Welcome, my friends, to the world of treadmill running. Some people like it, but the majority of runners I know hate it. After all, you’re not going anywhere. You’re running in place for a long time, and you often see people casually on the bike or the elliptical doing workouts. But there’s nothing casual about running on the treadmill — absolutely nothing.
It turns out that running on the treadmill might be good for you. According to research from Li and Spitzer in Nature this year, treadmill running increases brain plasticity and enhances motor skill acquisition. Li and Spitzer made mice run voluntarily for a week and found that they had acquired motor skills and motor skill learning in general. An area of the brain that regulates motor coordination, cPPN, showed a switch of neurotransmitters from acetylcholine to GABA. GABA gives more feedback control for motor skill learning than acetylcholine.
“For people who would like to enhance their motor skill learning, it may be useful to do some exercise to promote this form of plasticity to benefit the brain…For example, if you hope to learn and enjoy challenging sports such as surfing or rock climbing when we’re no longer sheltering at home, it can be good to routinely run on a treadmill,” Li said.
Despite its benefits, treadmill running is just psychologically challenging. I have not stepped foot in a gym since the pandemic, and as a result, I have not stepped foot in a gym. I got pretty angry when I didn’t check my e-mail enough and got a bill from Planet Fitness charging me for my membership. The next day, I went in to cancel it. I wasn’t going to go to the gym during a pandemic, but it got me starting to think about treadmill running on days it got dark before I decided I wanted to run, or days the weather was just too bad.
Again, I hate running on the treadmill. I can think of few forms of exercise less psychologically torturing, save aqua-jogging. However, I want to think of actionable ways to prevent yourself from going insane while running on the treadmill.
My number one form of advice is music. If you have headphones and a phone, use them. If not, it can become very excruciating and agonizing very quickly, not because it’s just so fast, but because it’s a mixture of Sisyphean toil and boredom, where you’re just staring at the same sight the entire time you’re running while running against a belt. It’s hard on your legs, and there is no exploration. Some people like it, but I don’t.
I have, however, learned to grit and bear it and make it a more enjoyable experience. While on my regular runs, I try to run the same pace the whole time, I tinker with my pace a bit on the treadmill to switch things up and keep it interesting. If it’s a moderate or heavy effort run, I make sure I start slow. I might start the treadmill at 7.5 miles per hour (8-minute mile pace) and, by the end of the run, have run my last mile at 10.5 miles per hour (5:43 mile pace). I don’t increase the speed by more than 0.1 seconds at a time, but I increase it throughout the treadmill run.
Also, I like to chunk and create mental checkpoints in my head. Many people prefer putting a towel or shirt over time, so they don’t know how long they’ve been running. I’ve done this, and even though it works for me running outdoors, it does not work for me on the treadmill. On the treadmill, I like to create 30-second checkpoints, where I mentally reset each time to get through the next 30 seconds. Trust me. It’s a skill that becomes very helpful when you’re doing 18 miles on the treadmill.
Besides music, switching up your pace, and chunking intervals in your head, you might have your techniques to pass a better time than what I do. Embrace them. I find treadmill running much harder than running outside, mainly due to the lack of exploration and lack of social interaction. There’s much less stimulation, and the treadmill’s surface is hard on my legs, and I feel a lot sorer afterward.
Anyway, feeling like it’s challenging to stay engaged and stay motivated while running on the treadmill is normal. I was glad when so many runners felt the same way I did.
To not be miserable while running on the treadmill might be a mental thing, but the mental barrier is often huge. Turn on the music louder than you usually would (because the treadmill is loud), switch up your pace, and chunk 30 seconds, a minute, or 2 minutes — whatever your preference is. I find 30 seconds to be the perfect length.
About 20 minutes into every treadmill run, I feel a sense of accomplishment that I’ve put in way too much work not to meet my running goal for that day. Maybe it will always be miserable, but you’ll get used to it if you do it enough.
Existentially, the treadmill defies human nature. We want to move forward. We want a change in scenery. Objectively, you are putting a significant physical strain on your body, while moving nowhere, making no ostensible progress, and you are literally stagnant. When I think about the agony of the treadmill, I remind myself that there is a third dimension of moving upwards, as told by this famous W.B. Yeats quote:
“Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground covered we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.”
With each treadmill run, you are not only becoming more fit and more in shape, but becoming mentally stronger as well. There is no journey that feels more repetitious than treadmill running — but at the end of the run, it was a journey back and forth, where the only place you went is up.
Originally published on September 10, 2020 on Runner's Life.