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The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Treadmill Running and Walking

It may seem like a no-brainer (just press start!), but there are some key tips you should know.

treadmill running
Ziga PlahutarGetty Images

As much as treadmills have a stigma (we’ve all heard the dreadmill jokes), there really is a time and a place for one in every person’s routine. Whether you’re a veteran runner or you just want to start a fitness program by walking on a treadmill, this indoor running machine definitely has its benefits.

With temperatures dropping and considering we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, treadmills offer a safe, convenient way to get in a workout even when it’s dark, rainy, cold, or crowded on our usual trails.

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Plus, treadmills are tricked out these days, with some offering live or on-demand run and walk programs streamed straight into the console, television programming including YouTube and Netflix, virtual running routes, music, and more—which can help make the miles roll by.

Running or walking on a treadmill isn’t exactly like running outside. After all, the belt keeps you on pace even when your energy fades. But it’s a good alternative to exercising outdoors when you have to stay indoors.

Beginner Treadmill Tips

Whether you are running or walking on a treadmill, here is a basic intro so you can make the most out of your time.

1. Time it right.

Find a gym or studio with hours that fit your schedule. Before you sign up, learn what safety measures they are taking regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and when their busiest times are. If you can, avoid those peak hours; you’ll be more likely to find a free treadmill and be able to safely social distance from others in the gym. You may also want to consider buying your own treadmill to ensure that you can use it whenever your schedule allows without having to worry about encountering anyone you haven’t been quarantining with.

2. Watch your step.

While the cushioned surface often helps prevent injuries, some people report aches and pains after putting in extra time on the treadmill. Be sure to run at a pace you can comfortably sustain. As you tire, lower your speed or incline to switch it up throughout your session.

3. Find the right speed.

If you can’t keep up with the treadmill without grabbing the handrails, you’re going too fast. Holding onto the handrails can throw off your stride and create a twisting motion, which can lead to injuries. Even if you’re just walking, you want to find a pace and incline that you can sustain comfortably without holding on so you can use your arms to pump through the workout.

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4. Get outside…carefully.

If you’ve done 100 percent of your workouts on a treadmill, you can gradually integrate outdoor running into your routine. Too quick of a transition can lead to injury.

Outside, your calf muscles have to work harder to propel you forward; so do the smaller stabilizer muscles in the joints and ankles. On your first outside run, start with 10 minutes, and add five minutes the next week. Continue to build gradually, increasing your total weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent each week.

5. Know your numbers.

The “calories burned” readouts on treadmills—and any other exercise machine for that matter—are rarely accurate. That’s because most treadmills estimate total calories burned rather than the net number—i.e., calories burned solely through exercise.

Plus, keep in mind that most machines don’t account for body-fat percentage, gender, age, resting heart rate, or whether you’re holding onto the rails. But you don’t have to totally ignore the machine’s stats. Use the calorie readout as a loose gauge of your progress. If the calorie readout goes up from one session to the next for the same workout, you know you’re getting fitter.

6. Decipher the pacing info.

How fast or slow are you going? Many treadmills show pace as miles-per-hour (mph), but most runners prefer a minutes-per-mile pace.

Here’s a cheat sheet so you can find your minutes-per-mile pace, more commonly used by runners.

  • 4.0 mph = 15:00 minutes per mile
  • 4.5 mph = 13:20 minutes per mile
  • 5.0 mph = 12:00 minutes per mile
  • 5.5 mph = 10:55 minutes per mile
  • 6.0 mph = 10:00 minutes per mile
  • 6.5 mph = 9:14 minutes per mile
  • 7.0 mph = 8:34 minutes per mile
  • 7.5 mph = 8:00 minutes per mile
  • 8.0 mph = 7:30 minutes per mile
  • 8.5 mph = 7:04 minutes per mile

    7. Mix it up.

    In order to build your overall fitness, it’s a good idea to do faster workouts with no incline as well as slower-paced workouts with an incline.

    The slower uphill workouts build strength, while the faster flat workouts help you develop stamina, endurance, and quick footwork. Adjust both speed and incline during your workout, and you can better simulate the changing terrain of a road run.

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