Most competitive distance runners like threshold runs. Sustained running at a moderately fast pace combines the fun of fast running with the relative comfort of controlled running. What’s enjoyable outdoors in a nice environment isn’t always enjoyable indoors on a treadmill, however. Threshold runs on the treadmill can be dreadfully boring.
Sometimes you have little choice but to do them, though. What if your next scheduled threshold run falls on a day when it happens to be 100 degrees outside—too hot to sustain your desired pace? Or what if you’re traveling for business and staying at a hotel that’s located in an area with no good places to run? In these cases a simple tweak to the standard threshold run format can allow you to move your workout indoors without giving up on any possibility of enjoying it.
Here’s what you do. First, imagine you are going to do the workout outdoors anyway. What pace and what duration are appropriate at this stage in your training? Threshold runs are typically done at roughly one-hour maximum pace, or the fastest pace you could sustain for one hour in race conditions. The appropriate duration of your effort at that pace is usually 20 to 40 minutes. You want to do enough running at threshold pace that it becomes challenging toward the end, but you don’t want the workout to leave you totally exhausted.
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Suppose your current threshold pace is 6:00 (hey, you’re a pretty good runner!) and you decide that 20 minutes is an appropriate duration to sustain that pace today. To modify this session for the treadmill, break the 20-minute tempo effort into 20 segments of 1 minute each and alternate segments at 5:50 pace with segments at 6:10 pace. The rationale here is that one of the best tricks to make treadmill running psychologically bearable is variation. The more change you can throw into a treadmill run, the faster the time will go by.
Physiologically, a workout structured as 10 x (1 minute @ 5:50 per mile/1 minute @ 6:10 per mile) is essentially the same as 20 minutes straight at 6:00 per mile. But the former is less boring because there’s a change every minute. What typically happens in such a session is that, because the faster segments are a little faster than your normal threshold pace, you strain a bit in them and deal with that strain mentally by becoming very focused and looking forward to the relief of the next slower segment. Then in the slower segment—which isn’t really much slower, but just enough—your mindset shifts over to wanting the clock to slow down. But of course it doesn’t. Before you know it, your 20 minutes (or whatever) are up and it’s time to cool down. (Speaking of which, don’t forget to warm up too with at least 10 minutes of easy jogging.)
You can add another kind of twist by playing with inclines. Instead of speeding up for the harder segments, you can maintain the same pace but raise the treadmill to a 3 percent grade. Or you could even slow down a bit and raise the treadmill to 5 percent to create a net increase in effort. As long as the harder segments are just a little harder than your normal threshold effort and the easier segments are proportionately easier—and as long as you’re not bored—you’re doing it right.