Boost Your Marathon Performance with Treadmill Training


I admit that in my early racing years as a Professional Triathlete, I despised the treadmill. Living in Vermont, I spent many long hours sitting on an indoor bike trainer in my basement and swimming back and forth in a 25 yard pool staring at a black line. I avoided the treadmill at all costs. I ran outside in anything— rain, sleet, snow, 95 degrees, 0 degrees. So, you could imagine my frustration when at a winter training camp in Arizona, my coach had us meet at the local gym for a treadmill session. I was far from thrilled, but considering I had a former Ironman Champion lacing up next to me, I knew I had to give it a try. The workout was a killer, and there was no time to get bored. Since then, I have experimented with treadmill running in all phases of my training plan and have found it to be an extremely valuable training tool.  

If you live in the Northeast and plan to run the Boston Marathon or the Vermont City Marathon, you're probably aware of the fact that you'll have to train through some harsh winter conditions to achieve your goals. It’s common to hear all the winter war stories and the “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” quotes. Yes, mental toughness is an important component of marathon racing. However, if you want to achieve peak performance, your training plan must be based around the principle of specificity. Specificity refers to the type of changes the body makes in response to training. Very simply put, what you do is what you get. If you want to run a 3-hour marathon at Boston or VCM, you are going to have to run speed workouts at a 6 minute pace, threshold runs at 6:30 pace, and many long runs at a 7 minute pace. That’s hard to do when the ground is covered in snow and ice! There is a better way to train: enter the treadmill— formerly known as the “dreadmill”!

Below are my seven favorite treadmill workouts. I promise, you won’t get bored, and your fitness will soar.  

Steady State Runs

Purpose: During base training, it’s important to develop a strong aerobic engine. The goal is to prepare the body for the vigors of interval and threshold training. Running for 60 minutes at the same grade and pace is far from fun. To provide a mental stimulus to avoid boredom, include a series of builds where you alter your pace slightly while keeping the effort level in your desired steady state zone.  

The Workout: Wu: 15-20 min. easy + 4x10 min. building pace from the low end of your steady state pace to the high end every 2 min. Cd: 5 min easy.

Hill Reps

Purpose: Hill reps provide a great stimulus to the cardiorespiratory system, strengthening the legs and building lactic acid tolerance. I recommend injecting a strength progression into the prep phase for all athletes regardless of race distance. A hill progression will help build a solid foundation of strength to power you through your race specific training phase.

The Workout: Wu: 15-20 min. easy + 6x 20 sec. strides + 6-10x1-2 min. hill reps at 4-8% incline with 2 min. of easy running in between. Cd: 5 min. easy.

Progression Run

Purpose: The long warm up and the gradual build in pace reduces the risk of injury and helps build stamina and prevents the fade that commonly occurs in the last 10K of the marathon. I recommend adding a medium distance progression run to your weekly training schedule towards the end of your base phase and a long progression run of 18-22 miles in your race specific phase.

The workout: Run 3 miles easy in your endurance zone+ 6 mile progression starting at your marathon race pace and then for each mile, increase your speed by 5-10 seconds per mile so your last mile is at 10K pace. Cd: 1 mile easy.

Speed Intervals

Purpose: Speed training increases the capacity of all your body’s energy systems and should be included in most marathon training plans.  If injected properly into a training plan, faster 800’s will translate to a faster marathon. Speed workouts are quite taxing and, therefore, should be performed only after a solid foundation of strength and endurance have been developed.

The Workout: Wu: 2 miles easy + 4-6 x strides + 4-6x3-6 min. intervals at 5k pace to slightly faster with equal recovery jogs in between. Cd: 5 min. easy.  

Threshold Run

Purpose: Threshold training improves the lactate buffering system. The less lacate you have accumulating, the less fatigue you will feel and the faster you will be able to run. Threshold runs should be a staple workout in the race specific phase of a marathon training plan.

The Workout: Wu: 2 miles easy. 15 min. at marathon pace, 3 min. easy, 15 min. at half marathon pace, 3 min easy, 10 min. at 15k pace, 2 min easy, 5 min. at 10k pace, Cd: 5 min easy.

Race Simulation Long Run

Purpose: One of the unique benefits of the treadmill is the ability to simulate your goal race course. Many of the more advanced treadmills allow you to create the exact race course you’re training for. If you don’t have that option, manually adjust the incline levels based on the course profile. Have your race day nutrition plan outlined and all your fuel at hand. This is a great workout to test out your race day pacing and fueling plan.  

The Workout: Run at your endurance pace for 4-5 miles, then run 8-10 miles at your goal marathon race pace.  Cd: 1-2 miles easy.

On and Off Long Run

Purpose: The on/off long run workout is especially well suited for the treadmill as it’s very hard to replicate on the roads— particularly in the winter. The workout is very specific to the demands of marathon race day. The session builds stamina, strength, and feel for race pace. This is a taxing workout and should be alternated with marathon pace runs and long hilly aerobic runs.  

The Workout: Run at your endurance pace for 3-6 miles, then perform 10x4min. on/4’ off segments. Start out doing the on intervals at slightly faster than race pace and the off segments at your endurance pace. Progress by increasing the time of the on intervals and decreasing the off intervals. Then progress again by decreasing your on pace to marathon pace but increasing your endurance pace to 30 sec. per mile slower than marathon pace.  

Kim Loeffler, MS. is a former professional triathlete and marathon racer, with a stacked list of accomplishments— both as an athlete and a coach. Contact Kim to learn more about how she can help you achieve your goals.