Training for a Marathon - on a Treadmill
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
As I write this, I have an upcoming Marathon exactly two weeks away. Needless to say, I've been doing quite a bit of running the last few months to prepare for this race. However, I currently live in an area that has very few options to run outside. There are no nearby parks or trails to speak of, and though many of the streets have sidewalks, the roads are often very busy, making them a potentially dangerous (and noisy) place to run. Our apartment complex does have a nice exercise room with a couple of treadmills and I go to a gym with even more treadmills. As a result, I have been doing the majority of my training on the treadmill. My hope to show you how it is not only possible to prepare for a full Marathon on a treadmill, but how doing so can be incredibly beneficial and efficient. Plus I'll give you some tips to help overcome the boredom often found on the treadmill.
Indoor training can be extraordinarily beneficial for racing performance - take cyclists for example. Cyclists from the amateur level to the professional level have embraced the idea of indoor training because it provides a controlled environment where things like pace, effort, gear, etc. can all be maintained for as long as desired without the interruptions found on the road. Unless you happen to live in the most rural part of Kansas, you're never going to find a road that can meet those needs. It's the same with running. Here are just some of the benefits of treadmill running:
Pace & Incline:
Treadmills provide a place where you can run at whatever pace and incline you so desire for as long as you want. This feature is especially beneficial for workouts such as intervals, tempo runs, race-pace, etc., where both a specific pace and incline are required. In fact, I do all of those workouts on a treadmill, the only one I don't do indoors is the long run, for reasons I'll get into later. With a treadmill, I can go into a race-pace workout knowing I'll be able to hold my race pace for the entire duration of the workout. If I try to do that outside, I'll inevitably encounter hills, intersections, turns, etc., which will either slow me down or force me to stop momentarily. Essentially what a treadmill does is insulate the workout from all external factors. There's never anything to stop you, slow you down, or otherwise prevent you from completing the workout you planned. And when you're training for any race - especially a marathon, being able to complete your workouts as prescribed is essential to your success on race day.
A quick note about pace and treadmills: The speed on a treadmill is rarely 100% accurate. Whatever pace it shows on the display, take that with a grain of salt. The treadmill I currently use reads slow by approximately 0.2 mph - reading 8.8 mph (6:49min/mile) when I'm actually running ~9 mph (6:38min/mile). How do I know this? Because I use an ANT+ Foot Pod, calibrated on a track. It's a small device that attaches to my shoe and uses an accelerometer to measure my speed. This is what I use to see how fast I'm going, not the treadmill display. If you do a lot of treadmill running (or want to), I'd suggest getting a device such as this (I believe some of the newer sport watches include this in the watch itself, meaning you don't need a separate foot pod.) If you don't have a foot pod, or don't want to get one, that's fine. Instead, pace yourself based on intensity or perceived effort and merely use the displayed speed as a rough guide. Another factor that treadmills can't account for when compared to outdoor running is extra energy used to overcome aerodynamic drag (wind resistance). Setting the incline at 1-2% will help mimic that extra energy expenditure while indoors.
Have you ever gotten all ready for a run, and then gone outside to see that it's cold and rainy and been like "I think I'll cut my run short today." I know I have. Probably the second biggest advantage about training indoors is that you're....well, indoors. This means you can train all year round without ever having to worry about what it's doing outside. Living here in the Seattle area means having to endure 6+ months of cold, damp, rainy weather. Now, I'm not unwilling to run outside in the rain (sometimes it's kinda fun!), but having the option of training in a dry, climate-controlled room is a wonderful resource to have. It can make those tough workouts much more bearable to endure, meaning I can still get high quality workouts with low quality weather.
But it may not be just rain you have to contend with. I went to school in Utah, where we had about 4 months where it would be snowy with temps in the 20's and some of the worst air quality in the country. In this situation, running outside was not only unpleasant, but downright dangerous. And the summers were just the opposite: weeks on end with 90+ degree weather, meaning I could run outside only so long before getting dehydrated. I thoroughly enjoyed having those nice climate-controlled gyms, which allowed me to train consistently throughout the year regardless of the weather outside. When I was training for spring marathons and triathlons, those treadmills were just about my only option for training, and if I hadn't had those, I probably wouldn't have been able to compete in some of those races.
Most treadmill runs will last an hour or less, and it is unlikely that you could get seriously dehydrated in that amount of time. However, should you decide to do a longer run, or that you just want water handy, treadmills make it easy. Every treadmill I've ever used has had at least one water bottle holder. This makes it easy to grab a swig of water whenever you feel like it, without having to carry said water on your person. You don't have to put an extra thought into how much water to carry, or how you'll carry it. Just grab your water bottle and go!
Running on a treadmill can get boring...really boring. Having some tools at your disposal to keep your mind distracted is key to your success in using a treadmill. Everyone has different things that work best for them. I like to listen to music, or watch movies if I'm running longer. You can read books, listen to audio books or podcasts, watch Netflix or Youtube videos, etc. I remember seeing people at the gym at college studying their textbooks while running. You should try a few things out and find something that work for you.
If you're not used to running on a treadmill, it can seem very boring at first, even with some distractions. You'll get used to it, and eventually even those 45 minute workouts won't seem so daunting.
Treadmill running isn't for every situation, and there can be a couple of drawbacks. First of all, at least for me, there is a limit to how long I can run on a treadmill. It's not so much an energy or stamina constraint as it is a boredom constraint. Even with good entertainment options available, I can stand running on a treadmill for about 90 minutes (give or take). Beyond that and I need to take my workout outside. The change of scenery does wonders for your ability to go long when compared to running in place indoors. This limit, is of course a personal one. Each person will find a different point at which they can take no more.
I also believe that doing at least a few runs outside before a big race is very beneficial. For a race like the marathon, I'll do all of my 15-20 mile long runs outdoors. This gives me a lot of miles of uphills, downhills, turns, etc. These can work your leg muscles in ways that are difficult to do on a treadmill. These workouts also more closely mimic what you'll actually be doing on race day, unless you plan to run 26.2 miles on a treadmill...
So what about a track? Tracks can be a useful tool when it comes to stuff like intervals and tempo runs as it's easy to maintain a constant pace and measure your distance. But running on a track is like running on a treadmill without the entertainment options and (generally) without a roof or climate control. And I can only stand running on a track for about 30 minutes before I get bored (but that's just me).
With a few good podcasts and playlists, a treadmill can become the most powerful tool in your arsenal for achieving your marathon goals, whether you're training for your first race or trying to break 3 hours. It will improve the quality of your workouts by letting you focus on what's most important: running.
If you need help choosing a treadmill for use at home, here are a couple of resources to help you choose the right one for you: