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Using a Treadmill for Speed Training

The Hamster Wheel – Normally I do my track or speedwork on a grass field because the nearest tartan track is a fairly long drive away. We have recently had a lot of rain and  this would have resulted in my critical weekly session looking more like something out of a Bear Grylls documentary as I slogged my way through the swamp-like conditions. I live in a very hilly area and speedwork should ideally be done on flat terrain, so even the road would have not been suitable, even taking out the massive puddles and slippery corners. So nothing for it but to hit the gym and this got me thinking about some advantages of doing this kind of work on the treadmill.

My session was a set of 6 X 1200m building every 400m with 400m recovery done as 200m walk / 200m jog. This is a lactate and ‘discomfort’ tolerance session. The aim is for my heart rate to travel through my anaerobic threshold during each interval. The recovery period is not enough to allow the body to clear lactate sufficiently, causing a gradual build-up of hydrogen ions and lowering of the PH in the muscles. So the goal is to teach the body to become more efficient at clearing the lactate and teaching the mind to deal with discomfort associated with this kind of effort.

After doing this on the treadmill, I actually think that this session is better on the treadmill than on a track or field. On my field I use my perceived effort and the pace on my GPS watch to increase my speed every 400m. This is never smoothly done and often there is only a slight difference between the first 400m and the second and then a fairly substantial increase over the last one. GPS is not accurate when running on a small circuit like a track. Think about how much movement the satellite picks up when we are running in such tight circles. It can’t be accurate. On a measured track we can obviously take our splits every 200m or even 100m if you can fit that many numbers into your brain but this still doesn’t guarantee an even pace because there will inevitably be some slowing and accelerating to make the splits.

On the treadmill however, we can control this precisely. Granted, not every treadmill is perfectly calibrated as well, and when we are using one at the local gym, there will also be discrepancies between different machines as certain machined are used more than others and we can never be sure how well they are maintained. So if I was to continue with this block of speedwork on the treadmill at my local health club, I would definitely try to use the same treadmill each time, even if it means a bit of a wait, which may cause some troubled glances if there are others that are open at the time but a quality session is more important than a dodgy reputation and suspicious looks.

In my session I ran at a gradient of 1% because I thought that this would better simulate running outdoors. My logic was that, on a treadmill, we are keeping up with the speed of the belt rather than making it go but, after further research, I discovered that this is not really the case and that running on a flat gradient is fine. The best explanation given to me I think is this – imagine running on a massive aircraft carrier that is moving at 20kph. Even running in the opposite direction to direction the ship is moving, at a speed of say 15kph across the deck, would that mean that we are accomplishing that speed easier than we would on the road? No, because relative to the deck, we still having to generate our 15kph ourselves, not merely jumping in the air as the deck moves underneath us. Obviously taking into consideration wind resistance, which would actually make things harder.

Obviously using a piece of equipment like the Rebel Speed-Mill makes this kind of session even more ‘realistic’, for lack of a better word as we are essentially, running on a movable piece of ground and having to generate that pace ourselves.

Being able to control the speed precisely for every recovery period and then incrementally increasing speed for each 400m segment of my 1200m, made doing a session like this very specific. Now obviously, to cause the adaptations that we are looking for in these sessions, we don’t need that kind of accuracy but it is very useful when planning a block of sessions which gradually increase in intensity and are based on what we have done in the previous one, which is how most speed-work blocks should work.

So every interval was exactly the same as far as output went. Mentally the treadmill adds a positive challenge. You have nothing to concentrate on but holding good form and maintaining the constant speed as the metres tick down. I find that tougher than running on a track or field with milestones and corners. And as they say, “The harder the training, the easier the racing.”

The treadmill is probably my least favourite place to run but used in the correct way with the right session and it can definitely make a contribution to the training progression.

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