The Treadmill Winter Blues

Hey everyone! I'm Allan Buccola, Physical Therapist and owner of Impetus Physical Therapy in Greensboro, NC. This blog post is dedicated to the polar vortex, inspired by all of the extreme cold we've been having over the past two weeks. Many of us despise going to the treadmill, especially while race training, but if ever there were a time to do so, it would be now! Here's how to get more bang for your buck. 

As my typical disclaimer goes, this blog post is intended to be educational, but not intended to serve as training or treatment advice for any particular individual. Please bear in mind that if you are reading this, I have not examined you and cannot say with any certainty that this is the right advice for you.

I'm not personally training for any races at the moment, just some maintenance runs a few times a week to stay strong and fit, but as it is the middle of February, Spring marathon season is underway. I know that many of you are finishing up those double digit long runs in preparation for marathons, 10ks and everything in between. The weather has not made this an easy ordeal.

Hitting the Greensboro lakeside trails this week with temperatures in the 20s has really felt lonely. I'm sure there are many of you out there who wish you could be outside running, and fewer who are brave enough to try. Most of us will resort to treadmill runs at the gym, so here are a few tips on how to get some great return on that investment.

I'll sheepishly call myself an ultra runner (long trail mileage junkie in the least), regularly seeking out races between 13 and 31 miles, but I have a confession. The longest mileage I've ever put in on a treadmill was 7 or 8 miles. The mere suggestion of hammering out some long slow distance on the treadmill seems like torture to me, books, movies, or podcasts be damned. Here are three different types of runs that you can try that continue to develop your cardiovascular fitness or VO2 max, and take merely a fraction of the time.

Interval Training

Interval training is a great way to prepare your legs for race day. Interval training is often characterized by choosing a set interval of distance or time, and repeating it a number of times at an intensity or pace that is slightly faster than your goal race pace, or at 80-90% of calculated max heart rate. I personally like to make my treadmill intervals time based, and the length of the interval depends on the race distance I'm preparing for.

 A 60-second interval is great for middle distance running, up to the 10k distance. A 2-minute interval is great for the half marathon distance, and for marathon distance and beyond, a 4 minute interval works great. If I am preparing for a race any longer, mile repeats are a great way to prepare but can be arduous. Intervals longer than this are really just tempo runs to me, and have little scientific evidence to demonstrate their value over the increased risk of injury from combined high-exertion and high-distance. 

What you chose to do in the period between the intervals is really up to you, and really depends on your workout goals. Some people like to perform a light recovery jog, others walk until their HR falls to a particular target. What ever you chose to do, keep moving! Abrupt stops after high intensity exercise put excess stress on the heart and may result in serious complications.

These are also a great way to help your body learn to deal with lactate more efficiently, so put your focus on effort here, not time. If you're doing these for the first time start with 2-3 max after a good warm up. Rarely is it advised nor significantly more advantageous to perform these at ore than a 90% effort. 

Hills Training

Hills are one of those devils, that everyone complains about after a race, but few adequately prepare for. Before I ran the Blue Ridge Marathon in 2012, I spent at least an hour each week working on the stair climber or running at an 8-10% grade. This made a huge difference in a race with 8000ft of vertical in 26.2 miles. 

Teaching the body to run hills means learning how to utilize different muscles (glutes and hip flexors for sure), and taking your joints (hips and ankles) through a range of motion that is likely a bit different than what you are used to. Variety is a good thing when trying to avoid overuse injuries. Running uphill also results in decreased impact forces on the body, which is totally a good thing, too!

There's no wrong way to do hills training, just try to simulate what ever you expect to encounter on race day, and don’t kid yourself: you'll probably be pretty darn tired when you do happen upon them. Hill work also helps to develop aerobic capacity, but in probably the least stressful way in terms of musculoskeletal or joint impact stresses. The treadmill offers an added plus for all of you folks living in the coastal plains. 

High Intensity Intervals

More and more evidence continues to emerge on the benefits of running these short distance sprints at 85-95% of calculated max HR. The thing that I love about them most of all is the ratio of cost to benefit. I can knock out 4-5 sprint intervals in about a 10 minute workout, and know that it will dramatically change my fitness level and running efficiency. This is real success on a day when I can't fit in the run I really had intended.

A word of caution for anyone trying these is to be cleared of any medical risks by your doctor first. High Intensity Training can be very stressful on the body, which isn't bad if you're a healthy individual, but should be approached with caution otherwise. If you've never done these before, start with 1-2 per session after a good warm-up and conservatively work your way up in subsequent workouts.

Doing these more than once or twice weekly may be asking for trouble in the form of muscle strains or tendinopathy. For more detailed info on high intensity interval training, check out another post I wrote about it in 2016. 

So there you have it! Can't take those 20 degree mornings in pure darkness? Don't want to lose all the fitness you've gained from training? Consider some of these options that work best for you. If may cure your abusive relationship with the treadmill after all these years!

Keep Moving!

-Allan