The Treadmill Revisited

Hopefully you have had a chance to read The Preface. It is important because that is the last time I did the majority of my running outside. When I look at those workouts I am quite impressed. If I am being completely honest, I’m not sure if I could do a single one of those workouts right now. I think the amazing part about those workouts, is that I did most of them with ease. For instance, on March 10th I did 3x5k w/3mR and went 15:51, 15:34, 15:24. Erin paced me in that workout, and I remember being able to chat with her for the first two repeats. On June 12th I had a training partner, one of Canada’s top middle distance runners, Connor Darlington, and we were supposed to start the workout with a 5km tempo run in around 15:50. That was pretty easy on my own, let alone with a training partner, so once we got started we realized that was just far too relaxed. We ended up running the 5km in 14:52 instead.

Your first thought might be that I was probably focusing mainly on running at that time, which allowed me to run faster. In all honesty though, I was doing a lot of structured bike riding then; about 6-8 hours per week, not much less than I do now (I average 10-12 hours per week now). As well, I was probably swimming more often then than now (30km/wk+ week in and week out). I was also in school full-time as well. I would say, I actually have less “life stress” now than I did then. The only vast difference now is that I do most of my running on the treadmill.

Before I present my conclusions I’d like to delve a bit more into the timeline. Up until winter 2012 I had done 99% of my fifteen or so years of running, outside. In winter of 2012 I got a gym membership and started doing the odd run on the treadmill. It started to get really cold in December, and I started doing progressively more runs on the treadmill. For January, February and a bit of March 2013, I did most of my running on the treadmill. I was preparing for Around the Bay, a 30k road race in Hamilton at the end of March, and I was unsure what kind of performance to expect of myself, having done most of the preparation on the treadmill. There, I ran 1:36:52 (equivalent to three sub 32:20 10ks in a row), and it is then that I think the seeds of the treadmill were planted. But, as the weather got nicer, I went back to doing all of my running outside, which consisted of many of the workouts presented in The Preface.

Throughout 2013 I did a whole bunch of road races, some of the better ones being 30:48 for 10k, and 1:06: 30 for half marathon (and that includes a stop into the washroom). I then had my professional triathlon debut at Muskoka 70.3, where I ran 1:10:58 in my first half marathon off the bike, after a very hard ride. I then went back to school and ran cross-country, all outside. In November of 2013 I was running on a downhill trail that was covered in ice. I lost traction at one point and my knee bowed inwards quite painfully. I vowed that day that running outside was too dangerous, especially through the winter, and that I would run on the treadmill from now on.

That was short lived though. I ran on the treadmill exclusively for December and January and then went to Tucson for the next 2.5 months. I had intended on running on the treadmill there too, but it was just too nice outside, and so I scrapped that plan and ran the next 2.5 months on the pavement. When I finally got back to Canada in mid-May I got my own treadmill. Old habits die hard though, and I still spent the next month or so, doing most of my runs outside. Finally, by mid June, I had converted all of my running over to the treadmill, even though it was Canadian summer. That year I didn’t do nearly as many pure running races, but I did do a lot of 70.3s. Some of my better runs off the bike were: 1:09:56 in Raleigh, 1:09:54 in Syracuse, 1:10:54 in Muncie, and 1:09:36 in Racine.

For the rest of 2014, I continued to do close to all of my running on the treadmill. In early 2015 I still was putting together some half decent running. In the beginning of the year I ran 1:13:12 off the bike in Oceanside, and I also ran 31:09 for a local 10k. But, admittedly, at least over the longer distances, and especially running off the bike, there seemed to be something missing. For the rest of the season, things just went down hill. In Galveston I ran 1:12:20. In Mont Tremblant I ran my season best 1:11:14, when pushed to the absolute limit for 10 miles of the run with Taylor Reid and Jesse Thomas. Then I ran 1:15:39 in Muskoka, and 1:15:46 in Racine. At Ironman Texas I ran 3:11:22 and at Ironman Mont Tremblant I ran 3:00:27. By this point, something was unmistakenly missing from my running. In 2014, I was running 1:09 off the bike pretty consistently, and in a race like Muncie, where I entered the lead 10k into the run, I was still able to run 1:10, having not pushed the second half insanely hard. Whereas in 2015, it took everything I had to run a 1:11.

The astute observer will recognize that I spent much of 2015 over-training, and probably over-racing as well. I do believe this played a role in the decrease in performance. But, regardless of the fatigue, there still was something missing in my running. Something that I had developed over the years, but that I was now forgetting. The only running I did outside in 2015, was in the 20 or so days that I spent in Kona, before the world championship race. One thing that I recognized on the run during the race in Kona, was that my accessory muscles seemed to be breaking down and fatiguing, and my running muscles were also starting to lock up, I believe due to the pounding of the pavement. In the final 10k of that race it was quite difficult to even move my legs.

That’s when I started to wonder whether exclusive treadmill training really was as great as I had originally thought. I decided in early 2016 that I would start doing a couple of runs every now and again, outside. Having done so much running on the treadmill for so long, I was probably hypersensitive to the differences between the two. There definitely was a quality in running outside, that was missing from the treadmill. It’s difficult to describe, but my best stab at it is this:

Outside, the propulsion must be created by one’s own effort. Once the propulsion is created, you can then sit at a particular pace and learn to relax, recruit muscles better, breathe better etc. which in turn reduces the perceived exertion at constant pace. You then can decide what to do with that decrease in perceived exertion, which if you’re interested in high performance running, the choice is often to increase the pace, and repeat the process all over again. It was through this process that I was able to get myself to a point in early 2013, where I could run 15:50 for 5 kilometers, and hold a half-decent conversation while doing it.

I’m not exactly sure why this process is much more difficult on the treadmill, but it is. In the last 1.5 years that I have spent running on the treadmill, I don’t really remember having the sensation described above. Whereas after a few runs outside, I get the sensation very quickly, and get better at the process quite rapidly. I think once you have learned to do something, it becomes easier to re-learn if you have forgotten it, so I would imagine this is at work here.

In 2016, especially towards the second half, I feel like I am finally starting to get back to the running I was doing in 2013/2014. The only change I have made is that I am doing 2-3 easy runs outside per week. I have not done a single interval workout outside this year, aside from a couple I did during a week spent in Florida in March. My last two runs off the bike were: 1:09:20 in Wiesbaden, and 1:10:34 in Mooloolaba (where admittedly this was a run for pride, and I feel could have been faster if it was for something more significant). In 2017, I will continue to test these ideas. I would like to start incorporating an interval workout a week outside, into the program as well. I don’t see any reason why the workouts listed in The Preface, cannot be attained again. If anything, I should be able to exceed those workouts, as I no longer have the stress of school in my life.

So, in summary, I am not saying that the treadmill is bad, or will inhibit performance. I think you can get in great shape off of exclusive treadmill running. Can you get into the best shape possible off of exclusive treadmill training? I don’t think so. But, keep in mind, there is always a trade-off. I think the more running you do outside, the higher your risk of injury. The pavement is hard, the treadmill is soft. I think the more miles logged on hard surfaces, the shorter your longevity in running, and the higher the risk of complications as time goes on. There is also lots of debris outside that presents the risk of sprained ankles etc. It doesn’t matter how great of shape you are in, if you are injured. I’m not sure of the exact ratio yet, but so far, I have a feeling a sort of 60-40 or 70-30 principle might be at work here.

In order to achieve your best run performance, with the least amount of risk I think you should do something like 60 or 70% of your running on the treadmill or another very soft surface, and 30 to 40% of your running on more solid surfaces, like the ones you race on, creating the forward propulsion yourself. Of course, there is a lot more depth here than meets the eye. If you don’t have a training partner, and you’re not great at pushing yourself, then I would take the treadmill any day over outdoors. The treadmill is great when motivation is low. Set the ‘mill to a challenging pace, and your incentive to keep going is that you don’t fly off the back. The treadmill is a great tool, and must be used appropriately.

Since my thoughts on the topic have changed, I thought it was appropriate to provide an update. It is often quoted that I do all of my running indoors, and this simply is no longer the case anymore. Thanks for reading.