Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The revolving belt: Tips for getting faster on treadmill

I used to be an outside-only kind of runner. It was, in part, because I felt like I had to run outside to be a real runner and, in part, because I had limited access to a treadmill.

Then I moved into a house, got a hand-me-down treadmill, had a baby and lived through (hopefully) one of the coldest winters in recent memory. Running indoors not only became an option but a necessity at times. 

Even still, I didn't love it. I felt trapped, lethargic and slow. My pace indoors didn't come close to what it was outside, often times 30 seconds to a minute slower. I bemoaned the stats as I put them in and compared them with other outings, the ones outdoors. I feared that those slower numbers would be more and more common. I feared that the treadmill would suck the runner right out of me.

Logging more than 100 miles on the revolving belt this winter, however, I have learned to accept my situation. Sure, I'd give anything for a leisurely run in shorts with a slight breeze at dawn, catching the sun rise but I no longer bemoan it's existence. I head down the basement steps at 5 a.m.once or twice a week, sans griping, prepared to tackle whatever miles I have on deck. I listen to music, watch Netflix, spit on the floor (sometimes hitting the dog who's lapping up water).

And somewhere in this acceptance, I've seen some progress.

On Feb. 21, 2012, my last treadmill run of the season, I did 3.75 miles, including four 800 intervals. I did it in 36 minutes, 16 seconds - an average pace of 10:28.

On Nov. 15, 2012, one of my first this winter, I ran 3 miles in 32 minutes, 25 seconds - 10:48 pace.

On March 19, 2013, and sadly probably not my last treadmill run, I did a progression run of 5 miles in 46 minutes, 45 seconds - a 9:21 pace.

Don't you just love the benefits to keeping somewhat-meticulous logs of your runs?

So what was the trick, you ask? I'd have to say that it was finally losing the last 5 pounds, doing genealogy research that uncovered I am part Kenyan and a fancy new pair of shoes.

Or not.

Here are my tips for improving treadmill speed:

Accept that it won't be the same. So don't try to make it the same. Whether you are faster on the treadmill or slower or you hate looking at the peeling paint on the basement wall, take it for what it is and be glad for time on your feet.

Learn to be uncomfortable. Running doesn't always feel good and it's even more relevant in treadmill running. The air can often feel stagnant, there's no breeze and you're often in air that's warmer than you'll see till mid-summer. Sweat will roll down into your eyes and your breathing will feel off. It won't feel good. But it's no excuse to make a run on the treadmill easy, keeping the speed far below your capabilities. Remember, too, that running outside doesn't always feel good so take it for what it is and suck it up, buttercup.

Check conversion charts to see what you should be running. When I first started trying to run - a failed attempt at C25K - I thought 6.0 was super fast because that's the speed Mark would start at when he ran at the YMCA. As for the girl who ran in bum shorts and doing so at 7.0, she was an elite for all I knew as that speed terrified me. I now know that 6.0 is a 10-minute mile and 7.0 is an 8:34 - what 3-year-old Kenyans run for fun. Checking a conversion chart reveals that the oh-so-scary 7.0 pace is my 10K pace and what I want to do for certain workouts. I also know that 6.4 is what I want to average to hit an unofficial, unspoken threshold.

Be consistent. The more you run, the better you become. It goes for running outside and it goes for running indoors. I'm not saying to skip your outdoor runs - those are key - but if it comes to the treadmill or nothing, go for the treadmill. I have continued to run four, even five, days a week this winter by sucking it up and running on the treadmill.

But switch it up. I never just turn on the treadmill, crank it up to a certain speed and stay there. Rather, I warm up for a mile and try to perform a somewhat deliberate workout. Sometimes I try to run each quarter-mile faster and reset at the mile marker (ex: 6.1, 6.2, 6.3, 6.4; 6.1, 6.2, 6.3, 6.4 ...) or run 0.4 mile at a reasonable rate and 0.1 hard. And, of course, you can always go the hilly route. Adding in intervals not only builds speed and fitness but lets your body become acquainted with certain speeds so that when you try to hold them for a longer period, they don't seem so intimidating or hard.

If you do what you've always done, you'll be who you always were. OK, I'm not so sure that's how that phrase goes but it sort of works in this situation. If you always hop on the treadmill and press 6.0, you are always going to run 10-minute miles. For the longest time, my warm-up on the treadmill was the same. I'd start at 5.5, bumping it up to 5.7 in the first five minutes. At the five-minute mark, I turned it up to 6.0 and I averaged about a 10:15, 10:20 first mile. I ended up spending much of the run trying to make up time to bring my average pace under 10. I realized that I no longer needed to ease that gently into a run. My warm-up is now 6.1 from the start, and I feel just fine. It makes averaging a faster pace less of a challenge because I don't have to make up for being a weenie.

And we all know that runners are not weenies.

What are your treadmill tips? Share them here and I'll put them together in a future post.


  1. I am always on the treadmill! First because I lived in NYC and worked such long hours that I couldn't run outside. No Central Park for me at night!! Yikes! I seems to be faster on the treadmill. Anyway my big tip is to change it up al the time. I am always fiddling with the speed and like to always finish with a sprint. P.S. This winter has sucked

  2. All very great tips! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Definitely have music, movies (if you can), or other ways to distract yourself and keep you from getting crazy bored staring at walls. I also agree that changing it up is really good - for both keeping you motivated and making time pass and getting faster. If you're in the flat midwest, take advantage of the hill creation and work yourself on hills. And when you think you're done, finish with a hard, progressively faster mile. You'll end winded, you'll have added a mile, and you'll have gotten faster!

  4. Such a great advice- I have learned a lot of this in the last year as well. Being relegated to a treadmill isn't fun, but it sure helps to have tips!

    At my gym, each treadmill has a TV. I plan my run around sports teams I like to watch play or a movie that I like so I will have a reason to run as long as I need to.

  5. Treadmills have become my BFFs only because I need a bathroom handy these days. Sure they aren't fun, but they get the job done. Like you, I try to mix it up. When I was training, I loved doing speedwork on them. They are awesome for pushing you to hit the interval pace and keeping you at a steady pace when you want. I did every training run, except long runs on the treadmill and I really do think it is how I got faster.

    I also like the hill function. Sure it's not the same as outside, but it that is your option, use it.

  6. LOVE this post! I have started to enjoy running on a treadmill and I use to despise it!

  7. Thanks for this post. I just did my second treadmill run of the winter on Tuesday (yep, it takes a windchill or -10 or worse to keep me off the streets). I could have used some of your tips. After reading this, I feel slightly less like another TM run would be certain Death By Boredom... but still hope not to "enjoy" another one till the depths of next winter!

    1. You are so much braver than me! I totally wussed out this winter. I will say Netflix on my phone has been invaluable. This morning, I watched "Psycho."