Optimise Your Treadmill Workouts

 

hamtser running on green wheel like treadmill

Treadmill Running

Many of us will turn to indoor training as the weather turns. One piece of indoor training equipment that you’ll likely use is the treadmill.

The treadmill is a great alternative to the icy, slippery routes in the winter months, returning from injury or just a good old run with no frills.

However, what the manuals don’t tell you is there are a few adjustments that need to be made to mimic a more natural outdoor run and to reduce the likelihood of injury.

By design, treadmills do a lot of the work for you due to their belts rotating below your feet. All you are technically doing is lifting your feet and running on the spot – just like Sammy the hamster. This means that the forces are therefore a little different to running outside, so too are the metabolic demands or your effort.

So how do you make the treadmill workout a little more natural so that it mimics an outdoor workout?

Resistance

There is little to no air resistance when using a treadmill and that means you save a lot of energy when running. Run at speeds of around 7:30 min/km (7-8km/hr) or 12 min/mil (4mph-5mph) you use about 5% less energy than you would outdoors. Run at 5:00min/km – 6:00min/km (10-12km/hr) or 9:34min/mile - 8min/mile (9.40mph -7.46mph) there is a whopping 10% energy differential.

Effort

Effort is also reduced due to the belts carrying effect. While running outdoors requires the power of your own muscles to carry the legs through a full cycle, the treadmill is now the key driver in catapulting the legs backwards due to the feet being in contact with the backwards rotating belt.

women running on treadmill testing vo2max performance

Common Technique Deviations

3 of the most common deviations of correct running technique on the treadmill are 1. over striding, 2. landing on your heels and 3. bending incorrectly at the waist.

Solution:

  1. So, we know the treadmill pulls our leg backwards unlike that of running outdoors where you are pulling the leg backwards. When the treadmill takes your leg too far back you are forced to overcompensate your stride length with your lead leg in an attempt correct your alignment.

Over striding can also result in our cadence slowing down. This does not sound like such a big deal but the high correlation between ground contact time (slower cadence) and lower leg injuries is well documented. The more time we spend on the ground in the running cycle the more likely we are to get injured. Sprinters spend less than 3 seconds of their total time for a 100m race in contact with the ground. So up your cadence to get strong and fast! Remember increasing cadence reduces ground contact time, which in turn reduces potential injury and makes you more efficient.

Solution:

  1. Landing on your heels. This overcompensating results in over striding and by virtue results in you landing on your heels, like that of walking. This significantly increases the impact by up to three times or more on your hard working joints and muscles. This overstriding and attempt of alignment correction can result in ITB syndrome, stress fractures and other impact related injuries.

Your ability to naturally lean forward on a treadmill is negated due to the mechanics and base angle of the treadmill. By setting the incline to 1 degree you reinstate your ability to lean slightly forward into the run. Normally this lean angle or gravitational torque is the key to your natural running speed on the ground but on the treadmill your speed is dictated by the belts speed. You are leaning slightly forward however, encourages better technique than standing fully erect whilst shuffling those legs to the speed of the treadmill.

Solution:

  1. Bending incorrectly at the waste. Bending at the waist is another area of concern for those on the treadmills. This is due to over striding, weak stabilising muscles and / or poor technique. If you get off the treadmill and you feel the back is tender, then there is a good chance you are bending foreword excessively at the waist and could lack strength in this area. You should be aiming for a bow like posture when running and leaning forward from the hips rather than the chest.

Before we go into a couple of options around treadmill workouts here are some basics to consider beforehand.

 

man holding hand rails on treadmill during running and looking at screen

Know your equipment 

Be familiar with all equipment you are going to use before you use it. For the treadmill, this means:

  • making sure it is on level and sturdy ground.
  • know how to stop your run quickly in an emergency.
  • where to place your feet to start and end your run.
  • know where your incline and speed adjusters are and be familiar with any on screen functions before you start your run.
  • check there is 1.5m clearance behind the treadmill or more.

Handrails

  • Be familiar with how to mount and dismount using the handrails and foot plates on either side of the belt.
  • The handrails are there to support you getting on, getting off and taking a break during your workout.
  • Holding onto the handrails can make you feel as though you are keeping up, but the reality is, you are making things easier. Let go!

Warm up

It sounds obvious but many treadmill users jump on the treadmill and off they go. Warming up gets the body and mind ready for what is about to come. If you are planning for an intensive workout on the treadmill, then you’ll need a solid warm up.

There is an inverse relationship between the length of the warmup and the intensity of the run. For all running based activities, the more intense the workout is going to be the longer the warmup should be. The longer the run or activity will be the shorter the warmup should be – it can even be part of the first several minutes of the session. 

Cool down

It can be very tempting to jump off the treadmill as soon as the hard efforts of your workout have ended. It is suggested you do a slow jog or walk as part of your cool down to slow the heart rate and circulation down. This is to reduce any potential blood pooling in the legs and dizziness from suddenly stopping after the workout.

Here are some options you could use to mimic a more natural outdoor run or make those treadmill workouts less boring.

 

woman changing incline setting on treadmill when running

 

Option 1 – varying treadmill incline

  • Decreasing the incline to -2% (if this option is available) and increasing the speed can really focus your efforts on leg turnover and build a higher cadence. This sort of workout produces a higher eccentric loading on the legs, i.e., more stress. So, build up to these workouts over the weeks, and ensure proper recovery from them.
  • Keeping the incline at 0% means you can work on leg turnover without having to increase your heart rate as much.
  • Increasing the treadmill incline to 1% requires a similar metabolic load to that of outdoor running as well as increasing leg strength.
  • Increasing the treadmill incline to 2-3% is a good option for speed hill speed work and strength building. This produces less physical impact on the knees and quadriceps but does require a higher metabolic load so expect the heart rate to get right up there.
  • If you are going to be increasing the treadmill to higher inclines then gradually do so over several weeks to ensure the body is fully conditioned to take on this load, as hill work places significant stress on those smaller more vulnerable body parts such as the Achilles tendon.

Option 2 – varying treadmill pace

  1. Start the treadmill up and get to a comfortable speed.
  2. Keep the treadmill speed as is but slow your leg speed down and keep your cadence up.
  3. Allow the treadmill to carry you to the back of the treadmill belt where the rear rollers are. Just before you feel the rollers nip at the bottom of your feet, then quickly pick up your leg speed and cadence and run towards the front of the treadmill.

You will look as though you are running forward, slowing down, moving towards the back of the treadmill and then speeding up and moving towards the front of the treadmill again. WARNING: this takes practice and is likely to result in you binning it if you get it wrong so go easy at first. Get it right and your treadmill runs become a game changer as your runs will now become a greater mimicry of actual ground running.

In Summary

  1. Start the treadmill up and get to a comfortable speed.
  2. Keep the treadmill speed as is but slow your leg speed down and keep your cadence up.
  3. Allow the treadmill to carry you to the back of the treadmill belt where the rear rollers are. Just before you feel the rollers nip at the bottom of your feet, then quickly pick up your leg speed and cadence and run towards the front of the treadmill.

You will look as though you are running forward, slowing down, moving towards the back of the treadmill, and then speeding up and moving towards the front of the treadmill again. WARNING: this takes practice and is likely to result in you binning it if you get it wrong so go easy at first. Get it right and your treadmill runs become a game changer as your runs will now become a greater mimicry of actual ground running.

In Summary

Although a treadmill workout does not encourage proper technique as you are shuffling the legs rather than moving the body forward, there are ways as discussed above in which you can tweak your treadmill workouts to make them more aligned to actual ground running.

Overall, the treadmill is a great piece of equipment to add to your arsenal of training tools. Used correctly you will find it has its place in rehabilitation, speed, strength, technique and HIIT training workouts.

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