Running a marathon is something you shouldn’t take lightly. It requires training, planning, and dedication.
And while ideally, you train on terrain similar to the marathon your running, that’s not always possible. In fact, if you mainly run on a treadmill, it’s very much possible to entirely train for a marathon on a treadmill.
If you’ve been wondering how to train for a marathon on a treadmill—or if it’s even possible—this article is for you.
Read on to see the best way to use a treadmill for marathon training. We cover different types of training runs, tips for maximizing your runs, how to fuel and hydrate on a treadmill, plus mental tips to keep you going.
Can You Train for a Marathon Using Only a Treadmill?
Yes, you can!
If you do it right, you can train on a treadmill for any race, including long ones like a marathon. The key is to plan upfront, prepare yourself, and stick to your training plan.
Sure, it’s going to be different from running outdoors. But you can train just as well, and possibly more safely than you could do outdoors. If you’ve been doubting whether or not training for a marathon on the treadmill is possible, don’t worry—it definitely is.
Treadmill Running vs Outdoor Running: Which Is Best?
Any kind of running is better than no running! But when it comes to comparing treadmill running vs outdoor running, it comes down to your goals and your limitations.
We always recommend running outside if you can. It’s a slightly harder workout than on a treadmill – mainly due to air resistance and the ups and downs from terrain changes. Plus, your race will be outside.
But running outdoors will also give you a good dose of vitamin D and fresh air. Plus, it can help strengthen your feet and legs, giving you an advantage on your marathon course on race day.
But the treadmill has certain advantages over running outdoors because it’s a very controlled environment. You set the speed and incline. Plus, it’s much easier to run on a treadmill early in the morning or when the weather is bad.
Ultimately, we recommend doing a bit of both if you can. But if you live somewhere snowy, have to run in the early or late hours, need a slightly less impactful surface, or just feel more comfortable running in the comfort of your own home, there’s nothing wrong with choosing the treadmill for your marathon training… As long as you do it right.
Pros of Treadmill Training
The treadmill does have a few advantages over outdoor running when it comes to training. Here’s what we love about training on the treadmill.
- Lower-impact running surface than the road.
- No need to contend with weather conditions.
- Ability to customize your training conditions (speed, incline, etc).
- You can multi-task to a degree.
- Bathroom breaks become easier.
Cons of Training on the Treadmill
That being said, the treadmill does have some disadvantages. The good news is you can work around these with some planning!
- No chance to train in adverse conditions.
- Can get boring quickly.
- Can compromise your gait if you aren’t mindful.
- The “help” from the belt can make you think you’re running faster than you are.
How to Train for a Marathon on a Treadmill
If you like the pros and can handle the possible cons of training for a marathon on a treadmill, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it effectively.
1. Create a Training Plan
When it comes to running, going in blind is never the best way. But planning and preparing beforehand goes a long way toward your success, so the first step is to find a training plan.
You can grab a marathon training plan off the internet, from a book, buy one from a coach, or create your own.
The first thing to understand is that an effective marathon training plan needs to be 16 to 20 weeks long.
If you’ve already run a few marathons, or you’re an experienced runner but haven’t done a marathon yet, you can stick to 16 weeks. Newbies should opt for 20 weeks.
Almost every training plan will start slow and gradually increase mileage, building up your cardio strength, muscular strength, stamina, and endurance as the weeks go by.
What Type of Workouts Should You Do?
Your marathon training plan should include both running workouts and strength training workouts. While running is the main activity during a marathon, strength training will help you build muscle that increases your running power and improves your form.
Your running sessions should be made of multiple different types of runs. Mixing it up prevents your body from getting too used to one pace, and helps you to build better cardio and muscular strength. You should be doing:
- A tempo run
- A long run
- 1 to 2 easy/recovery runs
- 1 speedwork session (intervals, hill repeats)
If you wish, you can switch out an easy run with a different form of cardio cross-training, but make sure you’re getting a good mix of these runs.
As for strength training, you can choose weightlifting, body weight training (calisthenics) or resistance training with bands.
How Much Should You Train Each Week?
Depending on our schedule, 3 to 5 runs per week is optimal for marathon training. Remember that you’ll need to split those between your various types of runs.
The optimal strength training frequency, according to research, is 2 to 3 times per week. If that’s difficult for you to fit in, once a week should be the minimum, but you’ll need to ensure you’re hitting upper body, lower body, and core in one workout.
Your Target Marathon Pace on the Treadmill
Pacing can be tricky, but the best thing about a treadmill is that you can set your pace and then just go with it. But to get this right, you need to understand your marathon pace and use that to determine your pace for other training runs.
If you don’t know your marathon pace, the easiest way to estimate it is by taking a half marathon or 10k race time and plugging that into a calculator to determine your marathon time and pace.
Other ways are to take your half marathon time, multiple it by 2, and add 10 minutes. Or use the Jeff Galloway’s Magic Mile.
Once you know your marathon pace, you’ll be able to apply it to your training plan.
Include Rest Days and Recovery Periods
You should include one full rest day per week. That means no running, no cross-training, and no strength training.
You should get at least one other weekday with no running. However, on this day, you should be doing some form of cross-training. It can be a different kind of cardio, or it can be strength training.
2. Treadmill Training Techniques
Once you have your training plan set out, you can start on the treadmill. Here are some important things to know to maximize your treadmill training.
Use the Incline/Decline Setting
This will be essential for hill repeats, but you can also use it during regular runs. When you run outdoors, you have slight natural resistance due to wind and changing terrain.
On a treadmill you don’t have this, so even if you’re doing an easy run, you can add a slight incline to add a touch of resistance. It doesn’t need to be a large incline, even the lowest setting will do.
If you have a decline setting, you can also incorporate this into your training. Be careful, though, because it can lead to injuries like shin splints and tendonitis if you overdo it.
If You Can Try, Virtual Courses and Simulated Race Conditions
Some fancier treadmills come with built-in virtual races or programs that simulate real-world conditions. If you get the opportunity, try them out!
They can be a welcome break from the monotony of a regular treadmill workout, because the program will automatically adjust your speed and incline so it feels more like an outdoor run.
If your treadmill isn’t one of those, you can still spice up your workouts by putting a virtual run on the TV or tablet. That way, it feels more like you’re moving through a race course, rather than staying still.
Focus On Your Running Form
It’s just as important to focus on your form on the treadmill as it is outdoors. Make sure your posture is correct, your chest is lifted, and you look straight ahead, not downwards.
Note that if you’re watching something on a tablet or phone while running, the angle may cause you to go off-form as you’re looking downwards.
If you can rig your screen to sit at eye-level rather, or watch on the TV so you can look straight ahead, that’s the better option.
Aside from that, you’ll want to make sure you aren’t overstriding, your arms aren’t swinging too much, and you’re consciously relaxing your neck and shoulder muscles. Don’t forget to tighten your core as you run to stabilize yourself.
3. Experiment With Nutrition and Hydration
Don’t neglect hydration and nutrition because you can hop off the treadmill and go to the kitchen whenever needed! It’s wise to act like you’re on the road and plan your hydration and nutrition accordingly.
Pre-Run Fueling Strategies
The distance of your run will dictate your pre-run fuel. Generally, you won’t need to fuel up if you’re doing a shorter run—less than an hour. If your stomach feels a bit unsettled, though, you can have some toast or a banana.
For runs longer than an hour, it’s a good idea to pre-fuel. Make sure you’re choosing the right food, though—fueling up on empty calories will only aggravate your stomach and won’t benefit you during your run.
Opt for a fairly light meal of healthy carbs and protein about an hour before your run. This could be scrambled eggs and toast or a protein smoothie.
For longer runs that stray closer to 2 hours, you want to be more robust with your fueling strategy. About 2 hours before your run, eat a moderately-sized meal including both carbs and protein.
An hour before, fill up with an easy-to-digest snack like an energy bar. At 30 minutes before, you can give yourself a little pre-run boost by having a piece of fruit or an energy gel or chew.
Staying Hydrated During Treadmill Workouts
You don’t want to waste time getting off the treadmill to fill up your water, so we advise calculating your sweat rate and finding the best way to stay hydrated throughout your run.
Keep in mind that during a marathon, there will be water stations so you won’t need to carry that much water with you. But make sure you’ve got enough to see you through your training runs on the treadmill.
For runs over an hour, you will also need to supplement with electrolytes to avoid suffering from the adverse effects of an electrolyte imbalance.
Post-Run Recovery Nutrition
What you eat after your run is just as important as your pre-run nutrition. If possible, eat within an hour of finishing your run.
You want to refuel with a meal of healthy carbs to replenish energy and glycogen stores, 20 to 40 grams of protein to help with muscle repair, and don’t forget to rehydrate and add electrolytes.
4. How to Manage Long Runs on a Treadmill
Long runs can be boring on the road but even more boring on the treadmill! Here’s how to make them more manageable.
Breaking Long Runs Into Manageable Segments
If a long run is intimidating, you have a few options. Runners with the time and flexibility in their schedule can split it up into 2 shorter runs and do one in the morning and one in the evening.
Those who can’t split their runs into 2 can try to break the distance down into more manageable segments. For example, a 15-mile run could be broken down into 3 segments of 5 miles each.
That way, instead of aiming for 15 miles, you can work towards 5 miles, take a short break, and then work on the next 5 miles, and repeat. This is an excellent way of staying mentally strong throughout a long treadmill run.
Entertainment and Distraction Strategies
Stop your treadmill runs from being boring by deciding on some entertainment strategies upfront. You can catch up on your favorite TV series while running on the TV or your tablet.
Another good option is music. Put together a playlist of music you love that matches your target cadence, and play it loudly as you run.
Virtual Run With Friends
Doing a virtual run with friends can be a fun way of sharing your experience with others and making things more exciting. It’s also a good way of staying accountable to someone, which can help keep you motivated when training gets tough.
5. Mental Preparation and Motivation
Physical preparation is key, but don’t neglect mental preparation. Get this right, and you can boost your physical performance. Get it wrong, and you can hamper your own performance.
Practice Mindful Running
This means being aware of your own body during a run. Practice being aware of the feelings and sensations in each part of your body while running, or focusing on regulating your breathing.
This is an excellent way of not only becoming aware of your form and picking up on aches and pain early, but also a great exercise to hone your focus and prevent you from getting distracted while you run.
Setting Milestones and Rewards
Track your progress and reward yourself when you reach milestones. Be thoughtful with your rewards—try not to make them edible, unhealthy rewards! Instead, choose experiences like buying yourself something you’ve been wanting, going out for dinner (keep it healthy), or going to see a movie.
Tips for Marathon Training on a Treadmill
Here are some extra tips to help you maximize your marathon treadmill training. Follow these, and you’ll be in the best possible position to smash your marathon goals!
Train in a Properly Ventilated Area
If your treadmill is stuck in a dusty garage, you won’t be able to train at your optimal performance. Setting it up in an open, well-ventilated place is in your best interest.
This will ensure that you’re breathing in clean air as you train, and will also help to regulate your body temperature as you exercise.
Treadmill Running Form Analysis
Your form might be slightly different on the treadmill than it is on the road. Analyzing your form on the treadmill is very worthwhile, even if you’ve already done so outdoors.
We recommend setting aside one session to record yourself running from different angles. You can use a smartphone camera, but we highly recommend setting up 3 cameras at once—front, side, and rear.
While you can do these in 3 separate takes, doing it all at once is optimal because your gait may change slightly from run to run.
Take the Opportunity to Work on Cadence and Stride
One of the best things about the treadmill is its controlled environment. That means you won’t come up against any unexpected or unpredictable hazards that can cause you to slow down or change your stride.
As long as you have a consistent pace and a flat surface, you can use it as the perfect opportunity to work on your cadence and stride. You can focus quite closely on your form on a treadmill, pay attention to each foot strike, get used to keeping your arms close to your sides, and so on.
Treadmill Race Rehearsals
We love the idea of doing a “race rehearsal” on the treadmill a week or more before race day. It can be a fun exercise, but it can also highlight important areas where you might need to work more before race day. Here’s how it works.
- Set your goal distance to 8 miles.
- Plan to run it at your goal marathon pace. You can use a smartwatch here, as well as your treadmill, to make sure it’s accurate.
- Implement a shortened marathon hydration and nutrition strategy.
- Warm up as if you’re doing the real race.
- Mentally prepare as if you’re doing the real race.
If you’re quite knowledgeable about the course that your real marathon is going to be on, you have the time, and your treadmill has the capability, you can set up a full program on the treadmill to mimic the course.
That means the incline will increase and decrease to simulate the course you’re actually going to be running at the points in the run when you would most likely be reaching them.
This will take some time, but it’s worth doing if you can. You’ll be glad for the more realistic rehearsal when you get onto the real course!
Get Ready with Our FREE Half Marathon Training Plan
To help you get ready for your half marathon, we’ve provided a free training plan below. This 12-week training plan has three options for beginner, intermediate, and expert runners. Regardless of where you are with your running, this training plan will help you get to the starting line and have a great race!
Use the button if you’d like to download the PDF training plan for free.