road runners will find that 0% to 6% inclines feel the most like their outdoor training. Trail runners may prefer to mix in steeper inclines up to 12% and include treadmill hiking, as they would on an easy trail run.
Any pace variations should be small. To keep the run truly easy, keep the pace within your easy pace or heart rate range. You do not want to turn this into a speed workout!
Sample treadmill easy run: 5 min at 0%, 3 min at 2%, 1 min at 4%, and repeat through the remainder of the run. As you change the incline, slightly vary the pace to maintain a similar rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
Treadmill Interval Run
Interval training can make treadmill running more fun. However, high-intensity speedwork can make you feel like you are about to fly off the back of the machine. A safer alternative are controlled intervals. These workouts offer the fun of a treadmill interval run while also fostering aerobic development. Overtraining risk is lower, especially during a base-building or early-season phase.
Controlled intervals foster high-end aerobic development and intermediary muscle fiber recruitment. These are not gut-busting intervals; these are hard but not too hard. In terms of intensity, they should feel like an effort you could sustain if you were racing around 30-40 minutes. Depending upon your ability, that ranges from 5K to 10K effort. These type of intervals are a staple in training plans for athletes such as the Ingrebringsten brothers, Eliud Kipchoge, and other greats. (This podcast provides an excellent breakdown of Norwegian training principles and how various they can be applied to athletes of abilities.)
Theoretically, they may come with lower risk of injury on the treadmill. Many runners run with slightly altered biomechanics on the treadmill. A 2020 meta-analysis in sports medicine found that treadmill running, while overall similar to outdoor running, did cause slight differences such as the angle of knee flexion upon footstrike. Treadmill running can place more stress on the Achilles tendon and calf muscles. Given that high-intensity running also increases stress on the musculoskeletal system, more controlled intervals may be a safer alternative then very fast repeats if kinematics are already slightly altered.
Sample treadmill interval workout: 5-8 x 3 minutes at 30-40 minute race effort/1.5 minute recovery jog (includes a 10-20 min warm-up and 10-20 minute cool down with easy running)
Treadmill Hill Workout
The treadmill makes hill workouts accessible no matter where you live. Hill workouts offer numerous benefits to runners such as improved mechanical output and running economy. On the treadmill, you can control the exact incline for the goal of your hill workout.
Caveat: these workouts place a high strain on the calf, Achilles, and plantar, so they should be used with caution if you are prone to injuries on the lower leg.
You can do hard hill repeats on the treadmill. Another versatile option is moderate-intensity hill climbs. These can be beneficial if you find you struggle with uphill running in long races or if you are a trail runner.
Sample treadmill hill workout: After a 10-15 minute warm-up, repeat 3 minutes at 5-8%, 3 minutes at 0%, at an easy to moderate effort for the remainder of the run. If you are using a five-zone model, this would be training in zone 2 to zone 3 efforts. Your pace will stay relatively the same, but effort will be higher on the uphill segments. (Set the incline based on your ability. If you are new to hills, start on the lower end; if you are a trail runner, aim for the higher end.)
Treadmill Progression Run
The treadmill allows you to manipulate pace with the touch of a button – so take advantage of it! Even if you struggle with pacing, a treadmill allows you to carefully and incrementally increase your pace on a progression run. A progression run begins at an easy pace; then you gradually run faster throughout. The progression run can finish at any intensity. For long-distance runners, it is most beneficial to keep progression runs aerobic in nature, which means finishing at a moderate intensity (in the range of half marathon to 50K pace).
Sample treadmill progression run: Start the first 10 minutes at 10-15 seconds per mile slower than your usual easy run pace. Then, increase the pace by 0.1 mph (or roughly 10-20 sec/mile) every 5-10 minutes (depending on the duration of your run – a longer run means longer intervals). Continue to increase until you are running at a moderate effort, or roughly 60-90 seconds per mile faster than you started.
Treadmill Threshold Run
A continuous threshold run on the treadmill can make time feel like it is slowing to a crawl. However, threshold runs do not have to be continuous to be effective. (Here’s more on the science of threshold runs.) Breaking a tempo run into intervals creates an effective workout, especially during a base-building phase when you want to avoid too strenuous of efforts. A threshold interval run breaks up the effort into 3-8 minute threshold intervals with short (1-2 minute) recovery jogs.
The priority with threshold intervals is to keep a controlled pace. The treadmill allows you to set it to your threshold pace (what you could maintain if you raced for one hour, or a moderately hard effort). You are less likely to push too fast in this workout. As a result, you have a productive workout that quickly passes time on the treadmill.
Sample treadmill threshold workout: 4-6 x 5 minute at hour-race effort (10K-15K pace), with a 1-2-min recovery jog in between. (Includes a 10-20 minute warm-up and cooldown with easy running.) You will notice a range in the recovery run. If you are in a base phase, use a 2-min jog; if a race is closer, use a 1-min recovery jog.
These are just a sample of treadmill workouts! The options for treadmill workouts are as various as outdoor running workouts.