Depending on who you talk to, the consensus in relation to treadmill running is that it’s not quite the same as running outdoors. To a certain extent, I’ll buy that position. On a nice day, I prefer to put my sneakers on and go for a run on one of the routes I’ve mapped out around my neighborhood. That said, the treadmill has quite a few benefits that are too often overlooked by those that turn their nose up at a good treadmill session. They’re safe, especially in high-traffic urban areas; they act as a perfect pacer for high-intensity interval training; and they fill in more than adequately when the weather just won’t cooperate.
I have used the treadmill for all of these reasons. But I also use them for a couple of other reasons. Namely, to work on my speed and my form.
A couple of caveats – I don’t use the treadmill for long runs and I usually vary the speed even for short efforts.
Again, I’ve read differing opinions on the value of treadmills from a form management perspective. I suspect that in the majority of cases, any change in form is down to pure luck rather than an specific intent. For me though, it’s a conscious effort. The gym I visit has the treadmills located on the second floor, in front of a row of windows overlooking the street below. While this provides the obvious distraction while churning endlessly, I have taken to studying my form through the reflection in the window. I regularly observe arm position and movement, kick height, foot rotation, strike position, and a few other general factors during speed intervals and recovery stints. During every run my body is sending messages, telling me how it’s doing and providing early warning signs for problems. I find it very useful to have a visual companion to these messages, another frame of reference to help isolate and change potential problem areas early.
The other case for using a treadmill has become far more relevant over the last year or so. I’ve read a lot about muscle memory across a number of contexts, and really wondered how this phenomenon could be applied to running. I had reached a performance plateau where I wasn’t getting any benefit from outdoor runs in terms of an increase in average speed. Each run would be the same as the last, with only slight variations in the average and total time for the route. I thought about muscle memory and decided to spend a couple of weeks running on the treadmill at a pace 15-20 seconds per mile faster than my current average pace. Following the half dozen or so sessions, I ran the outdoor route again. And this time there was a noticeable difference in average pace and total time. I’ve run the same route a couple of times since then and have managed to maintain my new average pace. I realize this is not exactly a scientific experiment, but it certainly opened my eyes to another use for treadmills.
Over the next couple of weeks I plan to alternate indoor treadmill sessions with my outdoor route to see if the advances I have made hold. In a month or so, if everything is still good, I will try to up my pace again and see how it goes.