Treadmill Training: A View From Both Sides

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Chicago winters are brutal, and even that can be an understatement. As an athlete, it’s hard to know if it’s worth enduring the cold, blustery weather to get a run in, or if a treadmill will do the trick. We asked two ladies, both associated with the Chicago Area Runner’s Association, to help you weigh your options.

wbj-headshot2Pros of Treadmill Training: Wendy Bensley Jaehn, former executive director of CARA

I have often used the terms, “necessary evil,” “love-hate relationship” and “have made peace with” when talking about my treadmill. To be clear, I’d much rather run outside with my friends and teammates, but circumstances do not always allow for that. Here are some of the motives that have led me to turn to the wheel instead of the road:

Weather. I train year round and my typical week contains a tempo run and a speed workout mixed with easy and long runs. While I can handle running in negative wind chill temperatures, (hey, I grew-up outside of Rochester, N.Y. and skied in a spandex unitard for years, so Chicago can feel downright balmy in comparison), the sidewalks and lakefront path are not always clear or may be too icy to get the turnover needed for these workouts. I have taken some pretty bad spills on black ice when trying to hit faster paces. So, the treadmill allows me to get the faster workouts in without any falls, hit my splits and also avoid the potential of straining any muscles given the cold.


Safety. In my last job, I was on the road almost weekly and would be up early to get runs in before my meetings, and often while it was still dark. There were times I would find myself in less than desirable areas, or just running back and forth in areas that I knew better to get a few miles in. So, I started doing my runs on the hotel treadmills to make sure I got the miles in, even the easy ones, for the sake of my safety.

Schedule. Anyone that runs on a team or with a group understands the “power of the group;” some miraculous force prevails where you can run faster and harder when running with others, and it just feels easier than if you were to run the same workout alone. But, I have a busy schedule between my job and chasing after my two boys and all of their activities, so I do not always get to dictate my running schedule nor can I often make runs with my teammates. So I started turning to the treadmill to run all of my tempos when I have to run them solo.

Mental Support. My coach, two-time Olympic trials qualifier, Chris Wehrman, has instilled the lesson that long tempos are the single most important workout when training for a marathon. And, while I still curse at him under my breath as I am midst tempo, I do agree that they have significantly helped improve my marathon performance. But, when I have to run alone, I do not always hit the prescribed paces, so the treadmill keeps me honest and sometimes gives me the mental confidence that I need to make it through the workout.

I wouldn’t say I am always pro treadmill, but do I use it as a training tool to get through some of the harder workouts, when the weather is poor, if I am traveling or if I’m training alone. I know I am not alone in training this way and I also know that there are a lot of running purists that have and will baulk at this. In the end, runners have to do what they need to do to hit their own goals, so I will continue to crank up the Pandora and pound out the miles as it has worked for me.

leah1-1Cons of Treadmill Training: Leah Bohr, CARA director of training

There is a time and place for treadmill running without a doubt; I spend time on them when I am focused on getting some fast, quality work in without worrying about footing or dressing appropriately, etc. When I was coaching at DePaul, I would look at the workouts planned and decide if I would be willing to let them be done on a treadmill. If the focus was pace work or if the temperatures were at dangerous levels, they would run on treadmills. We also had use of the indoor track, so it isn’t as though intervals were necessary on a treadmill. I think a balance of all three types of running, (outdoor, indoor track and treadmill running) is important, but I do have a good argument against treadmills.

Learning Pace Control. While you are able to set your pace on a treadmill, your body is not actually controlling the pace; it is coming from the machine. Sometimes, zoning out on a treadmill and getting in your miles for the day at your desired pace is okay. Getting outdoors though, to allow your body to move based on feel, is good for strengthening and increasing your endurance. There will be times that you will find yourself going faster than pace, and times that you will be slower, all based on what your body needs. Zeroing in on this is important for improvement of fitness.

Leg Strength. Treadmill running also hinders the use of your hamstrings, as the machine is doing some of the work in bringing your legs back behind you. I always put the treadmill at a 1 to 1.5 percent incline to help with this, but running outdoors can help you work all of your muscles equally. If you have strength discrepancies, which almost all runners have, running outdoors will not be the cure for this and you would have to work on your strength in other ways as well, such as physical therapy or weight exercises. All runners should make time for this, no matter where they are running.

Adjusting to Conditions. If the cold temperature is a reason for staying indoors, I think this is reasonable – Chicago lake temperatures are no joke at times. However, your body is a pretty incredible machine itself and will acclimate to winter running over time. You may find after about five to 10 minutes, that you are actually hot and sweaty, depending on what you are wearing. As long as you layer clothing and learn what your body needs at certain temperatures, you will more than likely be fine. Wind is always a factor when running outdoors, and creates a resistance treadmills don’t. However, exposure of skin to certain temperatures is not safe, so I am not proposing you tough it out at the risk of getting frostbite. Make sure to cover areas and be smart. Hint: heat escapes from your head so hats and ear warmers are important.

Environment. Mentally, running a treadmill is a whole different ball game; some people who don’t mind running for an hour in the same place, looking at the same thing over and over. For me, though, I find it much harder mentally to run on a treadmill than to run outdoors. Scenery, people, fresh air, different routes, etc. are all parts of outdoor running that make me feel alive and also distract me from the actual act of running. The mental aspect of running is the most important piece of training and racing without a doubt, so runners need to do what works for them. Many people in the field of running would say the most crucial part of a training plan is the belief in it, so keep this in mind when you approach your goals. Your belief in what you are doing is as important as anything else.

In the end, balance is the key in all parts of life; you should never do too much of one thing. Variety is important for mind and body, so while running mostly outdoors is what I would suggest, I understand the need for some indoor training. Focusing on the effort of a workout is a good way to strategize your outdoor running. You may not be doing the same exact pace as you would do indoors, but if the effort is there, it works.

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Holly's running career began in high school; after being bummed about not making the volleyball team her sophomore year, she decided to join some of her middle school friends on the cross country team. She also did track in the fall, where the 1600 m race was her niche. Since then, she has run several 5Ks, and completed her first half marathon in July 2015. She graduated from Illinois State University in May 2016 with a degree in journalism.

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