Home Exercise 101 How NOT To Train For A Race

How NOT To Train For A Race

by Erika Nicole Kendall

It was earlier this year, actually, when I decided I needed to try to actively commit to running again. I even signed up for the New York Road Runners, one of the many organizations in the city who throw the countless races that take place here. What would be more serendipitous for me, the neophyte Brooklynite, than to make my first race the Brooklyn Half Marathon?

According to everyone I knew, it was an awfully tough race to register for. Tough, as in, it sells out in under three hours, and you’re lucky if the server doesn’t crash on you.

Still, as it were, I got in. I was running the Brooklyn Half, and my goal was simply to finish in under 3 hours. I figured that was an easy enough goal from someone recovering from an injury, right?

I even committed to training for it. Four days a week, I hit up my gym, and jumped on that miserable treadmill. I’d turn the TV to the news (or put my iPod on something ratchet), and I’d do my little hamster thing.

The gym made it easy. I’d drop Mini-me off at the Kids’ Club, put my things in my locker, and boom. She’d outgrown her jogging stroller, and isn’t quite able to keep up with me (here’s hoping she doesn’t start passing me anytime soon) so being able to have her safe and nearby in an air conditioned space – which, I’m ashamed to admit, is important to me – while I get my daily fill of political foolishness and a steam room? The decision felt easy. I’d just make sure that I hit the pavement during the taper, and the final long run of my training to get a feel for the great outdoors. Surely, it couldn’t be that big of a problem, right?


The final Saturday of my training, before my taper, I grabbed Sushi and Sala and headed out towards Prospect Park. We were doing fine… for about twenty minutes. Eventually, the lower-body fatigue began to set in. If you think Sushi looks bad here:

…then you should’ve seen me, by about mile 7. Ed had to come out, bring us all food, and sat with us until I had enough energy to walk back home. There was no way he was letting me “run” the Brooklyn Half, and I’m pretty sure he uttered a few swear words and something about being “nuttier than squirrel sh-t” before the phrase “give someone your registration” flew out of his mouth.

In hindsight, there are several things I did wrong. Please, be wise, and learn from my epic, epic mistakes.

1) If you are coming off of an injury, you absolutely must train away from a treadmill simply to regain muscle memory. Running on a treadmill is great at training you to run forward, but what about turning and running? What about leaping over things? What about uneven ground?

2) Running on a treadmill insulates you from learning how to adapt to changing weather. I ran faster when it was cold than when it was hot. I ran even faster in the rain. I was Greased Lightening when it’s overcast. I know all of these things because I’ve embraced running outside. What happens if you don’t respond well to certain types of weather? You have to learn what makes you perform poorly, what forces you to use too much energy (saving all your energy is always important) and how to mitigate those circumstances on your own. You don’t want any surprises the final week of your training.

3) Treadmill running, because it generally requires less energy than outdoor hoofing-it, actually insulates you from having to learn how much sugar you need to complete certain legs of your run. Do you need more calories after every mile? In 15-minute increments? Maybe every 20 minutes? And if so, how many?

4) The treadmill is counterproductive to speed work and, often, makes you think you’re slower than you actually are. Unless you have a highly advanced treadmill that has the simple buttons that allow you shift through several pre-set jogging speeds, it’s tough to get an adequate understanding of your average speed. Sometimes, you have to stop altogether or “step on the sides” in order to change your treadmill speed. Nobody is here for that.

5) The natural pulling function of the treadmill actually pulls your foot behind you, instead of you planting your foot into the ground and pushing your body forward. When you think about the actual biomechanics of running, you put your foot down and push forward… the treadmill encourages the opposite… which can encourage poor form, “elephant syndrome” (if, when you’re on the treadmill and it sounds like a herd of elephants because you’re stomping so loudly? poor form.), and the ever-popular shin and knee injuries.

So, when the question becomes “can you train for a race on a treadmill?” My personal answer would have to be something along the lines of, “Don’t do it! Reconsider! Read some literature on the subject!” but that doesn’t mean the treadmill can’t help. I have “easy days” built into my training schedule, where I hit my treadmill instead of the concrete… and you can never count out the treadmill for lower-body strengthening. Many a person have – and probably will – use the treadmill for full-on training, but for consistent improvement I’d strongly suggest leaving it behind.

Have you trained for a 10k or above on a treadmill? What was your experience? What’s your biggest training blunder?

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Fa October 2, 2012 - 11:42 AM

Earlier this year I trained for my 2nd 5K using a treadmill called the Woodway Curve. It’s pretty great, and it’s design is supposed to set it apart from older treadmills and some of the issues you listed. That said, I shaved about 3 minutes off that 5K. Not sure if it was the Woodway or my body becoming more used to running (or both), but I was feeling it!

Olivia October 2, 2012 - 11:51 AM

Thanks for answering my question. It kind of sucks now I know my treadmill won’t really help me train for my first 5k that I signed up for the end of this month. I don’t really have time to run outside but I found time to do the treadmill so even if I can only do 2-3 days running outside I will do so. I want to be ready for this and I really want to be considered a runner one day!

Erika Nicole Kendall October 2, 2012 - 7:01 PM

To be fair, I think training for a 5k is WAY different from training for, say, a 10k. There’s just a breaking point where the body starts wantign to say “Okay! Enough!” and I don’t think a 5k is long enough to take you there…. so you might not have anything to worry about.

Jubilance October 2, 2012 - 11:53 AM

Wow! A lot of the things you highlighted were things that I avoided this year when I trained for the Green Bay Half. I trained with Team In Training which raises funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society & I gotta say our training was great, especially for a newbie. We specifically trained outside, starting in the winter & moving through the spring. We did a variety of locations – hills, around lakes, trails, along the river, etc & the variety helped a lot. And during training we had the opportunity to try various types of supplements, from Gu to Nuun to Sport Beans (my fave) to flavors of Gatorade, to figure out what worked for our bodies.

For your next race, maybe you should try training with a team. The support & help was invaluable & I couldn’t have made it to & through race day without TNT.

marie October 2, 2012 - 1:10 PM

EXACTLY!! So someone actually experienced this! When I tell that to people they don’t believe me!
I started being active when I used to live in England, gym membership was so cheap and I was amazed how well I would perform on the treadmill (for a beginner like me who used to hate exercise)
When I went back to France the only thing I could afford was a new pair of running shoes and after 2 months doing nothing I decided I would run outside… I was totally unable to run for 10 min straight…. I had to actually learn how to run a second time!

The good point with the treadmill is that I never got knee pain… But outside I sometimes get if I don’t do sufficient strength training in the quads :/

Lily Fluffbottom October 2, 2012 - 2:00 PM

I usually mix in some runs outside with the treadmill; particularly in the winter. I did notice when I was training for my second half marathon, mostly on the treadmill, that I felt significantly less prepared for it than I thought I was.

Lashawn October 2, 2012 - 2:16 PM

I’ve never realized the differences in treadmill running vs outside. Do you have any tips on keeping proper form and getting rid of elephant syndrone? ‘Cause I’m not brave enough to run outside. 🙂

Erika Nicole Kendall October 2, 2012 - 6:59 PM

Yep. 🙂

Elle October 2, 2012 - 3:14 PM

I just wanted to let you know that you’re sooo my She-ro! I live in Texas and stopped running in June due to the 100+ temperatures until nightfal. You’ve giving me some motivation to get back to it outside by the lake! Thanks a heap!

Paulette October 2, 2012 - 6:50 PM

Thank you so much for sharing this. I run mainly outside on the road and thought that I wasn’t using the treadmill enough or at least giving it space in my training schedule.

These days I only use the treadmill it if it is the only way I can make up the mileage because of timing or the weather. Right now it is close to 90 degrees and I wasn’t able to run this morning. So I am hoping to get in at least 3 miles later because I hate the “dread”mill. It doesn’t give me the feeling of freeness that I get outside in the wind.

Maybe I need to listen to something more ratchet? 🙂

Eve October 2, 2012 - 7:50 PM

I trained for 2 half marathons on a treadmill. I was a punk too, and not trying to ruin in the streets at 5:30 – 6am, which was the only time I had to prepare. I work at a hospital, and when I told some of the older doctors I was running a half, they looked so appalled. One questioned my knees (I was 35 at the time), and I felt as if the treadmill was the safer option. On race day, I made a friend at the starting blocks, and managed to keep up with her for the first 5 miles. Then I had to rest. Running on the street is much different than running on the treadmill, but once I hit a stride, it was much better. I had been running a 12:30 – 13 minute mile on the treadmill, (I was running for charity, and was just hoping to finish under three hours – the medal … the medal!) I ended up running a 10:45 -11:30 for most of the race. I definitely recommend doing long runs on the street, to get used to how it feels. I found the sneakers that served me so well on the treadmill HURT on the streets.

summa October 2, 2012 - 9:17 PM

Excellent post. Been training for. Five k and worried that I’m not get a good picture of Wut to expect. Thanks E! As usual u get it in

Dana October 3, 2012 - 8:37 AM

I am so with you on this one. I had got up to 45 mins running pretty fast-paced on the treadmill a few years back and thought I was CRUSHING it! On holiday I decided to keep up my workouts and hit the boardwalk and start pacing it out. Boy, oh boy. Hitting the ground is a completely different story and I was 100% humbled. If you are wanting to run some kind of outdoor race you absolutely need to train outdoors. Thanks for this post 🙂

SMM October 4, 2012 - 11:35 AM

This is right on time for me. I’m running my first 5K in exactly one month and I finally just got up the nerve to run outside two days ago. It was rough but I’m excited to get back out there today.

Janine October 6, 2012 - 2:49 PM

Great post! I never really thought about this issue, so I’m glad to have had it brought to my attention. I’ve noticed that my treadmill runs are way harder on my legs/low back than running outside, but running outside seems to activate so many more muscles (esp the core). It’s nice to be able to hop on the ‘dreadmill’ and pound out a half-hour run, but running outside is so much more freeing and peaceful!

Tremilla October 11, 2012 - 1:35 PM

So happy you wrote this. In training for a 5k. It’s in two weeks and the majority of my training has been on a treadmill. I can run 2 1/2 miles on the the treadmill but can barely run two outside. I’m just going to keep pushing myself until I get there

Renee H. October 11, 2012 - 1:40 PM

I’ve been a runner for years. HATE the dreadmill, it does too much of your work for you and encourages overstriding. (If you can see your shin while running you are most likely over striding). BUT on those days where there is no other alternative, I make sure to turn the incline up to at least 1 too more closely resemble actual running. Looking forward to reading about your next race!!

Aisha July 29, 2013 - 11:04 AM

I’m training for a 5K and my dog is like…girl stop! I refuse to do the treadmill it’s way too deceiving. I can run so fast on it but outside I’m doing negative miles, lol.

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