Winter poses a training conundrum for many runners. Popular spring races (most notably the Boston Marathon) require long runs in January through March, which are often cold, snowy, and icy months in most of the country. The treadmill isn’t the desirable option for most runners. But when negative windchills, icy streets, and snowstorms are not safe running conditions, especially when you plan on running outside for 2 hours or longer. These tips will help you in completing your treadmill long runs this winter…without going stir-crazy, losing motivation, or getting muscle cramps from the physical monotony.
Running outside in winter certainly has its benefits. The fresh air and vitamin D will help you stay healthy and in a good mood during the winter months, especially since being stuck inside increases your risk of catching a winter cold. But running outside isn’t always safe or realistic in the winter time…which means even the most hardcore outdoor runners will need to embrace (or at least tolerate) the treadmill during winter.
Running on the treadmill for 3-5 miles is no problem for most runners – especially if you have an interesting treadmill workout to do. But the monotonous physical and mental repetition of the treadmill can cause significant boredom when you’re running 10 or more miles. And if you’re doing a 16-20 miler to prepare for your spring marathon, treadmill running can feel downright torturous for that long.
That said, sticking to your training plan and getting your long run done is far better than skipping out on your long run. Treadmill long runs can be successful and possibly even enjoyable if you approach them with the right attitude and a plan to keep them interesting.
How to Survive (and Enjoy) Treadmill Long Runs
Focus on the Benefits
While outdoor long runs teach you how to pace, provide hills to build strength, and offer varied scenery to keep you entertained during your run, treadmill long runs can have their benefits as well.
- Hydration and Nutrition: Most outdoor water fountains are shut off in winter so the pipes don’t freeze. Handheld water bottles and fuel can freeze, leaving you risking dehydration and bonking on your 20 miler. By doing your long run on the treadmill, you can keep your water bottle and fuel on the console so you stay hydrated and energized.
- Injury Prevention: A primary goal of marathon or half marathon training is to make it to the starting line of a race healthy and ready to run. A bad fall icy roads can lead to injuries that will stop you from running for a few weeks or even a few months. By taking your long run inside, you reduce the risk of slipping when your legs are tired and your form may deteriorate later in the run.
- Better breathing: Cold air can irritate asthma and other breathing issues. By running inside, you breath better and stay healthy during winter running.
- Acclimatization: Training for a destination race? Treadmill long runs can simulate the warm environment of a Texas or Florida spring race when you are training in New England or the Midwest.
Variety is the Spice of Treadmill Running
Once you wrap your mind around the benefits, the treadmill can be a bit more mentally palatable. You still want a game plan for how to make it through 10-20 miles on the treadmill, since running at the same pace and incline for the whole duration could cause imbalanced muscle fatigue, poor muscle activation, and boredom.
- Vary the Incline: When you run outside, the incline varies naturally and this works different muscles. On a treadmill, running on the same incline for 90 or more minutes will cause repetitive stress on the same muscles. Varying the incline mimics outdoor running, which prevents cramps and muscles imbalances during a long run. When running on a flat treadmill, you may rely on your calves and quads instead of glutes – but glutes are the true powerhouse of running! Uphill running will help you activate your glutes on the treadmill. Try changing the incline every few minutes or, if you’re feeling ambitious, download your race’s course profile and mimic the hill climbs as best you can.
- Add Surges: I have many of my athletes use surges to add variety and interest to treadmill runs. Surges add just enough faster running to improve your cadence and provide mental stimulation without turning a long slow distance run into a hard workout. Surges should last only about 30-60 seconds and can be done every mile or so. You don’t have to sprint these – simply increasing the pace even just 30 seconds/mile will suffice. Surges aren’t about being precise in pace or frequency – they are about having fun on a long run.
- Hard Long Runs: Once you’ve completed a few long distance races, you can move beyond the long slow distance run in your training. Of course, easy paced long runs will still comprise about 50% of your long runs, but hard long runs will offer the double benefit of avoiding treadmill boredom and improving your speed and endurance. Some of my favorite hard long runs include segments at a goal race pace or fartlek-style intervals during the middle miles.
One final note: avoid comparing your pace on the treadmill to your pace outside.Both the terrain of the outdoors and the monotony of the treadmill can affect perceived exertion, so while the treadmill may be physically easier, it could be mentally more challenging. Some runners are faster on the treadmill, while some runners are faster outside.
Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!
Do you run on the treadmill more in winter?
What’s the longest run you’ve ever done on the treadmill?
Where do you draw the line for running outside in winter?