The treadmill can be a lifesaver when it's dark outside, the weather is bad, or you're home bound with small children. But running on a moving belt, especially if it's too fast for your fitness level, can affect your stride. Indeed, experts see specific injury patterns in those who use the machine as their main training ground.
Adam St. Pierre, a coach and exercise physiologist from the Boulder Center of Sports Medicine, says he sees hip-flexor strains among runners who put a lot of miles on the belt, as well as shin, Achilles, and IT band pain in treadmillers who run with a too-narrow stance.
Problem: Always doing speed work on the treadmill.
Solution: You might like plugging in an aggressive pace and sticking it out, but because the treadmill keeps moving even as you tire, you may over stride, land with your foot too far ahead of your body, as you attempt to keep up with a too-fast belt. And that can lead to knee, hip, and hamstring pain. "Some people allow themselves to cheat on form when they're running fast, whether they're on a treadmill or running outside," says Jay Dicharry, director of REP Biomechanics Lab at Rebound Physical Therapy in Bend, Oregon. "But if you're on a track or on the road and you're tired, you'll slow down and miss your split. On a treadmill, you have to press a button in order to do that."
If outdoor speedwork isn't an option, try to match your treadmill stride rate to the stride rate you have on the road, Dicharry says. If your stride rate, the number of steps you take per minute, is much slower on the treadmill than it is outside, it's a sign that you're struggling on the belt and likely over-striding. (To find your stride rate, count the number of steps one foot takes in 20 seconds. Multiply that times three. Then double it.) "If you're off by 10 percent or more," Dicharry says, "you're putting a new stress on the body."
Problem: Running on autopilot.
Solution: Plugging in the very same comfortable pace and incline mile after mile, day after day can cause problems because the belt's flat, uniform surface works your muscles and joints in a repetitive way. Things you'd encounter in an outdoor environment, hills, rocks, sidewalk cracks, force your body to shift and make adjustments. These micro-changes to your movement patterns help balance out the workload, preventing certain muscles and joints from getting overtaxed. "Any variability you can add to your training program is protective to your body, helping it work more evenly," says Reed Ferber, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary.
"If you're bound to a treadmill, using the preset programs, doing hill work, and changing up the pace are not a bad way to perturb your system." Bonus benefit: A workout that mixes things up can help the miles pass more quickly than a tedious steady slog does. Try a tempo workout you can do as you watch TV: After 10 minutes of easy running, ramp up to your tempo pace and maintain it during a show. Slow down and jog for recovery during the commercials, then return to tempo pace when the show resumes. Cool down with five minutes of easy running. Check out these treadmill workouts too.
Problem: You get bored and cut workouts short.
Solution: You won't get fit if you never finish planned runs. So in addition to changing up your pace, there are other mind games you can play. "I'll tell myself I have to get through X number of miles before I can shed one layer of clothing or put on my music," says Carrie Tollefson, a 2004 Olympian and mother of two, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and logs up to half her weekly miles on the treadmill during winter. You could also hit the gym and run alongside a friend you wouldn't ordinarily hook up with because you run at different paces. (Tollefson does this with her parents.) Or reserve your favourite books, podcasts, movies, or playlists for your treadmill time. Studies show that music lowers perceived effort, so you feel less tired than you would without tunes.
Problem: Training inside, racing outside.
Solution: To get used to variables you may face on race day, such as headwinds, elevation changes, and weather conditions, do your long runs outside. But if it's a choice between a treadmill long run and no long run at all, then hit the belt and "try to vary your pace and incline as much as possible to resemble the terrain you'll encounter outside," Ferber says. And, like any other long run, treat it like a race-day dress rehearsal. If you plan to walk through aid stations during your race, do the same on your treadmill so your body gets used to slowing down and then speeding back up. Likewise, if you plan to race with a fuel belt, wear it during your run, even if you could simply store your water bottle and gels in the machine's console, so your body is trained to carry it.