This gym staple often gets a bad rap from the workout world. Boring, monotonous, torturous — they're all words often associated with the machine. But sometimes it may be the only practical option for those who are hampered by weather or trying to squeeze in a workout.
We asked the experts to highlight ways to make the most of your treadmill time. Here's what they had to say:
Fits and starts
"People often hop on a treadmill for long, slow runs — they're trying to zone out," says Rob Sulaver, owner of the New York City-based Bandana Training and a certified personal trainer. "But it's more effective to do aggressive interval training, both from an exercise science and experiential perspective."
So while pushing one button and doing a mindless 30-minute run may seem like the most painless option, it may actually be sabotaging your routine. According to the experts, the body responds better to a variety of hard running and recovery.
"You can mix it up any way you want — one minute of hard running and one minute of recovery running is a good place to start, but you can do any variety," he explains. The key is to kick up your heart rate at a higher intensity, which takes your body longer to recover. This, according to Sulaver, provides an after-burn effect, encouraging your body to continue burning calories even after the workout.
To figure out which heart rate to work out, try this: First, calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR) by subtracting your age from 220. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends hitting at least 70 percent of your MHR while you exercise to maximize your calorie burn and fat loss. If you don't have a heart rate monitor, count your pulse for 10 seconds, and multiply that number by 6. Keep working at 70 percent of your MHR for as long as you can. When you get tired, slow the treadmill to an easy jogging pace, and rest for a few minutes. Next, see how long you can go at 85 percent of your MHR.
Keep in mind that many gym machines are calibrated to the size of an average man. You may want to invest in a heart rate monitor, which can be found for under $35 on amazon.com.
Ramping up the intensity with intervals also offer another important perk: relieving boredom.
"People say their time on the treadmill goes faster because they're concentrating on a particular interval segment," explains Bill Pierce, chairman of the Health Sciences Department at Furman University, co-founder of the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training and co-author of the book "Runner's World Run Less, Run Faster."
As for those preset intervals on the treadmill, Pierce prefers the manual adjustment instead. "Those programs are OK, but you can get a quicker, more individualized response if you can tailor it to yourself," he says.
If you don't feel like keeping track of the time, here's a good compromise. Tom Holland, a triathlete and physiologist in Darien, Conn., suggests watching a 30-minute TV program, like the nightly news. Increase your speed so that you're running hard (about 80 percent of your maximum) during the commercials. When the program returns, slow your pace to an easy jog.
Ramp it up
Most treadmills also have variable inclines. This feature allows runners to control elevation changes. "Often, people like to do hill repeats, but when you run up the hill outdoors, you have to run back down it, which can cause soreness," Pierce explains. "With a treadmill, you don't have to run downhill, so there's less stress on the body."
Rebecca Rusch, top adventure racer and 2003 winner of the Raid Gauloises, likes to walk or run on an incline to mimic hiking outside. Some treadmills have preprogrammed hiking trails, but if yours doesn't, Rusch recommends this: Walk at 3.5 miles per hour on a flat belt. Increase the incline every minute until it reaches 5 percent, and stay for 3 minutes. Next, lower and raise the belt every 2 minutes until you've been exercising for 25 minutes. Gradually lower the belt and decrease your speed over 5 minutes to cool down.
Keep it safe
A good workout is impossible if you're injured. And Sulaver has seen many people skimp on safety — especially on treadmills.
"Don't lift weights on a treadmill," Pierce warns. "It's more of a circus act than a legitimate workout and is multitasking gone wrong."
Also remember your form. "Many people will change their running form on a treadmill, landing on their toes or forefoot and getting too close to the front of the machine," Pierce explains, adding that this behavior could strain your Achilles or cause lower-leg soreness.
Make sure you look straight ahead and, if possible, don't hold on to the railings while running. "This greatly reduces your workload and it's not that safe," says Pierce.
Although you may be running on a more friendly terrain than what you would find outdoors, it's still important to wear good running shoes. You don't need a special type for the treadmill, according to Sulaver, but you should make sure the fit is right.
Focus on benefits
You may give your workout a boost by focusing on what the treadmill can offer rather than what it lacks.
The most obvious is convenience — allowing you to run in any weather condition or at any time of day (and being able to stay hydrated without lugging a bottle around).
Pierce emphasizes the value of having the pace set for you, especially for beginning runners. "You get to make a decision about pace and set it, which enables you to concentrate on other things like form, breathing and visualization."
Of course, if you're planning to compete in a race, you'll have to actually run the terrain to properly train for it. But Sulaver disagrees with road-running purists who see little value in treadmills. "It's a tool like anything else. If you use it well, it can provide a great workout," he says.
The goal of your workout should be the same, regardless of what you're running on, says Pierce. "You still need to train with purpose," he explains. "Every run needs to be designed to do that."
Adventure and Fitness and Women's Health Magazine contributed.