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Marathon Preparation Training In AZ and the Treadmill

I am preparing to run the PF Chang Marathon here in Phoenix. I was wondering if it would be okay to do most of my training on the treadmill since it is hot out and I don’t always have time to run in the early morning. Thanks.

While training on the treadmill can be very convenient, there are a few reasons why it may not be the best option to do all the time for an individual preparing for a marathon. Obviously, on occasion treadmill running will not negative impact on your training. However, if you do the majority of your training on the treadmill, you may have a less than pleasant marathon experience.

There are a number of differences between the treadmill and outdoor running that must be taken into consideration when preparing for an event like a marathon or a half-marathon.

1)Impact forces- Running can be looked at as a series of controlled falls. Basically, we take a step, propelling ourselves forward, and gravity pushes us back down. Every time our foot strikes the ground, our body absorbs impact forces. The impact forces on the ground are different that the impact forces on the treadmill. First of all, the firmness of treadmills can vary greatly between brands and styles. Some may be hard, and others can make it feel like you are running on the clouds. These inconsistencies can make a big difference when we finally transition our running out onto the street. The concrete has a lot less ‘give’ than most treadmills and the surfaces are always changing as we run our 26.2 mile race. Roads can be gravely, there can be gradual changes in elevation as we run and most roads are not totally flat. Being able to absorb force and re-apply force over the entire race needs to be specifically prepared for. This preparation can only come from going outside and actually running on the road.

2) Running Technique- Running is running, right? Not really! While it may seem like all running is created in equal in our minds, our bodies are always smarter than we are. The human body is an adaptive creature and able to sense subtle differences and make necessary changes to deal with those differences. A good example of this would be to go out to your local high school track and run a lap in your running shoes. Then, take the shoes off and run a lap in your socks. Notice anything different? Your body will naturally feel that that there is nothing between your foot and the ground and adjust your running technique to allow you to be lighter on your feet and prevent yourself from hitting the ground to hard! Incredible! The same holds true for the treadmill. The big difference between the treadmill and the outside is that the ground on the treadmill moves underneath us. In the outside world, we push against a fixed ground and propel ourselves forward. Because the ground moves under us on the treadmill, our body senses this and compensates by spending a greater amount of time in the air between each step. This alters our stride frequency (the number of times our feet make contact with the ground), causing us to take less steps per minute than we may normally take outside. Two things can happen when we rely on treadmill running as our main form of training. One is that the decreased stride frequency of the treadmill will not adequately prepare us for the stride frequency we will face outside. In fact, it may change the way we run on the ground all together. When we have decreased stride frequency outside, it means that we are spending too much time in the air (like we did on the treadmill because it is moving under us). When we spend too much time in the air, we increase the amount of impact force that we need to absorb, since force is dependant on MASS (our body weight) and the amount of gravitational pull acting on that MASS (so if we are spending more time in the air, the amount of pull is going to be greater). The second thing that can happen is that the treadmill can give us a false sense of pace. Due to the fact that the ground moves below us, as we speed up the pace on the treadmill, our body compensates by again, spending more time in the air and altering our stride. If you spend most of your training on the treadmill, when you get outside, that 8 minute mile that you are used to may turn out to be a pace that you can not keep up with. This can lead to form breakdown, poor exercise economy and potentially injury. All together equaling a less than pleasant marathon experience and probably a trip to physical therapy.

3)The Elements- While training on the treadmill in your home or nearest fitness facility can be very comfortable, not preparing your body to deal with the elements can have a negative impact on how well you perform come marathon day. Jogging in doors, on the treadmill, in 70 degree temperature with zero wind resistance is nothing compared to running outdoors. We live in Arizona, and let’s face it, IT IS HOT! I know that running in the heat can be very uncomfortable and at times down right unpleasant. But, if we don’t give our bodies’ time to acclimate to the climate, come marathon day we will be in for a big surprise (and not a good one). Being able to tolerate the heat and whatever else mother-nature may throw our way (rain, mugginess, etc) is a key aspect to running a good marathon. The only way to prepare for this is getting outside and actually doing it. Wind resistance is also a big concern for runners. Running on a treadmill, indoors, is very neutral. Outside, we have to deal with wind resistance which, depending if you are running into or with the wind can have an impact on how well we run, how comfortable we feel and our energy expenditure. Again, the only way to prepare for this is to go outside and experience it first hand.

As stated earlier, running on the treadmill is not going to ruin your race. But, you can’t rely on it as your primary means of training. You need to get outside and run on the ground and not only physically prepare your body for what is going to happen on race day, but also psychologically prepare your body for what it feels like to be out there on the road, against the elements, without the convenience of hitting the stop button and walking over to the water fountain when things get a little tough.

Hope that helps and good luck with the rest of your training.