How To Use A Treadmill Effectively

Woman running on treadmill
(Image credit: andresr / Getty Images)

When you first venture into a gym you might view the treadmill as a safe space. You don’t have to share it with others or put it back in the right place like you do with weights, and it’s really quite hard to use it incorrectly, in contrast to initially terrifying contraptions like suspension trainers or cable machines.

However, once you clamber aboard you might well discover that using the treadmill is not as simple as anticipated. Modern machines have a baffling array of dials and buttons you can adjust to mix up your workout, and if you steadfastly ignore them in favour of hitting the big “quick start” button and just plodding along at a set pace, you’re missing out on a world of opportunity.

You’ll also get bored. Really bored, no matter how exciting the true crime podcast you’re listening to while on the treadmill is. Running on the spot staring at a wall or out into the rest of the gym is a monotonous enough experience without adding to that by sticking to the same workout, so it’s time to get acquainted with all those buttons that’ll let you change up your training easily.

To help you get the most out of treadmill training we spoke to David Howatson, master trainer at equipment company Technogym, manufacturer of one of the best home treadmills.

What are the first settings people need to adjust when they first step on a treadmill?

The most basic settings to consider are speed and gradient. First-timers should begin at a moderate speed that replicates a similar speed to which you run or walk outside.

My little tip is to make sure you walk, jog or run with a gradient of at least 1.5% on your treadmill. Working without a gradient means that the machine does most of the work for you. Because the belt is moving your muscles don’t need to do too much work at a 0% gradient – you are literally just putting your foot down and lifting it back up again without having to drive forward as you would outside. Having a 1.5% gradient gets the muscles to produce some force, making the whole activity more effective and authentic.

What is the red clip that’s found on treadmills?

This is the emergency stop function. There’s a small clip on a string that’s designed to halt the belt if the user gets too close to the back edge of the treadmill. If the string is pulled to its full length, the belt will come to an immediate stop.

The clip should always attach to the waistline of your shorts or trousers – because T-shirts can be baggy and vary in length, it’s best to avoid clipping to them.

What are the common pre-set workouts to try?

Programming will vary, but distance-based treadmill workouts tend to be the most commonly used because people look to hit a target, whether it be a 5K or a marathon. Hill-based and interval-style sessions are always popular too.

Running at a set speed or pace is an extremely valuable strategy, especially for those looking to hit a particular time on their given distance. However, sprint intervals are great for those looking to work at high intensity or improve their pure speed. One of the benefits of this type of training run is developing fast-twitch muscle fibres, which improves your ability to perform power movements.

Hill training will build strength in particular areas of the body as well as improving your muscular endurance. Every muscle in your posterior chain – calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back and shoulders – is switched on and working during hill running.

When should you use the heart rate monitor hand panels on a treadmill?

The heart rate monitor panels are useful for recording levels at the start and end of the workout. It’s best to track heart rate using a chest, wrist or forearm device while moving. Holding the hand panel takes the arms out of walking or running which prevents people from moving naturally. It's a bit like running with a shopping trolley or a baby buggy.

The best advice I can give is to monitor heart rate in every treadmill session. Getting into the correct heart rate zone ensures the body is working in the appropriate way to match your goal. For example, if you want to build endurance your heart rate should be at 70-80% of your maximum. That specific zone develops your capacity to transport oxygen to, and carbon dioxide away from, your muscular tissue.

What are some good ways to stop treadmill sessions getting boring?

Tracking your sessions and setting a goal really helps combat the boredom. For example, the Technogym MyRun app connects a tablet to the treadmill, so you can see all your live workout data and browse the web at the same time. For the beginner, this distraction will help – even if it leads to just a few more minutes of exertion, that's still a few steps closer to the target.

Having a goal is the best killer of boredom. People who use the quick start option on treadmills don’t tend to last very long! Even the most basic goal, such as time or distance, will focus the mind – and having a training plan [like this treadmill workout plan] that includes some variation is always a winner.

How does running on a treadmill differ to running outside?

The physical demands of running on treadmills are often lower than running outside. This is due to being able to run uninterrupted at a pre-set pace without variation in the surface or speed. Treadmills also cut out any changes in direction, which lowers the risk of injury and takes less energy to perform. However, these benefits can also be downsides, as you may want those variations in surface, speed and direction to keep your body stimulated.

Are there any treadmill etiquette pointers people should make sure they follow?

Absolutely. First of all, listen. We've all had that person running next to us who sounds like a herd of elephants. That is sometimes down to bad technique, but often highlights a runner who is on a 0% gradient. So be aware of how much noise you’re making when your feet make contact with the belt. Whatever your size or weight, technique can be improved to make each step that little bit softer and more efficient.

Second, be clean. Nobody wants to step on a treadmill covered in sweat. Always give the kit a good wipe down afterwards.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.