The 3 Best Treadmill Workout Tips, According to Fitness Experts

A man with earphones running on a treadmill.
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As the days get cozier, there are those of us who couldn’t be paid any amount to get outside for that natural runner’s high. Indoor exercises, such as running on a treadmill, help us get a good dose of cardio. But treadmill workouts (more like “dreadmill workouts”) can get mundane and repetitive — making you feel as if you’re trapped on the proverbial hamster wheel.

Here’s the thing: Even hardcore outdoor runners spend time on the treadmill as a serious component of their training. So, it’s definitely worth adding to your fitness routine. We spoke with Colleen Logan of Icon Fitness — the company behind NordicTrack — and Brian Beckstead of athletic shoe brand Altra about everything treadmill, from choosing the right treadmill to approaching treadmill training.

Getting Started

Beckstead, who is a competitive trail runner in his off-hours, uses the treadmill as a regular part of his winter training; mostly for shorter recovery runs. “Keep it interesting and avoid it becoming repetitious by inserting a lot of inclines. They’re great to strengthen those climbing muscles and are low impact, too; important to knee recovery. Of course, they also burn a ton of calories. I also like to use treadmills for speed work where I go hard for two minutes, then easy for a bit, which really breaks up the monotony.” 

When she’s not preaching the gospel of connected fitness, Logan unplugs by hiking in the beautiful mountains of her Jackson, Wyoming home. “A 48-year-old ultra runner recommended against ‘more’ hiking as part of my training,” she says. “He recommended focusing on building strength and mobility on the treadmill.” 

“Orthopedic surgeons say the best thing you can do is run uphill … but you’ll want a ride back down if you’re running in the real world,” says Logan. “With a treadmill, you’ll get a great cardio workout while protecting your knees. We also recommend wearing a weight vest or carrying a backpack filled with water bottles to burn some extra calories.” 

“You’ll want to adjust to at least a 2% to 3% incline,” Beckstead concurs, “because downhill can cause you to overstrike and pull hamstrings. With even a slight incline you’ll run with better technique and your biomechanics are better.”

The most important thing, Logan points out, is not to focus on just exercise. “Do some strength and mobility training, too: Many of our iFit (see below) workouts get you off the treadmill to do a plank, crunches, or some other movement during the workout.” 

Beckstead also recommends listening to music to keep motivated, or his go-to, audible books. “I got into them because I travel a lot. I like how I can keep my mind occupied and engage in deeper thinking about the future.” 

Logan points out that “if you’ve decided to participate in ‘Dry January,’ this is a great time to get started with a treadmill regimen. Between dropping the empty calories of cocktails and adding the benefits of a regular cardio routine, you’ll be able to see progress quickly; which will help you stay motivated.” 

Equipment Check

A rear view of a man's legs running on a treadmill.

Now that you’re sold on the idea, it’s time to find the right treadmill! If you belong to a gym, chances are that decision has already been made. If that’s what you have in mind, take a lap to the next section, and we’ll meet you there. 

“We’ve worked with ultra-marathoners, and they love a good workout,” says Logan. “The one that we recommend for the really elite runner is our X32i. You’ll want to get the widest incline range and the most horsepower you can afford.” 

For around $3,500, you’ll be getting the top end of NordicTrack’s iFit “connected fitness” experience, featuring everything from the very winter run you’re trying to avoid to famous running spots from around the world (HD videos were shot on-site, spanning seven continents and 40 countries). Each is led by a coach, and the treadmill will automatically adjust for speed and incline to virtually match the terrain of the chosen location.

Studio classes are also available through iFit, which are preprogrammed by the trainer leading the set. Start by entering some basic information about your current state of health and personal training goals, and the iFit software takes over from there. Through the brand’s partnership with Google Maps, you can even re-create that run from your high school cross-country team days, or prep for the actual course of an upcoming 5K or marathon. 

“You can pre-run the infamous ‘Heartbreak Hill’ from the Boston Marathon, for example, and be totally prepared for the real thing,” Logan emphasizes. 

Of course, there’s also a more basic model that starts at around $900 that may not offer as much range in terms of incline, and you’ll rely on your own smartphone or tablet to provide the connected fitness angle, but it still offers a great workout. 

Logan recommends stopping by Best Buy to check out treadmills in person. “BestBuy has made a real commitment to exploring the merging of technology and fitness,” she points out.  “Also, look for CHp versus Hp; continuous horsepower versus horsepower. The unit should have a good motor, but a higher continuous horsepower — and larger rollers — make for a much smoother ride. It’s the difference between driving up a mountain in an economy car as opposed to one with a V8 engine.” 

(Author’s note: I recently had the opportunity to try out the NordicTrack X22i. It was truly the Tesla of treadmills. The high-def touchscreen offered a crisper, clearer picture than my television at home, and the coach who was leading the run — through the picturesque Fitz Roy Base in Patagonia — was inspiring and engaging. The equipment itself was sturdy and fluid, and the controls were easy to understand.)

Don’t forget to wear decent running shoes for your workout. But because of the controlled environment, Beckstead says you can be more flexible with your shoes, though you’ll want something that offers enough cushion and balance to handle the high mileage. The Altra Solistice XT is a great cross-trainer that Altra developed for gym workouts that also happens to be great for running. 

Clubs and Classes

Men and women running on treadmills in a gym.

“I like variation,” says Beckstead. “You may miss that with a pure treadmill run, so take a class where the trainer adds some diversity to the run both on and off the unit. Classes are so good for us runners.” 

New York City’s Mile High Run Club, for instance, focuses solely on the treadmill experience; offering everything from Dirty 30 workouts — combining focused high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with short active recovery periods — to HIIT classes that incorporate core and kettlebell training, and The Distance, a 60-minute class designed to rack up miles. All the classes are led by certified coaches who are experienced sprinters, road and trail runners, Olympic marathoners, and world-traveled triathletes. Depending on the class and instructor, you may get full-effect dance club-style lighting and music that creates an energizing, convivial — and maybe a bit competitive — environment. 

Similarly, many gyms offer classes so you can incorporate a guided treadmill workout into the rest of your workout routine. Equinox, for example, collaborated with Precision Run, another treadmill-focused operation, to bring its classes into select locations, featuring headphone-guided interval training. 

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