The treadmill is often a tool of last resort or a skipped training session altogether. If there is no part of you that wants to run on a revolving belt—I get it, but I will argue that it can be an effective means to an end.
Have an injury? A treadmill can provide less interruption to training by allowing athletes to move through injuries and lose little to no fitness in the process. The list of injuries isn’t short, and some types of running may be possible for certain injuries, while others may not. This is especially true when it comes to various grades of running. If flat or downhill running is tough, the treadmill can be kept at a steady incline without having to run downhill once the climbing is done. Anti-gravity machines such as the Alter-G and underwater treadmills are also effective tools for runners needing to return to full weight-bearing capacity slowly while continuing to engage the neuromuscular demands of the running gait. In conjunction with other machines such as a stationary bike, rowing machines, elliptical and ski-erg machines, treadmills can be interspersed for short amounts of time within a longer cardiovascular training session. For example, someone returning from plantar fasciitis could warm up on the bike, then transition to the treadmill and run (as long as there is no pain). If pain emerges, the athlete can immediately cease running and resume biking or switch to another option that is pain-free.
Whether we want to admit it or not, treadmills can also be a good use of time. For runners who travel frequently for work, stay in hotels when attending their kid’s sporting events or travel for other reasons, getting a quick, no-nonsense workout done on a gym treadmill wastes zero time. There’s no need to scout routes or deal with traffic when running in a new area. Additionally, not all outdoor options may be safe. Sometimes runners are the caretakers of other humans in need of constant supervision. In these situations, the treadmill provides safety for everyone and a workout at the same time.
For the brave souls who decide to sign up for a mountain race, and reside in the flatlands, a treadmill is a great option for improving climbing strength and endurance for sustained uphill efforts. Of course, it’s the downhill that typically creates a much higher level of muscle damage, and most treadmills don’t provide a steep enough downhill grade to elicit such adaptations. Still, the uphill advantage is inarguably a robust one when compared to the option of running with zero elevation gain outside.
Sometimes physiological fitness is ready for high intensity training. Not every athlete is familiar with pushing themselves to threshold or V02 intensity, and the mental hurdle becomes the stumbling block. A treadmill can force the intensity that the body might be ready for even if the mind is not there yet. Of course, this takes patience, experimenting and establishing safety as the highest priority. By no means am I suggesting you ramp up speed on the treadmill to 12 mph, step on and find out how long it takes until you’re spat off the back—please don’t do this. However, you can ease into it. With this approach, most athletes can use the treadmill to help them keep at a pace they may not be able to push themselves to without the aid of a machine. This can be especially true for runners that don’t have a training partner who can push them to that next level. In this case, a treadmill becomes an outstanding and very reliable training tool.
Again, I’m not trying to convince lovers of trails and the outdoors that they need to enjoy treadmill workouts. However, in refusing to see the value and take advantage of what treadmills offer, we could be shorting ourselves the opportunity for fitness improvements and even psychological growth. For those runners who need a tool in specific situations, it can be the perfect option.