The treadmill has always been a backup option for coaches and athletes, but more and more professionals are purposely committing time and effort to train on the equipment. I am mainly a purist and prefer roads and tracks, but I believe scoffing at treadmills is foolish. With the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the timeless weather and pollution factors, more and more athletes are adding treadmill workouts to their routine.
In this blog post, I don’t get too much into the weeds of science but skip to workout lists, as we all need a little creativity sometimes. I list various workouts, ranging from wellness to elite training, so don’t view these as something only for Olympic and professional athletes. In addition to training, I include a few testing sessions, as rehabilitation and physiological assessment are very important for professionals in sport.
The Treadmill Workout Decision Matrix
I don’t want to spend a long time explaining my personal philosophy, but I do think a framework of how I make decisions can help you and your training. Overall, it isn’t a priority for team sports to add in extra or replacement training, but the real world doesn’t work perfectly with training plans. When deciding what workouts to do and how to use treadmills, think about the ideal circumstances and how you can make adjustments based on situational needs.
Figure 1 is very straightforward: I tried to make sure I listed the needs analysis and practical setup required for a good treadmill workout. While far from perfect, you can use the taxonomy and details included in the chart to make more precise choices in preparing the athlete.
Feel free to improvise and change all of the above information to fit your needs. Just copying the training and putting it into a workout without understanding it and modifying it correctly will lead to injury and poor results. Obviously, anyone using the information shared will need to be accountable to the risks that all training has, but generally the workouts below are safe and typical of what most coaches use now.
1. Wellness Walking for Mental Health
I am amazed that walking is seen as a waste of time or not for athletes. In no way am I saying that walking solves the world’s problems, but I think taking a walk in the woods is a great way to heal the soul and solve mental health issues. What about the times when walking in nature is not available? You can do it in front of a wide screen and experience a great break from staring at a wall or other people exercising if training at home, or you can take the treadmill outside if the weather is accommodating. (One warning though, outdoor environments and technology aren’t usually a great fit, but sometimes with self-powered treadmills the combination is awesome.) Even if you just walk for a short period of time at a brisk pace, you will feel great afterward.
I also like tandem remote walking, where two people can hop on a call and catch up. Sometimes calling a friend or watching a stand-up special turns a simple walk into a therapeutic activity. With mental health being better understood, sometimes wellness activities are the solution, not more speed and power training or even conditioning. Again, 20-60 minutes is not a miracle, but a brisk pace around 3.5 miles per hour is a great marching speed that can clear the mind like a bout of meditation.
2. Hiking for Body Composition
Many athletes who are injured or coming out of retirement need a very gradual return to training, or they might just want something that isn’t going to create unnecessary pounding. Nearly all of the athletes who have used weighted vests and incline walking find the metabolic demand high but the eccentric impact very low. Be careful—watch for stress on the calf and ankle areas, as loaded dorsiflexion over time can be a bad mix for some athletes. However, it’s generally a very safe way to burn calories without just doing junk training.
Nutrition is essential for managing body composition, but going strict only on diet and not complementing it with light exercise is not easy psychologically. Over the years, I have gone back to walking up hills or an incline treadmill because, while it can be boring, it’s easy to prescribe and track. Usually, adding 1-2 sessions a week finishes off the need to get athletes leaner, as a few pounds matter in speed sports, and doing it without breaking down the body is vital.Adding 1-2 sessions a week finished off the need to get athletes leaner, as a few pounds matter in speed sports, and doing it without breaking down the body is vital, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Elderly people may find it rewarding because they can fight osteoporosis and other lifestyle diseases just by including wearable resistance and also make it a social experience if they want. I would suggest that both incline and duration be carefully progressed, starting with duration and then adding inclination.
3. Classic Bad Weather Tempo Running
During the winter, many athletes simply go indoors to run, and if you don’t have an indoor track, treadmills are sometimes necessary. Tempo running can be done during warm weather conditions, as extreme heat and rain are part of the chaos of life. The key is in the velocity and duration, and how to share treadmills if working in groups.
Many coaches and athletes elect to work on general running sessions with curved treadmills, as it’s self-selected pacing and easy to do when enough equipment is available. I prefer 15- to 45-second work intervals and 30- to 60-second rest intervals at various speeds. Technically, you can use any treadmill, but I don’t like using inclines for tempo running because it metabolically doesn’t match the velocity in a way that fosters the adaptations I prefer.
In addition to general fitness, coaches can use the intervals to monitor recovery and watch technique in real time due to the stationary components of the treadmill. Classic tempo running isn’t sexy, but ecologically it’s nice to have because bike routines and other cross-training options may not be congruent with the needs of the coach.
4. Aerobic Capacity Testing
The age-old VO2 max test won’t determine the next champion, but the information gleaned from testing helps solve training riddles. Metabolic testing has taken a back seat lately to speed reserve models that are popular now, but those observations in both the coaching and scientific communities are Monday morning quarterbacking. The most talented athletes are sometimes the fastest that generally need just some supportive fitness. Making athletes better is more important than knowing how fast athletes are, not just aerobically better.
All being equal, a fitter athlete with the same speed does still have an advantage; it’s just many coaches who chase aerobic fitness as a holy grail forget that the fastest time wins any race. My personal belief is that metabolic testing is mainly useful to see how various elements in a program respond over time, so you don’t need to have the highest VO2 max measurement to win. However, you do need to stay close to normative ranges and use it for better understanding of training programs. Even just doing a VO2 max test for a workout for the sake of curiosity is grueling, and while it’s vanilla, it is useful for many applications.
5. Running Gait Analysis and Instruction
Running mechanics is important, even for sprinters. Coaches often care about 100% speed, but submaximal velocities at a fast clip matter as well. Gait analysis on treadmills is convenient, and while it’s not perfect, it’s good enough to really make an impact on addressing pathomechanics if used properly. Gait analysis doesn’t always mean retraining, so you can decide to use gait analysis to observe motion without necessarily trying to change things.Gait analysis on treadmills is convenient, and while it’s not perfect, it’s good enough to really make an impact on addressing pathomechanics if used properly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Running injuries are very difficult to manage, as the research on every topic seems to be contrasting and conflicting in the clinical world. Therefore, a treadmill gait analysis is sometimes just as useful to see only running style. Evaluating coaching performance changes, screening risk, and the etiology of injury can’t be distilled to simple observations like heel striking and cadence. While those factors are part of the equation, the complexity of injury and running mechanics is too high to have most single variables be a magic bullet.
By using gait analysis in real time, many coaches have made improvements to technique that could be used at higher speeds. Pressure mapping and video analysis are common tools, and motion capture is often used in research as well.
6. Pacing for Performance
One of the unique benefits of treadmills is that they can maintain a given velocity for specific durations. Usually, fatigue creates a challenge with pacing, but using a treadmill can help an athlete maintain an even pace as a way to push through barriers. Obviously, different pacing strategies exist, but even just running for a longer duration is a way for an athlete to go the distance by staying on the treadmill (safely).Usually, fatigue creates a challenge with pacing, but using a treadmill can help an athlete maintain an even pace as a way to push through barriers, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The pace on a treadmill can be a little daunting, as the experience is binary: do it or quit. Tools such as Solos and stride cadence products are used to ensure running speed matches up with the rhythm of the steps. A creative alternative can be athletes choosing to average their velocity and distance, so those with different abilities can share challenges. One example would be a faster 1500 athlete and a more fit 5k runner who elect to do 3k time trials running steadily together. Both are technically running the same speed, but in reality, they are running it differently and the pace may encourage new mental challenges for both athletes.
Pacing is not just about pushing faster; sometimes biofeedback can be used to make the same pace easier. Regardless of what you do with pacing, find a way to incorporate it when possible so you can run longer distances without being dependent on laps. Set speeds and other parameters like cadence and running style are great for taking running mechanics to the next level.
7. Drago Repeated Sprints
Rocky IV was a great movie for those who were born in the 1970s or earlier. One of the most famous scenes was, of course, the contrasting high-tech versus primitive training montage. During the scene, Rocky’s nemesis was running up an inclined treadmill, and at each stage the incline became more demanding.
You can choose to make the rise in elevation or inclination interval or continuous based, but make sure it’s structured and not just a way to create entertainment at the cost of sound training. I know a lot of fitness and recreational athletes use HITT for general training and fat loss, but hills or other types of incline sprinting are great for effort without the risk of hamstring and other muscle injuries. Metabolically, the workout is super demanding, and athletes love the challenge.
One of the most popular options is to use the Shredmill and just keep the incline constant and try to get faster each rep. No matter your interval pattern, repeated incline sprints are great for getting fit and fast quickly, but use them only when needed as conventional surfaces still matter.
8. Long Intervals and Continuous Runs
I have used two- to four-minute runs with soccer athletes when they need to raise their MAS (maximum aerobic speed) for political purposes or when it really would benefit their play. I generally don’t do much artificial running on treadmills for conditioning, but athletes who need a boost from time to time or who live in the city tend to like treadmills. My sixth sense is knowing where the secluded training areas are, but not everyone can escape from the limelight, including regular joes who just want to train alone or without crowds.I like long intervals for those athletes finishing or topping off their aerobic capacity, and usually do this workout once a week before the preseason only if they are fast and strong. Click To Tweet
Replacing a conventional workout on a field when in a jam or time crush is nice, especially with general aerobic training that has no skill component. Plenty of coaches hate eternal fitness and want specificity, but in the real world, it’s about damage control rather than utopia. I like long intervals for those finishing or topping off their aerobic capacity, and usually do this workout once a week before the preseason only if they are fast and strong. This workout doesn’t develop speed, and if you introduce it too early, it can actually retard development, so only add it if the athlete can do basic tempo running.
Make Every Step Count
As you can see, most of the workouts above are not new, but they all are valuable. Athletes don’t need to be marathoners, but the ability to run shouldn’t be foreign even if you participate in sports that have little running. None of the workouts are special or exciting on paper, so you have to sell the session with sizzle, usually by adding a few wrinkles and modifications to maintain interest. Nearly all the workouts are done indoors, so feel free to take a few sessions outside, such as a private patio in a backyard or similar.We have learned from this past year with athletes being quarantined that running is certainly a privilege, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
We have learned from this past year with athletes being quarantined that running is certainly a privilege, and we need to take any opportunity we can to get the most out of our ability to ambulate as humans. Running on a treadmill doesn’t need to be boring and stale; it just needs to be sensible and have a twist added. Hopefully, this article gives you a few ideas, and you should feel free to modify the workouts as you see fit.
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