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Treadmills: A Primer

2000 Jim Fiore, all rights reserved

(A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in SpliTimes issues 14/1, January, 2000, and 14/2, February, 2000)

Part 1

Friends, I am here to spread the good news. I have seen the light, and in the winters of Upstate New York, thy name is Treadmill. Call me a convert, call me a human hamster (a humster?), call me that or worse, but just don't leave me without a working wall socket in January.

Our winters pose certain conditions on the local runner that those of warmer climates never experience (or appreciate). Mind you, I'm the first person out the door on a still, bright morning following an overnight powdering of Lake Ontario's finest. Unfortunately, not every day is a page out of Currier & Ives. Some might brag about the intestinal fortitude required for a 6 miler in windy 10 degree weather. Others might joke about the lack of brain cells for the same. Some stick it out, others hibernate. The humster heads for the rotating belt!

There are plenty of good reasons to consider using a treadmill. I'm going to talk about a few of them in this first part, along with a few pointers on what to look for in a home treadmill. In the second part of this article, I'll share a few of my favorite treadmill tricks and workouts.

The most obvious reason to use a treadmill is to get out of the cold. Like many of you, I really enjoy walking around on those extreme 20 below mornings (you know, the kind that makes that funny scrunching noise as you step on the snow, or that makes your nostrils stick together like Velcro). On the other hand, running in those conditions is simply not pleasant. I always feel like some sort of polypropylene/Goretex pod.

There are several other good reasons to get off of the roads in the winter. First, if you're like most people and run either before or after work, you're probably running in the dark. Even with reflective gear, it's harder for drivers to see you. Compounding this is the fact that with the build up of snow banks, the shoulder soon disappears and there is little room for both driver and runner. The margin for error gets tighter as the winter drags on. Another important factor is footing. It is virtually impossible to do any sort of tempo or fartlek work on a snow-covered road without risking a fall or a muscle pull. Many people tend to shorten their stride or run in a more constricted fashion in order to keep their balance. This can lead to undesirable changes in form.

Treadmills remove all of those problems. In Treadmill World, the temperature is always comfortable. There's no wind. It never rains or snows. You never have to worry about a driver seeing you or a dog chasing you. There is no ice under your feet, and you don't have to dress like a pod. Beyond the weather considerations, you have complete control over hills (if any). You also have accurate renderings of pace, and the bathroom's never far away either.

Ahh, but Treadmill World is not perfect. Let's be fair about this. Some people find running on a treadmill to be the very definition of boredom. They simply cannot cope with the stultifying sameness of it all. There's that ever-present hamster-in-the-wheel image. If you're the sort of person who needs constantly changing visual stimuli, you may find that treadmills are not your best friend. If, in contrast, you're the sort of person who likes to "zone out" while they run, you'll probably adjust to a treadmill quite easily and become a regular humster. Whatever you do, don't judge treadmills by one or two workouts alone. Just about everyone feels a little unbalanced the first few times they hop on.

If you find that treadmill running is to your taste, you basically have two options: Join a gym, or buy your own. Purchasing your own treadmill maximizes your convenience but also takes a big bite out of your wallet. If possible, try a few workouts on a club or friend's treadmill before plunking down that credit card. Be aware that there may be certain club rules that you'll need to follow. For example, there may be a 30 minute maximum usage during busy hours. One nice advantage of using club treadmills is that you can do a workout with a friend (who's on a second unit), even if your friend is considerably faster or slower than you are.

If you decide to purchase your own treadmill, you'll quickly discover that there are two broad categories of motor-driven treadmills. The first group is commonly found in department stores such as Sears. These are usually priced in the $300 to $600 range. I have never used one, but I have heard that these are best suited to walking, not running. The second group starts at a little over $1000 and may run upwards to several thousand dollars. These are usually found in specialty fitness stores. Some names in this group include Landice, Pacemaster, Precor, and True. These treadmills are designed for serious day-in day-out use and come with a variety of features of interest to the runner. Here are some features to consider:

1) Wide range of speed control. The treadmill should be able to go from a slow walk (yes, you'll want it for cool-down or injury treatment) to at least 10 MPH. 10 MPH is 6:00 pace, and while you probably won't do a 10 miler that fast, you may want to do a little speed work from time to time. 11 MPH treadmills are also available (about 5:30), as are a few 12 MPH units (5:00 pace). I haven't seen any affordable treadmills that go faster than that, and I'm not sure that you'd ever want to (imagine falling off of it at full stride).

2) Elevation control. This is an absolute must if you want to simulate hills. Most good treadmills offer at least a 0 to 10 percent grade range. Some go higher and a few will even allow a couple of percent of decline. Keep in mind that a 10 percent incline is quite challenging. Elevation should be motor-controlled and accessible from the main panel while running. You should not have to stop the unit to change settings.

3) Programmability. This varies considerably. Some units only have pre-set programs. That's fine if you like what comes with the unit, but it's worthless if you don't. Most quality treadmills allow you to program workouts with variations of both speed and elevation. Warning: If you're the sort of person who's VCR is continually blinking "12:00", look for the type of programming that simply records your changes so that you can create and then repeat a workout.

4) Heart rate control. This normally requires that you wear a chest transmitter strap. The treadmill will alter speed and/or incline so that your heart rate stays in the specified zone. If you've never tried HR monitoring, it's very neat. For proper use, you do need to do a little work to find out such things as your maximum heart rate and target ranges.

Finally, consider the construction of the unit. Remember, you're going to be running many miles on this thing, so reliability is extremely important. Perhaps the most important component is the main drive motor. The general recommendation is a 2 HP or higher continuous rating (be wary of "peak", "short-term", or "surge" ratings). You are best off driving your treadmill from an outlet fed by a 20 amp breaker. This line should not be shared with any other appliance. If you need an extension cord, make sure that it is the heavy duty type, and as short as you can get away with. Also, NEVER cut off or "lift" the ground pin of a 3-wire plug.

For more information on specific treadmills, check out the reviews on the Runner's World web site (www.runnersworld.com).


Part 2

In this section, we're going to look at a few treadmill installation requirements and some favorite treadmill workouts. First, let's consider a few things about a home installation. Your location should have a level, stable floor that you don't care too much about and which is easy to clean. I've seen a number of sales brochures with treadmills sitting on beautiful hardwood floors in tastefully decorated rooms. For normal folks, this is probably not a good idea. The reality is that the treadmill may "creep" across the floor a bit during a workout, and that could mar your floor. (If creep is a problem, rubber mats are available.) Of course, you'll be sweating on everything within a few feet of yourself, so carpeting is usually out as well. If you're the typical five and a half to six footer, you'll want a minimum ceiling height of seven feet. Also, the area should be relatively dust-free. Airborne dust and grit tend to increase the friction in the motor-drive-belt system and shorten their life. Finally, the area should never get wet.

Given the above, I find that the basements of newer homes work well, particularly if they're of the partially finished variety. You really can't beat a painted concrete floor for ease of maintenance and stability, and nobody's going to care if it gets a little dirty from "belt and shoe dust". The floors also tend to be fairly level. All you'll really need is a 20 amp outlet for the treadmill, and a general-purpose 15 amp outlet for lights, fan, stereo, TV, or whatever electronic diversion you prefer (if any). It's best if you devote a single breaker to the treadmill since a quality unit can draw in excess of 1500 watts. If an extension cord is needed, get the heaviest, shortest one that will fit. Speaking of diversions, many people like to position their treadmill in front of a window. This is especially useful if you tend to feel closed-in.

Once you've found a good spot, set up the treadmill and get out a carpenter's level. If you're lucky, the running deck will be level front-to-back and side-to-side. If it's off by more than a percentage point or two you should either look for another location, or shim it. (Thin gum rubber sheeting works well for this.) If the shift is simply front-to-back, you may be able to compensate with the treadmill's elevation control. Finally, position a fan toward the front of the unit, directed at your head and torso.

Here are a couple of good treadmill tricks to remember. First, never trust the "calories burned" display if your unit has one. They almost always read too high. A good rule of thumb is that the average 150 pound runner will expend 100 calories per level mile. Heavier runners will expend a little more, and lighter runners a bit less. Also, there is little variation with pace (if you run faster, you'll be running for a shorter period. Your rate of energy consumption goes up, but overall energy usage is fairly constant.) Second, running on a perfectly level treadmill is easier than running on the roads since there is no air friction to overcome. A simple compensation for this is to add a small incline to your workouts. A one percent incline will work well for an 8:00 pace. The effect of air friction increases as your pace increases, so try a one and a half percent incline if your workout entails 6:00 pace (perhaps some speed work). An alternate approach would be to increase the speed by around fifteen seconds per mile. Finally, consider calibrating your treadmill. The actual speed may be off by several seconds per mile. To calibrate, place a small piece of brightly colored tape near the side of the belt. Using a tape measure, determine the length of the belt, being careful to keep the tape measure tight. Now, hop on the treadmill and set it for your typical workout pace. Using a stopwatch, count how many times the piece of bright tape goes by in a two to three minute interval. Do this twice and average the result. Convert this to a pace and compare it to the displayed pace. Use the difference as a correction factor for your workouts. If you're obsessive-compulsive, do this at several different paces since it can vary a bit.

Example: Your treadmill belt is 120 inches around (10 feet). You set the treadmill to 8:00 pace and count 195 passes in three minutes. That's 195 times 10 feet, or 1950 feet total in three minutes. To go one mile, the time is increased by the factor 5280 feet per mile / 1950 feet, or 2.7077. That's 2.7077 times three minutes, or 8.123 minutes, which is approximately 8:07 pace. In other words, your treadmill is slow by seven seconds per mile. So if you really want to go 8:00 pace, you should set the unit to 7:53 pace. This is in addition to any speed or incline adjustment you made for lack of air friction.

OK, what about treadmill-specific workouts? Here are a few to consider:

Tempo runs. These are great to do on treadmills since you have precise control over the pace and you are guaranteed an even effort. Tempo runs are also called lactate-threshold runs. The pace is usually around 15 seconds per mile slower than your 10k race pace. Alternate definitions are "comfortably hard" and "the pace you could just barely hold for an hour". Warm up with a couple of miles at your normal easy pace, then run 15 to 20 minutes at tempo pace. Finally, cool down with a mile or two at your easy pace.

Cruise intervals. These are very similar to tempo runs and also work your lactate threshold. Cruise pace is the same as tempo pace. After a warm-up, run two or three repeat miles at tempo pace with one minute easy pace breaks between each. Finish with a few miles at easy pace.

One minute hills. After a warm-up, set the treadmill for easy pace, but at a seven to ten percent incline. Run alternate minutes of flat then incline. This workout can also be done with a friend. Leave the treadmill at incline and take turns every minute. During the "off" minute, simply jog in place to stay loose.

Long hills. After a warm-up, set the treadmill to a four or five percent grade and run for three to five minutes. Return to flat and run at easy pace for a few minutes. Repeat three or four times and then cool down. The nice thing about this is that you get a good, even uphill without a punishing downhill.

Trades. This is not for the faint-of-heart. After a warm-up, set the treadmill to a six to eight percent grade at normal pace. Run for two minutes. Drop incline back to level and run for three minutes. Increase speed to 5k race pace and run for two minutes. Drop speed back to normal and run for three minutes. That makes one trade set. Note that each hill/speed trade takes 10 minutes. The hill effort and the speed effort should be similar. Repeat trades until your brain explodes or your legs fall off, whichever comes first.

Form work. There are two easy ways to check your form using a treadmill. The first is to set a full-length mirror directly in front of the unit and watch yourself as you run. Alternately, if you own a video camera, you can set it to the side or directly behind you. If you place the camera behind the treadmill at foot height, you can also check your foot plant to see if you're overpronating.

A parting word of caution: Treadmills work your muscles in a slightly different manner than normal road running. Also, they tend to be more forgiving when it comes to landing shock. When Spring arrives, gradually move back to the roads over the course of a few weeks to get acclimated.


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