Can You Train in the Gym on the Treadmill for a Trail Run or Marathon?

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There are things you can do in the gym which will support your preparation. I would suggest that in an ideal world they do not include the treadmill. I appreciate this may be a contentious claim. However, I believe that using the treadmill can a really bad way to practice your running. There is no wind resistance, the floor is sprung and every step you take is identical which not only doesn’t provide the stimuli that your muscles and ligaments need to strengthen for the real world, but the identical repetitive action actually increases the risk of sustaining an injury because each impact is in exactly the same place.

This makes treadmill running not very realistic. I know for you there may be some very good reasons to run on the treadmill, but if you have a practical option not to, then get yourself out of that door. Trail running is a lot safer with fewer injuries for precisely the reasons that each footfall is different, there is wind resistance and there is lots of variety to how each and every foot lands. Even running on the pavement or road is better than the treadmill. A lot of enthusiastic gym users thought it was the other way around.

There are a few benefits of the treadmill such as safety from assailants and rabid dogs. With easy access to your locker, nice lighting, good music (questionable) and being warm and dry. If for you the cold and the dark is so off-putting that running on a treadmill is the only acceptable alternative to sitting on your sofa or in the pub, then do it.

If you feel that you really have to use a treadmill, then to get the most out of it you might want to try wearing a back pack, set the gradient up to the maximum, crank up the speed and learn to power stride. This will at least build some great muscles which will power you past people in the race. This can provide a considerable mental boost if you are a tiny bit competitive. You’ll manage even more smug points if you can manage a smile, wave and a few words of encouragement. I do not know if these smug points are worth the funny looks that you may get from other gym users.

The stepper at the gym is valuable piece of equipment that is worth using. The stepper will help build up your ability to zoom up the hills. Though I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I prefer using real hills. There are a surprising number of hills on most trail races. It seems at times that the race is mainly uphill. It always seems that the wind is blowing in your face too. I do not know why this is. I do suspect that it may have been flatter perceived and that really I’m just not strong enough.

Either way, using the stepper to build up your butt muscles and work on core muscles to support your posture will be pretty good for your training. It is worth noting that to get the most out of the stepper you should crank up the resistance and aim for quite a fast step turnover. Having a high step and a fast step will help you up the hills when you are up against it in the hilly stuff. Opinion is split between using either quick small steps or big lunging steps with your arms pressing on your quads for stability in hill climbing. I prefer short and fast, as I tend to get cramps from my weedy muscles with the other technique while racing. Pick the one which suits you and practice that.

After each work out, head to the mat for stretching and rollering. Think of this as part of the workout. I really believe for the best preparation that this stretching time on the mat is a worthwhile investment. Work your entire body through the stretches. These are more important, if like me, many years are in your past. Our muscles and ligaments stiffen up as we get older. This isn’t a good thing and will predispose us to getting injuries. Stretching regularly and especially after exercise, can help decrease the injury rate.

The average age of competitors at the Marathon des Sables and other bucket-list endurance events is youthful forty one. There are lots of senior runners. This isn’t really a race that starts to appear on bucket lists and appeals to someone in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Uselessly railing against the relentless march of time, full of remorse at wasted younger years… OK, maybe it is. But it is cheaper than a sports car and safer than buying a motorcycle.

The stationary bike in the gym (or the home, when it isn’t covered in washing) can provide a nice change in your routine to provide variety. You may find that using the bike works muscles which aren’t primarily those that will be most helpful for you on the MdS. The notable exception to this is fixed wheel exercise classes. These bike routines provide good work-outs to boost your sprint work, which will bring up your VO2 max. It is also a motivator to be in a group of others and you may well push yourself a little harder under this encouragement. This is something you may have noticed and one of the reasons that exercise classes of all types are so popular. There is good medical science to back this up too. Group sessions of any type of exercise have been shown to motivate male athletes to try harder for longer. In the ladies the effect is measurable but not nearly as significant.

Dr Peter Windross