How to Run on a Treadmill: A Beginner’s Guide

Two men running on treadmills.

The first time you ever step on a treadmill can be intimidating. There are seemingly endless buttons.There’s a red emergency stopper, which might conjure up worries of flying off the machine.There’s a screen with all sorts of metrics, words, and programs flashing at you. Some treadmills even have videos to follow or pre-programmed exercise routines to choose from in the center console. 

So, where do you even start with it all? 

This article will address common questions and concerns beginner runners have when it comes to treadmill running. Keep reading to learn all about how to use a treadmill, the pros and cons of treadmills, and more!

6 Key Tips for Starting Running on a Treadmill

We have compiled 6 key tips for you to help dispel any feelings of intimidation or worry you may be feeling as you use a treadmill for the first time.

1.) Become Familiar With Your Treadmill

Before you ever push “start” or “go” on your treadmill, take a few moments to carefully examine your machine and familiarize yourself with the treadmill settings. 

  1. You should find the buttons that adjust the belt speed and incline, and locate the screens that show what those speeds and inclines are. 
  2. Find the button(s) that turn the treadmill on and off. 
  3. Take note of any automatic workout programs or pre-programmed runs located in the center console. The programs may be on a screen or on the console itself. 
  4. Finally, familiarize yourself with the emergency treadmill stopper.  It’s usually bright red and in the center of the treadmill console with a cord attached.  A quick pull of the cord removes the stopper from the console and instantly stops the belt from turning, which is crucial to your safety in case of an emergency.

2.) Start with Walking

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the machine’s console layout and its capabilities, it’s time to turn it on and get going! 

Most treadmills have an auto-start feature and this is the best place to start. All machines allow you to manually adjust to the pace you wish. As you get more familiar with a particular treadmill, you can try out the workouts with incline, etc. to see what you like.

We recommend that runners start out walking on the treadmill for a few minutes as part of their warm up. You’ll want to set your speed somewhere between 2.0-3.5 miles per hour for your warm up walk. As you progress to running, you will need to push the button to gradually increase your speed.

3.) Bump Up Incline to Mimic Hills

One nice option that most treadmills have is the ability to adjust your incline, or the steepness of your treadmill. 

Some machines can reach inclines of 15% or more, mimicking steep hills. Certain treadmills may even have an ability to decline such as the NordicTrack Commercial 1750, to allow you to practice running downhill, too.

For beginners, we recommend saving the steep inclines for when you are more accustomed to using the treadmill. Keeping the majority of your treadmill runs at an incline of 1%, instead of 0% or flat, will mimic the wind resistance you’d encounter on outdoor runs, but there’s also no need to get hung up on this.

4.) Increase Speed/Pace Gradually

After you’ve completed your warm up walk, gradually bump up the pace to a light jog.  Hang out there for a bit while you decide whether you want to go faster, or stay at the current pace. 

We’re emphasizing gradual increases because you don’t want to accidentally bump up to a crazy-fast pace that leaves you struggling to keep up with the treadmill, or worse, needing to pull the emergency stop cord.

The ultimate goal is to find your easy effort – a pace where you could comfortably carry on a conversation with others – while continuing to run. 

If you’re not sure whether it’s your true easy pace, try reciting a poem or singing a few lines to a song as you run. Gasping for breath between words is a sign that you need to slow down to something more manageable, for your safety. Easy running should feel like a 3 on a rate of perceived exertion scale and if you need to take walk breaks to maintain this level effort, that’s totally ok!

RELATED: Why is running SO hard? (And will it ever get easier?)

5.) Pay Attention to your Form

Maintaining proper form is incredibly important on the treadmill.  It is possible to get overuse injuries from treadmills simply due to changes in your form that you might not otherwise make when running outside. 

Sloppy treadmill form can be one sign that you’re running too fast and need to slow down. You want to be in control of your body as you run on the treadmill, not flailing around or worse, grasping tightly to the handrails to hang on. Safety is the of utmost importance.

Here are some key form cues to remember when treadmill running:

  • Run tall; don’t slouch or allow your shoulders to droop forward, even if you get tired. Carry yourself in a tall, proud way, looking straight ahead.
  • Don’t crowd the console.  Many people are guilty of running too close to console, which doesn’t allow for natural movement as you run.  Take a half-step to a full step back on the belt to better open up your natural stride and allow your arms to swing naturally, instead of smushed against and across your body.
  • Relax your arms.  Keep your elbows at a 90 degree angle and make sure they’re swinging back and forth, not side to side across your body.
  • Don’t hold on to the front or side rails of the treadmill! You should be able to run on the treadmill without hanging on for dear life.
  • Don’t over stride.  Keep your footsteps quick and short.  Make sure your feet are landing under your hips, instead of reaching out ahead of your body.

6.) Try Running Intervals

As a beginner treadmill runner, we recommend running intervals on a treadmill as you first start out. Running intervals means alternating periods of fast running with slow running, also known as a fartlek. A great way for beginners to learn how to run is by alternating jogging with walking intervals.

Keep your intervals short when you first start running on the treadmill. For example, try intervals such as running or jogging for 30 seconds, then walking for 1 minute. Repeat this 10 times. To learn more about how to utilize this type of running, read, “What is a fartlek? The Speed Session You Should be Doing.”

We recommend running your intervals according to time, and not distance yet, as it’s easier to see your progress and celebrate your accomplishments! Plus all your body really knows is time on feet anyway.

As you continue to train and improve, you can start to increase the time of your running intervals and decrease the time, and even amount, of walking intervals.

Eventually, you won’t need those walking intervals anymore!

How to Run on the Treadmill as a Beginner

Beginners runners, whether running on a treadmill or elsewhere, must remember to never do too much, too soon.

And on a treadmill, it is easy to push a button and drastically increase your running intensity, whether it’s by adjusting the speed and/or incline settings. This can be tempting, especially when feelings of boredom start to set in. For your safety as a runner, you’ll want to resist this temptation until your body has had time to adapt.

How to Avoid Doing Too Much, Too Soon

It’s also not a good idea to make the jump from running a just few minutes at a time, to running for an hour or more on the treadmill without slowly building stamina and strength in your cardiovascular system, muscles, bones and joints over time.

You should never make drastic changes to your running time, distance, frequency and intensity within the same week, much on less the same day. Be careful to only adjust one running factor at a time, in order to stay as healthy and injury-free as possible.

Adjusting more than one running factor at a time is a recipe for injury (don’t ask me how I learned that lesson and how much physical therapy it entailed!). Remember, each run is not a contest against your prior runs, so take things slow in order to have long-term success as a runner.

Take your time developing as a runner, and you will be able to run for years to come.

How to Enjoy Running on a Treadmill

Many runners actively avoid running on the treadmill, complaining about boredom from essentially running in place in a public gym or at home.

Try these tips to fight boredom the next time you run indoors on your treadmill:

  • Watch a TV show or movie that you reserve only for when you use a treadmill
  • Listen to podcasts, audiobooks and music playlists
  • Read: We admit, this can be tricky! Some runners can, and some can’t, but if you have a Kindle you can increase the print making it easier to do so.
  • Follow a guided run, which can be found on platforms such as iFit, Peloton or the Nike running app.
  • Add some variety to your pace: sometimes, I will adjust my pace up or down by small, .1 increments, usually no more than .3 above or below my usual easy pace, if it’s an easy day
  • Vary your incline settings: try running for a few seconds to a few minutes at a slightly different incline
  • Chunk longer runs into smaller segments: if you have a long run to complete, try chunking it into several smaller, doable runs. For instance, if you have a 5 mile run to complete on your treadmill, try taking breaks after every 1 to 1.5 miles, until you reach your goal distance.

Running on a Treadmill Vs. Outdoor Running

You’re probably wondering if running on a treadmill is better or worse than running outdoors. Lots of runners, coaches and trainers have their personal opinions, but the bottom line is that both are great options with their own set of pros and cons.

Pros and Cons of Running on a Treadmill

Pros to Using A Treadmill for Training

  • Accessible and convenient
  • Runners have more control over speed and incline
  • Avoid bad weather outdoors
  • Great option for runners returning from surgery or injury due to the level of control
  • Softer surface absorbs ground reaction forces, saving joints from hard pounding
  • Among the most effective types of exercise equipment
  • Feeling bored can be great for working on mental strength, something all runners need to succeed!

Cons to Using a Treadmill for Training

  • Can be boring and monotonous
  • Treadmill-only training can weaken and de-condition some muscles due to the lack of variety of surfaces and conditions
  • Overuse injuries can happen easily
  • Can be expensive to buy, or requires an expensive gym membership
  • Does not prepare runners for conditions they might encounter at a race

Pros and Cons of Running Outside

Pros to Running Outside

  • Activates more muscles because you’re not running linearly
  • “Pounding the pavement” actually strengthens bones better than a soft treadmill
  • Prepares your body for weather and environment conditions, especially when race training
  • Variety in scenery, running terrain, and location
  • Inexpensive – head out your door and go!

Cons to Running Outside

  • Not always possible depending on the weather conditions
  • Can require a lot of different clothing and gear so that you can keep running through different conditions and at night
  • Not always convenient
  • Can be harder for recovery if mostly done on sidewalks or roads

So, Is Running on a Treadmill Good or Bad?

Running on a treadmill is neither good nor bad! It’s an effective tool that all runners can use and benefit from, whether they’re just starting out as runners, or are experienced runners training for marathons and beyond.

Ultimately, having an access to one often means the difference between getting in a run and not getting in a run since cold conditions or night running may make it unsafe or difficult to get your run done outdoors. In which case, this makes treadmill running a great option since it’s better than not doing it at all.

Training for a Race on a Treadmill

Once you’ve gotten used to running on a treadmill, you might be ready to use one to stay on track with your training to tackle an upcoming race.

Some people worry that they should only be running outside sine their race will be outside, but a treadmill is a great tool for your training because it allows you to get runs in that you otherwise might not be able to complete. For example, if it snows on the day of your long run, most outdoor runners wouldn’t be able to run at all that day. But with access to a treadmill, it’s no problem!

It’s true that running outside is the best place to train for a race, because it prepares your body to handle any number of weather and terrain conditions you might encounter during the race.

However, for some runners, their circumstances are such that running on the treadmill is more convenient than running outside.

The treadmill may be used for many, if not most, training runs leading up to your first race.

Coach Jane used her treadmill regularly when she trained for a marathon in 2017. Check out her article on treadmill running for race preparation here!

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