Training Inside: treadmills, stair climbers, and other torture devices

Most runners I know don’t like training inside. They hate the treadmill, sometimes called the dreadmill or hamster wheel. I don’t like it either. However, there are times when training inside just makes sense – when it’s extremely cold, when you’re traveling, or when you’re recovering from an injury. Yes you can run on snow and ice, and many of you would much rather do that than spend time on a treadmill. Some workouts, speed work, are difficult, nearly impossible to do efficiently and safely outside when it’s very cold, you’re bundled in clothing, and the footing is questionable. There’s more than just the treadmill. Stair steppers are a great way to simulate hills, and low impact. Also consider ellipticals and spin bikes.

Treadmilll1

Treadmills
Running on a treadmill is running, though not quite the same as running on a road or trail. Treadmills take some getting used to – the feel of running in a confined space, running on a moving belt, and using the controls. Start slow (they typically start at a slow walk), getting used to the feel of running on a treadmill. Then play with the controls – adjusting the speed and incline – to get used to how they work, how quickly the speed and incline change, and adjusting the controls while running.

The treadmill forces you into a set pace. This can be beneficial, training your body to run a target pace, teaching you the mental discipline to keep a steady pace, and to stay focused for longer races. In 2000, Christine Clark won the US marathon trials, training almost exclusively on a treadmill, while living in Anchorage. With the trials in March, training outside through the Alaskan winter wasn’t practical. She used this strategy, going 17-18 miles at her target (5:30) pace. It’s hard to let your mind wander on the treadmill like it does outside; you have to maintain some focus to stay on the treadmill. If you find it hard to stay focused as long as you want to run, make minor, temporary variations in speed and/or incline for a break before returning to your target. It can also help to break a longer run into segments. For example, start with running for just 15 minutes. Then, once you’ve hit that target, shoot for another 15 minutes, then another, and another. Before you know it, you’ve hit your target of an hour or more.

Speed training can be difficult and unsafe to do when the air is frigid, you’re bundled in layers, and the footing is slippery. However, it can be quite effective on a treadmill. Many treadmills have pre-set interval programs that automatically adjust speed and incline. Some allow you to program your own custom programs. Personally, I prefer making my own changes manually. It takes a bit of practice to change the settings, especially while running hard. Although I never hold on while running, sometimes I’ll briefly put my on hand on the rail or panel while I’m changing speed/incline. Note that it takes several seconds change the settings, and for the belt to move to the new settings.

It’s easier to do intervals on the treadmill by time, rather than distance. The time display is usually more prominent than distance, and it’s easier to start on and keep track of whole and half minutes, than fractions of a mile. Because of the act of changing the settings, and the fact that it takes a few seconds for the treadmill to adjust, longer intervals are easier than short sprints. For example, I might do 3:00 hard at 10mph (6:00/mi pace), with 1:30 recovery at 7mph (8:34/mi). Note that unlike a track, the speed up and slow down is gradual, and you’re not going to stop and/or walk. Tempo runs and tempo/cruise intervals are even easie because you don’t have to change the speed that often or that much. Short sprints are hard to doI don’t like to do intervals that are too short, typically not shorter than 2:30 hard, slowing it down by 2-3mph for the recovery interval.

Incline intervals can be fun, and are a good way to train for hills. I’ll stay at my long run speed, crank the incline up to 10% or more, then see how long I can maintain my stride, perhaps a minute or two. There are fewer button presses and a quicker adjustment with incline vs. speed changes, so this is a way to simulate short intervals. I simulate striders this way, as my last warm-up before starting an interval workout.

For most, running on a treadmill is easier than the roads at the same speed. Although, some of you might find it harder, depending on your stride efficiency. If you’re new to treadmill running, start at a slower pace than you would run outside for a few minutes. Then, gradually increase the speed. As you approach your normal outdoor pace, see how it feels compared to outside. Find the speeds that match the feel, not necessarily the pace.

Most treadmills display speed in mph rather than min/mi. You may need to make the calculation in your head. See my conversion table below.
MPH Min/Mi MPH Min/Mi MPH Min/Mi MPH Min/Mi
4.0 15:00 6.0 10:00 8.0 7:30 10.0 6:00
4.1 14:38 6.1 9:50 8.1 7:24 10.1 5:56
4.2 14:17 6.2 9:41 8.2 7:19 10.2 5:53
4.3 13:57 6.3 9:31 8.3 7:14 10.3 5:50
4.4 13:38 6.4 9:23 8.4 7:09 10.4 5:46
4.5 13:20 6.5 9:14 8.5 7:04 10.5 5:43
4.6 13:03 6.6 9:05 8.6 6:59 10.6 5:40
4.7 12:46 6.7 8:57 8.7 6:54 10.7 5:36
4.8 12:30 6.8 8:49 8.8 6:49 10.8 5:33
4.9 12:15 6.9 8:42 8.9 6:44 10.9 5:30
5.0 12:00 7.0 8:34 9.0 6:40 11.0 5:27
5.1 11:46 7.1 8:27 9.1 6:36 11.1 5:24
5.2 11:32 7.2 8:20 9.2 6:31 11.2 5:21
5.3 11:19 7.3 8:13 9.3 6:27 11.3 5:19
5.4 11:07 7.4 8:06 9.4 6:23 11.4 5:16
5.5 10:55 7.5 8:00 9.5 6:19 11.5 5:13
5.6 10:43 7.6 7:54 9.6 6:15 11.6 5:10
5.7 10:32 7.7 7:48 9.7 6:11 11.7 5:08
5.8 10:21 7.8 7:42 9.8 6:07 11.8 5:05
5.9 10:10 7.9 7:36 9.9 6:04 11.9 5:03

You may have heard that you need a 1% incline to be the same as running outside. The amount of adjustment partially depends on how fast you run. A 1% incline will offset the lack or wind resistance for many mid-pack runners, about 8:00-10:00/mi pace. Faster runners generate more wind resistance so would need a higher incline, and slower runners might not need any. Any adjustment also depends on how efficent your stride is on a revolving belt vs. a stationary road. There are some benefits of not making any adjustments. Spending some time running at a slightly faster than normal speed trains your body to move at a faster speed. See my How to Run Fast article.

If necessary, you can step off the side. Most treadmills have non-slip pads on both sides of the moving belt. However, before stepping back on, stop, or significantly slow the treadmill speed before stepping back on. Stepping on a rapidly moving treadmill belt can result in a nasty fall.

Stair Steppers
Stair stepper machines are the closest non-treadmill machine to running. They provide a great simulation of hill running. They’re also good when you need some low impact training. I used them frequently when recovering from my last ankle surgery, and when I had a calf strain. It allowed me to run without the stress of landing (using the type where the foot platform goes up and down, not the type with rotating stairs). It’s easy to get your heart rate up, so it’s good for a tempo workout. Use the handrails as little as possible, and only for balance, not to support your weight.

Ellipticals
I don’t like elliptical trainers. While the leg rotation is similar to running, it’s not running. There’s resistance in the wrong spots – namely at the top of the stride, which makes it feel like you are striding way in front of your body. Also, the kick back (follow through behind you) is too short. They can be good if you are recovering from an injury and need a low impact workout, but I prefer stair steppers.

Spin bikes
Biking is biking, and running is running. However, biking builds strength (i.e., good for hills), is good cross-training (i.e., builds strength in areas that running misses), and is low impact.

The term “spinning” means different things to different people. The term comes from bike racing, where it means using an easy gear at a high cadence. It’s often done in warm-up, cool-down, or on recovery days to help loosen up sore muscles. It can mean a lot of different things at a health club, and a spin class can be a lot of different things. Some spin classes simulate training on a real bike. A number of bike shops offer classes where you bring your own bike and ride it on a trainer (either your own, or one provided by the store). However, a lot of health club spin classes are different than riding a bike outside where the bike just happens to be a tool for fitness training. Either way, it can be a good workout.

If you’re new to spin bikes, get there early and spend a couple of minutes adjusting the bike. Set the seat height so that your legs are not quite straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke – most of your power is as your legs are straighter, but going completely straight, or even hyper extending the knee, can be damaging. Adjust the seat forward and back, and the handle bars up and down, so that it feel comfortable. As you move the seat forward and back, this will change the distance to the pedals, so you may have to readjust your seat height. Test it out both seated and standing (some spin drills call for you to stand while pedaling). Play around with the resistance knob to see how different resistances feel sitting vs. standing. Heavy resistance may affect the fit and feel. If you’re new to cycling, you’re likely to start out more upright than experienced riders, and adjust to be more bent over over time. If you’re an experienced rider, but new to spin bikes, note that it’s hard to get a spin bike to feel like your regular bike.

Be smart. Train smart.

Adam

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