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Use treadmills to train for marathons

How do you use a treadmill for training? It seems like a fair question. But when I posed it to the elite runners at the Health & Fitness Expo.

health and fitness Updated: Apr 15, 2010 16:44 IST
Vicky Hallett

How do you use a treadmill for training? It seems like a fair question. But when I posed it to the elite runners at the Health & Fitness Expo, most of them looked at me as if they'd just downed a bad power gel. "You're asking the wrong person. I love to run because I love to be outside," replied 52-year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first women's Olympic marathon in 1984. The speedy Team Indiana guys told me treadmills are a last resort. "It's like running up an endless sand dune," said 24-year-old Mark Fruin.

In my search for a few treadmill pointers, I finally got a better reception from marathoner and Coach Jeffrey Horowitz. He said that everyone should stick to just three runs a week: long distance, interval and tempo. The latter two, which require monitoring your speed, are easier to do with technology. He recommends outdoor training as well and notes that if you're hoping to finish with the front of the pack, it's required. But not always: Most runners are still stunned by the story of Christine Clark, who won the 2000 US Olympic trials on a regimen of mostly treadmill running in her basement.

Sounds familiar to Michael Wardian. The 35-year-old who won the National Marathon for the fourth time has a similar training style. "I have a persistent coach who ensures I put in at least an hour on the treadmill every morning," Wardian said. He always uses at least a 1 per cent incline, which is the standard advice for anyone wanting to approximate outside conditions. But he'll knock it up every couple of miles.

Plan the running
What Wardian appreciates is using the feedback to plan out longer events, such as the multi-day ultramarathon he started last Sunday in the Sahara Desert. "At 12 miles, you can decide to try a gel. Then you can look right on the treadmill and see that in six minutes, it started to work," he said. As Wardian kept talking, I realised his advice probably wasn't for me. In addition to the treadmill routine, he usually does a second workout at lunch on the trails. And he likes to do a third run at night when he can.

So I sought out something more my speed and found it at "Treadmill Race Training," a twice-a-week class at Equinox gym in Northern Virginia. Instructor Bob Holmes believes the reason many runners can't stand treadmills is they don't know how to use them. "People have a tendency to go at their usual pace. Take them out of their comfort zone," he says.

That meant that after the warmup we were headed up a steep hill: two-minute intervals at 90 per cent of our top speed and then 100 per cent as we gradually increased the incline. Decent recovery time and the supportive group atmosphere kept students nudging the numbers higher. We followed that up with partner relay races. Four turns later, the group was proud. "Every time I come to class, I run faster than I ever have before," said Laura Grimes, 35, a marathoner who was stuck at the same speed for 15 years. She has since shaved a minute off her old mile pace.

- Washington Post-Bloomberg