Treadmills are the machines runners love to hate. Most of us would prefer the fresh air and sense of adventure that goes along with getting outside, to running in place on a moving belt. And yet on days when the road conditions are downright dangerous, the treadmill is the only way to get in a workout. It is a saving grace for which we are profusely grateful. After all, when forced to choose between the monotony of the mill and risking a fall-induced injury on slick roads that could sideline you until spring, it’s an easy decision.
While the treadmill may help you avoid a broken bone, if you log lots of miles inside in the winter, you do risk developing some overuse injuries that can throw your training off track. Here are some common mistakes runners make on the treadmill, and how to avoid them. Follow these tips, and when spring arrives, you’ll be ready to hit the road feeling healthy, fit, and running to run your best.
TRAP #1: You run too fast
Many runners, in their desire to get their treadmill workouts done as soon as possible, end up running at a much faster pace than what they could sustain outside. And who doesn’t love the ego boost you get from seeing your fantasy pace show up on the electronic display? The problem is, if you’re constantly struggling to keep up with the moving belt, you risk over striding, straining your hamstrings, and letting your form fall apart, which can lead to other injuries. Though plenty of people make this same mistake while running outside, on the treadmill, it’s easier to override signals your body may be giving that you’re going too fast. On the road when you tire, you naturally slow down. On the treadmill, the belt keeps you going, even if you’re muscles are sore, your energy is drained, and you’re struggling to keep up.
Plug a recent 5-K time into an online pace calculator to determine the appropriate paces for your workouts, says coach and exercise physiologist Janet Hamilton of Runningstrong.com, a coaching service based in Stockbridge, Georgia. Stick to that pace even if it feels too tame, she warns. Because you’re not encountering the wind resistance and undulating terrain that you’d have outside, “running on a treadmill at that pace is going to feel easier than running on real terrain at that pace,” she says. “It’s OK – you’ll still get good adaptation!”
TRAP #2: You run as fast as possible on every workout
Stick to the workout plan. It sounds counterintuitive but it’s true: the most mentally challenging treadmill workouts tend to be the easy easy days. That’s why it’s so tempting to just keep ramping up the pace, and turn every workout into a speed session. But that’s not a good idea. Just as with your outdoor workouts, it’s important to have a purpose for every workout and stick to it. In a typical training week, you want to alternate between hard and easy workouts, giving your body a chance to recover from the stresses of faster miles, and get stronger. If you run hard all the time, you’ll break your body down instead of building it up. Make sure that you’re feeling the same sense of ease that you would feel on the same workout that you would do outside, without gripping the handrails.
“Respect the purpose of the workout!” says Hamilton. If it’s a long run, the purpose is to build endurance, so relax the pace. In a designated a speed session, focus on your form, work on developing light and quick turnover, work on building speed. If it’s a hill day, which should build strength, focus on proper pacing and maintaining good form, Hamilton says. To take the edge off boredom on easy days, line up a date with a friend to run on side-by-side treadmills, or queue up a show, movie, podcast, or book to take in while you get your workout in. Drape a towel over the electronic display, so you are not tempted to ramp up the pace. If you have to hold on to the handrails to sustain your pace, you’re going too fast. During a run, the arm swing is an important part of keeping your gait even and balanced. When you grip the rails just to keep up with the moving belt, you risk over-rotating your pelvis.
TRAP #3: You keep the incline at the same level for the entire run
This is one of the most common mistakes that runners make, says Hamilton. The terrains outside aren’t static, nor are most racecourses, so your training shouldn’t be either. If you run at the same pace, at the same incline on each workout, you’re going to work the same muscles and tendons at the same angle, and put you at risk for overuse injuries. Outside, roads with varying elevation, surfaces, and angles are going to work your muscles and tendons differently than the uniform surface of the treadmill.
Hamilton recommends varying the incline, alternating between gradual inclines, level ground, and occasional steeper inclines, to mimic the same changes in terrain that you would face outside. Use one of the preset programs once a week, or try the hills. You can always ease into the intensity at first. . And more isn’t always better. Rarely is there good reason to set the incline above 5 percent. “Just because you can put it on 12% doesn’t mean you should!” she says.
TRAP #4: You let your form fall apart
Whether you’re holding on to the handrails, watching a movie on your phone, or staring at the electronic display trying to will the pace or time elapsed fields to move faster, it’s very easy to let your biomechanics fall by the way side on the treadmill. But doing so can add tension to the shoulders, make the workout feel tougher, and can lead to overuse injuries. “Your head has mass,” says Hamilton. “When you look down, that weight pulls your shoulders down and forward. This puts a load on the back muscles.”
Envision yourself running tall, says Hamilton. Imagine that you’re suspended from a hook just above the treadmill, and lengthen your torso. Avoid staring down at a screen or to the side. Cover it up to avoid the temptation. Pick an object or a view straight ahead, just as you would keep your eyes on the horizon if you were running outside. Keep your arms at your hips, swinging straight forward and back. Be sure not to let your arms swing diagonally across your body as this can lead to rotation of the pelvis. Think about taking light, quick steps. If you can hear one foot slamming down louder than the other, slow the belt down until the cadence feels easier. And whatever you do, don’t hang on to the handrails, Hamilton says. “If you can’t be comfortable with a normal arm swing, and feel you need to hold the rails for balance, you’re going too fast. Instead, stick to a walk and work on your balance. Once you feel more stable, you can crank it up to a run.
TRAP #5: You skip the warm-up and cool down
Many runners, eager to get the workout done, just jump into their treadmill sessions without a proper warm-up, then jump off the machine without a proper cool down. That’s not a good idea, as it can stiffness and cramping.
Ramp up your pace gradually, running at a more leisurely pace for the first five minutes of the workout. When you’re done, take the extra five minutes to cool down with walking and do some gentle stretching. If you’ve done a long run, do 30 to 60 seconds of walking for each mile you ran, Hamilton advises. Take some time to gently stretch the hamstrings, calves, glutes, and hip flexors, she adds. If you do a hill workout, you might add some back stretches, since the inclines tend to work your lower back a bit more.