To most runners, the treadmill feels like a hamster wheel for humans. It’s monotonous. It’s boring. It feels as if each mile takes an hour. Who would want to tackle that beast when you can get out in the fresh air for your run?
Depending on where you live, running outdoors can be challenging. This is especially true if you run in the predawn or post-sunset hours when visibility is limited. Perhaps snowmageddon just rolled through your part of the country, or ice has made roads and sidewalks treacherous. Summer heat and humidity can be difficult too — and they certainly affect performance.
When weather poses a challenge, the often-maligned treadmill can be your best friend. Rather than skipping a workout, moving it to the treadmill means that you’re able to continue with training uninterrupted. And, with a little creativity, the treadmill can be a lot more tolerable than you might think.
While there is a wide variety of workouts that can be done on the treadmill, we’ll focus on two specific types here: fartlek and hill workouts.
Both of these can be used to train for just about any type of race you may have on your schedule or help you improve your overall fitness if racing isn’t your priority. Before you begin any of these workouts, always start with an easy mile or two to warm up, and finish with more easy running to cool down.
What’s a Fartlek Workout?
If you aren’t familiar with the term fartlek, it’s a Swedish word that simply means “speed play.” Fartlek workouts can vary from short and unstructured to longer, more complex efforts, depending on your fitness level and training goals.
They’re a perfect fit for the treadmill because there are endless ways to vary your pace using shorter and longer intervals, and they help the miles fly by.
Workout 1: Fartlek Fun
If you have never tried a fartlek workout, keep it simple and fun. Fartleks are supposed to be about both speed and play. If you’re on the treadmill, chances are you have access to a TV or music. You can use TV shows, commercials, songs or sporting events to inspire you to add some speedier running to your time on the treadmill.
Here are a few options:
- Run easy/steady while watching a TV show, and pick up the pace to a comfortably hard effort during the commercials.
- Go with the music: Crank up your favorite playlist, and pick up the pace during the chorus.
- Sports fan? Alternate easier and harder efforts between batters while watching baseball, or pick up the pace during every first down play while watching football.
Workout 2: Simple Fartlek Intervals
Fartlek intervals are a fantastic introduction to faster running (especially if you’ve already been running strides). If you have avoided speed work for several months but have a 5K rapidly approaching, fartlek intervals are a safe and effective way to get your body used to speed again.
There are endless options for this type of workout, and the beauty of fartlek intervals is that you can make them easier or harder based on the interval length, pace and amount of rest. Here are some possible variations of simple fartlek intervals that get increasingly more challenging:
- 10 x 1 minute at 5K pace with 2 minutes easy running in between.
- 6 x 2 minutes at 10K pace with 2 minutes easy running in between.
- 8 x 3 minutes at 10K goal pace with 90 seconds easy running in between.
Workout 3: Ladder & Descending Fartlek Intervals
If you’re looking to take your workout up another level, you can add some pace variety to your fartlek session. Ladder intervals give you the opportunity to work at a variety of paces that change with the length of the interval:
- Ladder interval: 1-2-4-2-1 (minutes) with recoveries that are the same length as the intervals. Run the 1-minute intervals at 5K pace, the 2-minute intervals at 10K pace and the 4-minute interval at tempo pace. If you want to do multiple sets, run 3–5 minutes easy in between.
- Descending interval: 6-5-4-3-2-1 (minutes) with 1/2-length recoveries. For the 6-minute interval, you’ll run 3 minutes at recovery pace; for the 5-minute interval, you’ll recover for 2:30, and so forth. This workout starts at tempo pace for the longest interval and then gradually gets faster as the intervals get shorter. Each interval should be run at a pace that is about 10–15 seconds faster than the previous one.
How to Run Hill Workouts on a Treadmill
The treadmill may seem like an unlikely place to hit the hills, but depending on where you live, it can be an excellent resource. Maybe you’re surrounded by flat terrain but need to train for a rolling half-marathon. Or maybe you’re looking to build some strength and kick your fitness up to the next level.
Either way, the treadmill can help. As with fartlek workouts, there are endless varieties of treadmill hill workouts you can do if you get a little creative.
Here are several to get you started:
Workout 1: Fast Climbs
Hills have often been called speed work in disguise, and for good reason. Hill repeats help you build the strength necessary to make you a faster, more efficient runner. Short, steep, fast climbs like the following workouts are particularly effective at accomplishing this:
- 6 x 1-minute climbs at 5K effort with 2–3 minutes easy recovery. If you have never tried this type of workout on a treadmill, start with the incline at about 4–5%. More advanced runners can increase this to 6–8%. Because these are short, you may actually be able to run them at 5K pace, but if they feel uncontrollably fast, run them by effort level instead.
- 6 x 90-second climbs at 10K effort with 3 minutes easy recovery. These are a little longer and will definitely feel challenging. Adjust the incline as needed as you progress.
Workout 2: Endurance Climbing
Long, steady climbs on the treadmill are incredibly helpful to improve both mental and physical endurance. These workouts are especially useful when training for longer race distances such as a half- or full marathon.
Hill workouts can be run either by time or distance, depending on your preference. While the shorter repeats are easier to run based on time, longer intervals may lend themselves better to distance (or a combination of the two).
Here are a couple of possibilities:
- 6 x 1/4-mile climb with 3 minutes easy recovery. These should be run at a slower pace and slightly lower incline than the intervals described above. Start at about 3% incline, and try to hold your pace. This should feel more like a threshold effort that is “comfortably hard” and sustainable for the duration of the interval. If the effort feels too easy, you can increase the incline.
- 4 x 1/2-mile climb with 5 minutes easy recovery. These are a little longer but also have a lengthier recovery interval. As described above, run these by effort and increase the incline slightly as you progress.
Workout 3: Hills/Race Pace Combination
If you’re looking to push yourself, combining hills and race-pace specific workouts can be an excellent challenge. If you’re new to running or just new to running harder workouts, you may want to start with some of the simpler workouts first and build up to these. As with some of the longer hill intervals described above, these are particularly effective when training for a hilly marathon:
- 8 x 2–3 minutes at tempo pace at 4% incline with 2 minutes easy recovery. Focus on holding your pace and maintaining your form throughout the interval. The first couple of repeats may not feel too challenging, but they will get increasingly more difficult.
- 5 x 4–5 minutes at goal marathon pace at 4% incline with 2 minutes easy recovery. If these feel manageable, you can increase the incline slightly for the last 1–2 repeats.
While the treadmill may never be your ideal place to log miles, it can be a useful tool to avoid skipping a workout altogether when the weather makes running outdoors too challenging. The key to effective (and happier) treadmill workouts is lots of variety to make the time go by quickly, and both fartlek and hill workouts are an excellent way to accomplish this.
The beauty of the treadmill is also that the workouts described here can be easily customized with the touch of a button. Increase or decrease your pace and incline to get the workout that best suits your training and ability level.
Learning how different efforts feel will also help you dial in your race pace more effectively, helping you run faster on race day.