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How to choose and how to use a treadmill to train for your next marathon

Posted on 2016-07-22

How to choose and how to use a treadmill to train for your next ultra-marathon

Running on the treadmill may not be at the top of everyone’s training list, but that doesn’t stop many marathoners like Antonio Vega, Team USA Minnesota, from doing the bulk of their training indoors on the treadmill. While the argument that the treadmill is not the same as running over land has been beaten to death (obviously the treadmill is not the same as pavement, track, or trail) that doesn’t mean it can’t be used to achieve enormous results.

Why use a treadmill to train for your next marathon?

Pros find all kinds of reasons to train on the treadmill and Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston Marathon winner, brings us six good ones in Runner’s World Complete Book of Beginning Running:

  1. Stay in shape while travelling Michael Wardian, set the world record by running a 50k in 3:03:56 on the treadmill of a cruise ship returning to the United States from the Bahamas

  2. Beat the weather Christine Clark won the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials by training on her treadmill at home in Alaska.

  3. Stay home with the kids Kara Goucher used her treadmill while pregnant and hit a 2:24:52 at the Boston Marathon only seven months after giving birth to her son, Colt.

  4. Stop sneezing Kim Jones, the two time runner-up in Boston, did 80 percent of her training on a treadmill, allowing her to avoid conditions that would irritate her asthma.

  5. Practice running faster Expert marathon coach Greg McMillan offers some great tips and workouts to increase speed on a treadmill. More tips on this below.

  6. Run forever So, lots of pros embrace the treadmill. Still don’t believe me? Check out these lists for more pros who win and use the treadmill. Or read up on how these folks set treadmill marathon world records.

Also, consider this snippet from the Runner’s World Big Book:

". . . consider the treadmill. It's hard to imagine a better surface for balanced running. At the very least, a treadmill provides a great surface for beginning runners, runners who are recovering from an injury, and perhaps even marathoners aiming to increase mileage without increasing their injury risk. "

Ok, so now we understand why we should use the treadmill, but how do we find the right one?

How to choose the right treadmill

Hal Higdon, winner of four World Masters Championships, mentor for over 250,000 marathon completers, and longest contributing writer to Runner’s World, kept it simple with his timeless advice on what to look for in a treadmill:

  1. The control panel shouldn’t jiggle. You need a display that you can read.

  2. The treadmill should have a handle bar across the front. When you change settings, you need the stability that the bar offers.

  3. The treadmill should have a surface that’s not too soft. Determining what is comfortable for you will require running on different models, but it’s worth your time.

And Harvard Health Publications and Arthritis Foundation mention these same basic tips. Treadmills have come a long ways since Higdon offered this advice. Today dozens of brands offer hundreds of machines all with myriads of enticing options.

Selection Process

  1. Envision your training - What will your training program look like? Consult the following list of feature recommendations for marathoners and ultramarathoners. An average treadmill is 7 feet long and 30 inches wide. Plan on making space in your home.

  2. Determine your budget - For a good training-quality treadmill you can expect to pay between $2,000 to $4,000.

  3. Test - Go out and test-run and read the reviews.

  4. Buy - Buy online or visit your nearest sports equipment store.

Important Treadmill Elements

Below is a summary of specifications best for marathoners and ultramarathoners.


For serious training training choose a treadmill with a continuous horsepower (CHP) of 3.0 or higher.

Track size

At least 22 inches wide and 55 inches long is ideal for runners.

Treadbelt durability

Belts: consider 2-4 ply belts.

Rollers: 2.5 inch diameter is good.

Lubrication: consider necessary lubrication.

Track speed

A top speed of 10 mph may be sufficient, however, choose one with a higher top speed if you will be doing speed training for 5-minute miles or faster.

Track cushioning

Hal Higdon recommended a less cushioned treadmill. Typically the cushioning on any treadmill will be 15-40 percent softer than the road.


Many training programs recommended by pros involve an up to 10 percent incline. Many machines now offer up to a 20 percent incline, which are worth considering depending on your need for hill training.


Treadmill programs are making substantial gains that may be more enticing to serious marathon and ultra-marathon trainers. Many pros highly recommend using a treadmill to simulate the terrain of race day. This became a whole lot easier thanks to Google Maps integration on iFit currently available on NordicTrack treadmills and fitness equipment.

Extra features

Extra features primarily serve the purpose of providing extra motivation to get on the treadmill. Determine what features are needed to maintain your sanity.


Get a good warranty. Warranties usually provide a clue to durability: the longer the warranty, the higher the durability.

Weight capacity

Find a treadmill that can officially handle at least 50 pounds more than your body weight.

Storage and portability

A serious ultramarathoner will likely want a non-folding treadmill.


Never forget the emergency stop.

So now that we know why to train on a treadmill and we have our very own awesome machine, what do we do with it?

How to use your new treadmill to win your next race

In case there is still some remaining guilt for running indoors instead of out, forget it:

We often get asked, “is it cheating to run on a treadmill?” The answer: definitely not. Running on the treadmill isn’t exactly like running over level ground outside, but it’s a lot more similar than sitting on the couch. There are lots of tips on how to use your treadmill. Greg McMillan Masters in Exercise Science, National Champion of the USATF Masters Trail Marathon, advisor of over 500 marathoners, and founder of one the best online coaching websites offers these general tips: In treadmill running you don’t have to overcome wind resistance since you stay in the same spot. As a result, you need to set the treadmill to 1 percent incline (unless doing hill repeats) to approximate the 7 percent energy cost you usually use to overcome air resistance. Second, in treadmill running, the ground runs out from underneath you instead of you pushing against the ground to propel yourself over it. As a result, the biomechanics are slightly different. Also, since there are no curves or undulations in the surface of the treadmill belt, your footplant is exactly the same nearly every stride. Take care when starting treadmill running to let your body adjust to the different demands. You need to gradually introduce treadmill running to your winter routine, and it’s a good idea to do some preparatory easy treadmill runs before you do treadmill training.

5 Specific Tips

McMillan goes into further detail and offers 5 specific tips for training on your treadmill and making sure it remains your best friend.

  1. Vary your speed and incline Speed and incline vary often in outdoor running, and he suggests our treadmill training should do the same: Visualize your outdoor routes and mimic their terrain on the treadmill. And adjust your pace from time to time. Even small pace changes of .1-.3 mph can make a treadmill run more like an outdoor run

  2. Vary your foot plant Since running injuries are often the result of repetitive motion, he suggests switching up that motion by switching up our shoes. In addition to varying your speed and incline, I also suggest you wear different shoes from time to time. On some runs, wear your regular training shoes but on a few runs slip on your racing flats or lighter weight training shoes. Your legs will thank you for it.

  3. Account for the treadmill lag Since treadmills take time to adjust speed and incline, they can make your workouts much much harder. Solution? Plan ahead: During your first repeat on the treadmill, count how long it takes for the treadmill to reach your goal speed and incline. Then, simply reduce the duration of your repeat by that amount of time. For example, let’s say it takes my treadmill 10 seconds to go from my recovery jog pace to my goal speed and incline. If my workout calls for five times three minutes at 5K race pace with one minute recovery jog in between, then I would simply run five times 2:50 with one minute recovery jog between.

  4. Take care of your body Many runners find they are more sore after training on the treadmill, so McMillan suggests taking even better care of your body (in addition to following tips 1 and 2): … You need to increase your focus on staying healthy. Take extra care of your body after treadmill runs and, even during winter, keep your prehab routine routine.

  5. Overcome air resistance This tip is emphasized many places, so take it into account. Compensate for the lack of wind resistance by increasing incline by using McMillans handy-dandy chart below. A commonly cited research study on outdoor or overland running versus treadmill running found that at faster speeds (7-minute pace per mile), setting the incline to 1 percent led to the same effort as outdoor running. This research sparked the usual advice to put the treadmill at a 1 percent incline to add the extra effort and make treadmill running more like outdoor running.

Speed Incline
<6 minute pace 1.25-1.5%
6-7 minute pace 1%
7-9 minute pace .5%
>9 minute pace 0%

Use these 5 stellar tips in cooperation with some great workouts and finishing and victory will be closer than ever. For McMillan’s 5 favorite treadmill workouts, click here To learn what 3 workouts Antonio Vega used to win the Houston Half Marathon, click here Lastly, never forget hill training on an Incline Treadmill

Sum Up

Now that you know how to embrace the treadmill to win your next ultra-marathon, here’s everything you need know to convince your friend to join you too.

6 reasons to embrace the treadmill

  1. Stay in shape while travelling
  2. Beat the weather
  3. Stay home with the kids
  4. Stop sneezing
  5. Practice running faster
  6. Run forever

4 steps in the selection process

  1. Envision your training
  2. Determine your budget
  3. Test
  4. Buy

5 tips on how to use it once you got it.

  1. Vary your speed and incline
  2. Vary your foot plant
  3. Account for the treadmill lag
  4. Take care of your body
  5. Overcome air resistance

And if you forget everything above, what’s the one thing you should remember? Just get on the treadmill and run!