How to Get the Most Out of Your Treadmill Workouts

By Stephanie Case 

No one actually likes using the treadmill. It’s a machine that was designed for lab rats, not human beings. Running in place next to a bunch of other sweaty robots in a gym? No thank you. I would much rather be outdoors exploring new landscapes with the wind at my back and the sun on my face. Unfortunately, in my line of work, the treadmill often provides my only source of exercise. As an international human rights lawyer I tend to live in unsafe places like Afghanistan, South Sudan or my current home, Gaza. They are not exactly the best places to run around outside in my spandex (I am still waiting for Salomon to come out with a full body ninja running costume). I have come to accept the treadmill as a necessary evil in order to keep up my fitness.

While you may not live in a war zone like I do, if you are a busy person who likes to run, the treadmill is usually unavoidable. They might be boring but they do offer a convenient way to get a run done in a controlled environment. In order to help ease the pain, here are a few tips for getting the most out of your treadmill workouts:

1. Work On Your Technique

Admit it – when you’re running on the street and you pass by a row of store windows you check yourself out in the reflection, right? Don’t be embarrassed – your vanity can actually help you out in the gym. Being surrounded by mirrors throughout your entire run can allow you to pick out quirks in your technique that you might not have seen otherwise. Do you run with duck feet? Swing one arm out to the side? Bounce up and down too much? Try to evaluate your technique critically and work on changing one bad habit at a time.

Bonus tip: try to watch your technique from the front and also from the side so that you can see your form from different angles. If your gym or home treadmill is not set up with mirrors, ask a friend to film you from the front, from the side, as well as a close up on your feet from both angles. Videotaping yourself on a treadmill can give you or your physiotherapist some valuable feedback on your biomechanics.

2. Challenge Yourself

Treadmills are also great for doing speed work. By setting the machine at high speeds for discrete periods, you can push yourself to run at a pace you might not otherwise have tried. I find doing pyramid workouts to be a fantastic way to rev my heart rate and boost my cardio. For example, after a ten-minute warm-up, start with 5 minutes at a marathon pace, then 4 minutes at a half-marathon pace, 3 minutes at a 10 km pace, 2 minutes at a 5 km pace, and 1 minute at max speed before repeating this in reverse, ending with 5 minutes at marathon pace again.

Bonus tip: for my fellow adventurous travellers, if you are in a place with poor electricity, make sure to cover the front console of the machine with a pillow. Countless times I have run at full speed on a treadmill only to experience a power cut, prompting me to impale myself on the front of the machine. I have learned to protect myself (and my ribs) with proper padding using camping pillows or sleeping pads.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Treadmill Workouts


3. Come Prepared

To make my treadmill workouts go by as quickly and smoothly as possible, there are a few key items that I make sure to bring with me:

  • An iPad loaded with mindless television shows or a magazine to keep me entertained. Asia Trail helps me pretend I am not actually in the gym.
  • A quick-dry towel to avoid sweating all over the machine (and my peers). The Sea-to-Summit Dry Lite towel is a great option.
  • A water bottle.
  • A dry sac to put my sweaty gym clothes in after my workout. This is a much better eco-friendly alternative than using the plastic bags that gyms often hand out!
  • A duffle bag to keep all of my clothes, shoes and other gear together. I love The North Face Base Camp Duffel Bag. It’s sturdy, waterproof and great for outdoor adventures, too.

Bonus tip: Treadmills also allow you to test out new gear easily and conveniently. As someone who tends to chafe quite easily, I always like to test out a new running shirt or sports bra in the gym first before wearing it on a trail run. If my clothes start to bother me early on, I simply change to my old clothes in the locker room and hop back on the machine.

4. Bring a Buddy

Why torture yourself alone? Bring a friend. Not only can a friend help to pass the time, but he or she can also provide a bit of healthy competition. Our Romanian UN bodyguards just love it when I try to outrun them on the treadmill.

Bonus tip: if you cannot bring a friend with you, you can still help to motivate each other. Agree to do the same workout ahead of time – for instance, a 5 km run at your fastest speed or fastest 1 km run at 10% incline - and record your results at your convenience. This works best with a group of runners as you can have fun comparing stats over a period of time.

5. Mix It Up

There are a few creative ways to use the treadmill to engage different muscles groups. Here are some of my favorite fun treadmill exercises:

  • Backwards: start off facing backwards on the treadmill and set the speed on low. Increase slowly to a backwards jog. I like to do this on an incline, which is the closest I can get to mimicking running downhill indoors. It helps to engage the calves and hamstrings more than usual.
  • Sidestep: face the side of the treadmill, grab onto the handrail for balance if needed, and set the speed on low. Side shuffle as the belt moves underneath you, bringing your feet together and apart. Do not try to cross your outside foot in front or behind your inside foot as you side step – there is likely not enough room on the belt.
  • Power off: use the treadmill to help you do some dynamic stretching at the end of your workout. With the power off, grab the front of the machine or the side handrails and try to move the belt using your legs while taking big strides to stretch your calves. This can also be used to do some resistance training.