Can You Train for a Marathon on a Treadmill?

You can definitely train for a marathon on a treadmill. Whether you use the treadmill as a training tool for specific marathon speed workouts or even do all of your marathon training runs a treadmill, lots of people successfully prepare for marathons using treadmills.

Given the choice, I would personally rather run outside. However, as Nate from The Run Experience explains in the video above, sometimes running on the treadmill is the most practical option.

If you’re training for a spring marathon example, and those dark winter’s nights create safety issues, then you may feel safer running indoors on the treadmill.

Similarly, if you live somewhere where the weather is either extremely hot and humid, or cold and icy outside, then completing your marathon training plan on a treadmill is often the only realistic option!

Occasionally, circumstances dictate that treadmill training is your only option for marathon training. I’ve worked with off-shore oil rig workers and even submariners who have successfully used the treadmill to train for their marathons.

However you choose to use a treadmill for your marathon training, there are some training tips you should consider.

In this post, I’m going to share with you five of my favourite treadmill running tips, to help you get the most from your marathon training.

Five Tips for Marathon Training on a Treadmill

If you choose to use a treadmill for your marathon preparation, there are a number of key points you should consider to make sure you get the biggest benefit possible from this training tool:

1. Best Treadmill Settings to Simulate Running Outside

Experienced runners will often say that running on the treadmill and running outside are two quite different things!

For starters, outside running means you’re experiencing “drag” or wind resistance, while on a treadmill you’re effectively running-in-place and not pushing forwards through the air.

In an effort to correct for this lack of wind resistance, researchers have suggested that you run on the treadmill at an incline of 1% to reflect the energetic cost of outdoor running.

However, this 1% figure doesn’t take into account the biomechanical effect of running on a moving belt…

Treadmill incline benefits for stronger running

The benefits of adding a slight incline to your treadmill running go beyond making-up for wind resistance.

Let me explain:

When you’re running outside, you have to produce the effort with your glutes and hamstrings to drive yourself forwards overground with each stride. Comparatively, the constantly moving treadmill belt potentially does much of this propulsive work for you.

I usually advise runners planning to train for a marathon on a treadmill to increase the incline to a minimum of 3% for their “flat” runs. This additional incline will force the runner to work a little harder through their glutes and hamstrings while running on the treadmill.

This helps to prepare their legs for the demands of running outside come marathon day!

If you have a history of knee pain, particularly patellofemoral syndrome, you may well find that adding an incline to your treadmill running workouts helps to prevent your knee pain. This is because it’s significantly harder to over-stride when running uphill.

Of course, the biggest challenge when adding extra incline to your treadmill running workouts is that your pace will have to be slowed a little to accommodate the incline.

I would suggest setting the speed of the treadmill based on effort, rather than sticking rigidly to the desired speed, as if the treadmill was still flat.

Can you train for a marathon on a treadmill?

2. Treadmill Speed Workouts for Marathon Training

Another positive about running on the treadmill during marathon training is that you can be super specific about your speed training workouts. Normally the treadmill will display all the data right in front of you.

Many treadmills will even allow you to program specific workouts, which they will then deliver for you. All you have to do is run and keep-up!

Here’s a selection of marathon specific speed workouts you are free to try on the treadmill:

Treadmill Intervals

This kind of marathon speed workout is the stable of many marathon training plans, and can easily be adapted for treadmill running:

  • 10 minutes easy effort running warm-up on 1-3% incline
  • 6 x 3 minutes at 5km race pace on 3% incline
    (90 seconds walking recovery between reps)
  • 5 minutes easy effort running cool-down on 1-3% incline

Treadmill Incline Pyramid Workout

I love this quote: ”Hills are speedwork in disguise” – Frank Shorter

Hilly workouts are great for both building speed and strength in your legs. A particular favourite for runners who don’t feel like they’re good at pushing themselves to run fast during interval sessions on the flat.

  • 10 minutes easy effort running warm-up at 1-3% incline
  • 2 minute reps at 5km race effort on 6, 8, 10, 12, 10, 8, 6% inclines
    (60 seconds walking recovery at 1% incline between all reps)
  • 5 minutes easy effort running cool-down at 1-3% incline

Progressive Tempo Workout

This treadmill running tempo workout is great for developing your lactate threshold, training your body to be able to run faster for longer.

  • 5 minutes easy effort warm-up on 1-3% incline
  • 15 minutes at target marathon pace on 3% incline
  • 10 minutes at half marathon pace on 3% incline
  • 5 minutes at 10km race pace on 3% incline
  • 5 minutes easy effort cool-down on 1-3% incline
Strength Workouts for Distance Runners >>
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3. Long Marathon Training Runs on the Treadmill

The reality of training for a marathon on a treadmill is that you’re going to need to complete your long training runs, no different to if you were training outside.

The distance of your longest marathon training run will largely be dictated by your experience and marathon goals. In the beginners’ marathon training plan I usually give first-timers, the longest long run is 18 miles, for example.

When running outside, there are always lots of different sights and sounds to keep your brain occupied. This distraction helps the long slow miles pass quickly. However, on the treadmill boredom can quickly set-in.

I find audiobooks and podcasts work well to distract my mind when running a long run on the treadmill. Experiment with different tactics – perhaps for you, music might be the answer.

One of the major positives about doing your long marathon training runs on a treadmill is the easy availability of drinks and nutrition.

If you were running outside you’d have to take your long run nutrition and drinks with you, but on the treadmill, you can have your supplies at easy reach.

Here’s a video on long run nutrition you may find helpful:

4. Practice Your Target Marathon Pace on the Treadmill

In any marathon training plan, the long run is a key session of the week. These are the sessions where we become more aerobically efficient and build the endurance needed to run the 26.2 mile distance. It’s important not just to get the miles in, but also to pace your long run correctly.

Many runners have a tendency to run their long runs too fast. Remember: the majority of your long run mileage should be slower than your target marathon pace.

That said, the closer you get to race day, the more important it is to practice running at your target marathon pace!

The good thing about running on a treadmill is how specifically you can set the speed of the treadmill to hit the desired training pace.

So, let’s say you have a 16 mile run on the treadmill planned.

You could do:

  • 16 miles at your “easy” long run pace

…or you could include some blocks of target marathon pace running.

  • 5 miles at your “easy” long run pace
  • 2 miles at target marathon pace
  • 2 miles at your “easy” long run pace
  • 2 miles at target marathon pace
  • 5 miles at your “easy” long run pace

…or you could structure your treadmill session as a fast finish long run.

  • 12 miles at your “easy” long run pace
  • 4 miles at target marathon pace

This kind of long marathon training run on a treadmill also makes your time spent running indoors a little more mentally stimulating. Always a good thing!

5. Practice Good Treadmill Running Technique

There are a number of running technique coaching points to think about specifically when running on a treadmill, as some runners tend to adopt a slightly different running style on the treadmill, in comparison to running outdoors.

Here are some of the main points to consider:

Ensure you have room for a normal running arm swing

It’s important that you don’t run too close to the main treadmill console. Runners who position themselves too far forward on the machine tend to get too close to the treadmill console.

This often impedes their ability to use their arms with the same natural swinging action that they would use if running outdoors. Sometimes this results in excessive tightness through the shoulders when running. Not something you need when running on a treadmill for three hours!

Here’s a tip for any runner who struggles with tight shoulders: How to Run with Relaxed Shoulders

If you find yourself running too far forwards on the treadmill, and you think you might be doing so in an effort to avoid drifting back and falling off the end, use the clip-on safety cord as an extra precaution.

Keep your head up and look ahead

The temptation for many runners new to running on a treadmill is to look down at their feet. Your head is heavy, and as soon as you crane your head forward to look down, the rest of your posture will change.

When you’re doing your marathon training workouts on a treadmill, be aware of your posture and head position. Try to run tall and keep your head up, looking forward.

Of course, it’s fine to glance down from time to time, to check your position on the treadmill, but just remember to look straight back up again!

On a related note, if you’re running in a gym with monitors positioned in front of the cardio area showing various TV programs, be careful. Running with your attention offset to the left or the right is a recipe for falling off the treadmill!

If you want to watch TV while you run, be sure to pick a treadmill with the monitor you want to look at straight ahead of the machine!

Listen to your footfall

Running on the treadmill provides a unique opportunity to better hear how your feet are landing on the deck of the machine. If you listen as you run, you’ll be able to hear whether you’re running heavily and pounding the treadmill, or maintaining a light footfall.

The goal should be to run gently, with short quick strides that come from having a sufficiently quick running cadence for the given pace.

If you hear a loud foot contact with each stride, take this as a hint that you may be over-striding and need to increase your cadence by making shorter quicker strides.

If you’d like to learn more about proper running technique, check out this previous article which provides tips to help you improve your running style.

So, you now know that you can train for a marathon on a treadmill. I’m sure that with the tips in this article, you’ll be able to use the treadmill to effectively train for your upcoming running goals.

Good luck!

Last updated on September 26th, 2019.
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