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Article - 20 December 2011

Treadmill Running - so much more than convenience.

This is an article for published by Triathlon Plus magazine:-

Treadmill Sessions of Champions - The indoor running workouts that work for the pro's, and how you can adapt them to work for you.

In June this year I was lucky enough to be invited to watch the USA Triathlon team, and the likes of Andy Potts, Hunter Kemper and Sarah Haskins in training at the US Olympic Training

Centre in Colorado Springs. One thing they did that really surprised me. Right after a pretty ferocious swim set, several athletes got straight on the treadmills (it was a glorious summer’s day outside) and ran steadily for thirty minutes. Speaking to one of their coaches, it transpired that this was a session aimed at simply maintaining ‘running feel’ and technique, not especially fitness orientated. But it did make me think that if the fastest triathletes on the planet are using treadmills in the middle of summer even when they have the very best facilities at their disposal, there must be good reason. It is easy to fall into thinking that treadmill running is just a poor relative to ‘proper’ running and that its only real attribute is convenience. Think again. Not only do some of the world’s best runners incorporate ‘belt work’ into their training regimes but with a few subtle tweaks, indoor running sessions can contribute the winter miles that lead to those summer smiles.

Research shows that treadmill running has a reduced oxygen cost for a given speed compared with outdoor running. The reason for this is partly reduced wind resistance and also that the revolving belt contributes to leg turnover. To some extent this can be dialled out by simply ensuring that the incline setting is +1% before beginning the session. Equally, some of the beneficial challenges to the neuromuscular system we encounter when running outdoors and having to constantly adjust to uneven surfaces, are lost on the treadmill but then ground impact forces are also reduced which may lower the frequency of some injuries. Whatever the pros and cons, some of the best runners in triathlon and indeed the world, go out of their way to ensure they include some treadmill running in their training schedules. Let’s look at who and why:

Chris McCormack, the living triathlon legend, recently tweeted “Second run session of the day. 10km on the treadmill. Included 10 x 400m at 24km per hour pace for leg turnover. Need to get my stride rate up”. While McCormack may be able to run briefly at those speeds, most of us would find ourselves promptly spat out the back of the machine! But an age group friendly version that would do the same job might be for example, 6 x 30 seconds at 17 km/h with 90 second recoveries. This session is less about cardiovascular conditioning and more about improving efficiency of movement. It will improve leg speed, encourage sound running biomechanics, specific core strength and is the perfect accompaniment to the usual winter diet of long, slow base mileage. Essentially it will translate into better running form even at slower speeds.

Chrissie Wellington, the Four time Ironman World Champion, when under the tutelage of renowned triathlon coach Brett Sutton, would also famously perform the odd ‘marathon on a treadmill’ session. Sutton is known as much for the psychological conditioning of his athletes as physiological, so one objective of this session is certainly to improve mental toughness but also the ability to control for pace, wind, technique and also chances of injury because ground impact forces tend to be reduced on a treadmill, are real positives. The lesson here is not to be afraid of including the occasional longer, steady indoor run lasting in the region of 40-60 minutes into your training week when running outdoors is particularly unappealing, inconvenient or even dangerous due to slippery conditions underfoot. Even if the biomenchanics of treadmill  running are subtly different from the road, the cardiovascular system will not know the difference and the same aerobic development with ensue. That said, it is better to monitor intensity by feel rather than heart rate if you are used to running more outdoors, as the two are not comparable for reasons mentioned earlier.

Haile Gebrselassie, one of the greatest runners of all time, would not be the first athlete that springs to mind when thinking about who uses the treadmill to improve running technique. Yet he has said that his preferred afternoon session, five or six days a week, involves a short session in which fluid movement and speed are the goals. These sessions may be very short, just 15 minutes long, but allow for a very controlled and predictable environment in which the sole focus can be on leg speed and technique. Because technique work is often best done in a way that allows immediate feedback (video or mirror) this is a session perfectly suited to the indoor gym environment. Next time you barely have the time for a decent warm up, opt instead for a session in which you focus on running tall, keeping your hips and feet directly beneath you with minimal forward lean and ground contact time. I can’t promise you a 2hour 4minute marathon as a result but smoother running is practically guaranteed.

If you prefer running on theroad than in an indoor environment, then fine. Treadmill running is not as important as ‘real’ running if your intention is to get faster in triathlons or running races because most of them are, after all, outdoor events and so you should prepare for them accordingly. That said, treadmills are excellent tools when utilised for specific objectives as they allow for a totally controlled environment. Where treadmills are concerned, savve triathletes should turn up the speed or incline but never their noses!

Read the previous article: Cold Weather Training - no excuses please.

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