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Before you run down treadmills, does 'Snowpocalypse' jog your memory?

Marathon champ Michael Wardian of Arlington trains on his treadmill, kept company by sons Grant, 1, and Pierce, 3.
Marathon champ Michael Wardian of Arlington trains on his treadmill, kept company by sons Grant, 1, and Pierce, 3. (James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, April 8, 2010

"How do you use a treadmill for training?" It seems like a fair question. But when I posed it to the elite runners at the Health & Fitness Expo before last month's National Marathon, most of them looked at me as if they'd just downed a bad power gel.

"You're asking the wrong person. I love to run because I love to be outside in a natural environment," replied 52-year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first women's Olympic marathon in 1984. The speedy Team Indiana guys told me treadmills are a last resort. "It's like running up an endless sand dune. It's so boring," said Mark Fruin, 24, who went on to win the half-marathon the next day.

He had a point, but to me boring beats out freezing, dark and dangerous. Throughout a winter when outdoor jogging seemed to require snow boots rather than running shoes, there was no way I was taking to the streets. Then just as the weather started to warm up, a woman on her morning run by the Mall was hit by a truck and killed. It might've been a freak accident, but that doesn't make it any less freaky. So most of the training I've done for the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run on Sunday has been at my gym.

In my search for a few treadmill pointers, I finally got a better reception from marathoner and Coach Jeffrey Horowitz. At the expo, he lectured that everyone should stick to just three runs a week: long distance, interval and tempo. The latter two, which require monitoring your speed, are easier to do with technology. "Proper intensity is important, and treadmills are perfect for that," he said.

He recommends outdoor training as well and notes that if you're hoping to finish with the front of the pack, it's basically required. But not always: Most runners are still stunned by the story of Christine Clark, who won the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials on a regimen of mostly treadmill running in her basement. Snowy Alaskan roads and two kids made it tricky for the working mom to train outside.

Sounds familiar to Michael Wardian. The 35-year-old Arlington resident, who won the National Marathon that weekend (for the fourth time), has a similar training style. "I have an incredibly persistent 3-year-old coach who ensures I put in at least an hour on the treadmill every morning," Wardian said. "He can eat a snack and watch TV and tell me I'm not running fast enough."

It's a good deal for the whole family: Mom catches some extra sleep, Coach Pierce and 1-year-old brother Grant take in cartoons and Wardian logs significant mileage. He always uses at least a 1 percent incline, which is the standard advice for anyone wanting to approximate outside conditions. But he'll knock it up every couple of miles. "It keeps things more realistic, and it helps to break it up," he said. His pace depends on the day's goals. He'll stick to a 6-minute 30-second mile for maintenance and speed up to a 5:10 mile for tempo runs.

What Wardian really appreciates is using the feedback to plan out longer events, such as the multi-day ultramarathon he started last Sunday in the Sahara Desert. "At 12 miles, you can decide to try a gel. Then you can look right on the treadmill and see that in six minutes, it started to work," he said. "Or, if for some reason the banana doesn't sit well, you're not scrambling to find leaves or money to buy something so you can use the bathroom at a store."

Appreciating the proximity of a toilet, I get. But as Wardian kept talking, I realized his advice probably wasn't for me. In addition to the treadmill routine, he usually does a second workout at lunch on the trails near his Georgetown office. And he likes to do a third run at night when he can. Did I mention he also once held the treadmill marathon record? "I'm going for it again," he promised me.

So I sought out something more my speed and found it at "Treadmill Race Training," a twice-a-week class at Equinox gym in Tysons Corner (8065 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, 703-790-6193, http://www.equinox.com). Instructor Bob Holmes believes the reason many runners can't stand treadmills is they don't know how to use them. "People have a tendency to go at their usual pace. I'm challenging them, taking them out of their comfort zone," he says.

Two weeks ago, that meant that after the warmup we were headed up a steep hill: two-minute intervals at 90 percent of our top speed and then 100 percent as we gradually increased the incline. Decent recovery time and the supportive group atmosphere kept students nudging the numbers higher. We followed that up with partner relay races. One ran a quarter-mile at top speed while the other took a cheerleading break.

Four turns later, the group was pooped and proud. "Every time I come to class, I run faster than I ever have before," said Laura Grimes, 35, a regular marathoner and triathlete who was stuck at the same speed for 15 years before joining Holmes's class last year. She has since shaved a minute off her old mile pace.

Don't think I have time to manage that before Sunday's race. But maybe by next year?

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