Is The Hamster Wheel Giving You Enough Tread Cred?

We’re knee-deep (pun totally intended) in the midst of snow season here in blustery Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Jack Frost’s wintery flurries have many a runner scurrying for warmer grounds… mainly, the treadmill.

But is swapping street cred for tread cred stunting your running progress?

The fact is this: yes, using the hamster wheel too much, can in fact slow your running progress… exponentially! For a few critical reasons, as a running coach, I have to caution against over-reliance on the treadmill; moreover, I’ve systematically found that my clients who regularly run on a treadmill progress far slower than those who regularly hit the streets and/or trails for their runs.

That’s the bad news. The goods news, however, is this: while running on a treadmill will never be as effective as running on a regular surface, there are a few things you can do to attempt to minimize the negative effects on your running progress!

1. Running on a treadmill doesn’t accurately mimic running on a regular surface. When you’re running on a treadmill, you don’t have to propel your body forward, whereas when you’re running on a regular surface… you do. Because of the constant rotation of the tread underneath your feet, when you are running on a treadmill, you are simply propelling your body slightly upward with each footstrike— not moving forward whatsoever (if you did, you’d hit the treadmill screen, wouldn’t you?). Running is all about efficient energy conservation, and this small difference makes a huge difference in terms of how much energy it requires for your body to run. Simply put, running on a treadmill is easier than running on a regular surface… that’s just due to the inherent way a treadmill is designed and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to combat this difference.

2. Running on a treadmill with no incline whatsoever can lead to poor running progress. A lot of people get on a treadmill to run, and they set their pace, distance, time, etc… but they neglect to set the incline. Of course, when you’re running outside, no matter how slight the changes are, there WILL be changes in incline/decline. These changes in incline/decline strengthen different muscles in your legs, and running regularly with no incline change whatsoever stunts your running progress. This is easily remedied though— simply make sure you’re always varying the incline when you’re running on the treadmill. Many runners mistakenly believe that setting the treadmill to a 1% incline will give you the same effect as running outdoors… but this is a myth. You need to experience all sorts of different inclines across the board, ranging from slight inclines to steep grades, but fortunately almost all treadmills have a hill setting that will allow you to easily accomplish this goal so that you can best strengthen your leg muscles for running.

3. Running on a treadmill can promote poor running form. Many novices runners (not just on a treadmill… in general!) fall into the trap of running with a bouncy, unnatural, strenuous up-and-down motion. Experienced runners know that running with a slight forward lean stemming from the ankles (not the torso) is a more efficient, less strenuous, and overall safer way to run. With that slight forward lean, your body is, in essence, “falling” into each footstrike forward with the assistance of gravity. This increases your body’s total running efficiency, which allows you to have more energy to run further, faster, and safer. Fabulous news, isn’t it?! But, the fact is, because running on a treadmill lends itself to an up-and-down motion (as I stated earlier, because of the constant rotation of the tread underneath your feet) AND because the placement of the treadmill screen in front of you can cause you to inadvertently “lean back” so that you do not accidentally hit the screen, this can cause even experienced runners to alter their running form by slipping into poor habits such as the up-and-down motion. As a result, lower back, hip, and knee problems can develop. In fact, treadmill runners statistically report a greater incidence of these injuries. For this reason, when running on a treadmill you need to be vigilant in maintaining proper running form by running with a slight forward lean stemming from the ankles.

4. It can be easy to fall into comfortable habits when running on a treadmill regularly. It’s nice to know that you can hop on a treadmill at an 8:00 minute/mile setting. But this is one of the huge pitfalls of running on a treadmill. When it’s just you and your legs outdoors, you know when you’re pushing yourself and you know darn well when you’re not. Say you run a 7:30 minute/mile every day. Then one day you push yourself, and you realize you can run a 7:00 minute/mile. Awesome, right?! But on a treadmill… you can only go as fast as that treadmill is set, no faster. So it limits your progress exponentially. This is perhaps the hardest to combat, because it’s difficult to know what your body can and cannot do… until you push yourself to go further, go faster. My best advice to my clients is to try to push yourself regularly. Try to go a little faster, a little further… maybe you can run at a higher setting or maybe you can’t— then you’ve got to tap out and bring the setting back down again. But with a treadmill, you really need to be aware of the fact that you’ve got to make a conscious decision to try to push yourself. It’s not the same as running outdoors when progression evolves in a more natural, more subconscious manner.

That said, running on a treadmill is great exercise nonetheless. As long as you know the pitfalls of treadmill running, you can make a few small changes (varying the incline, monitoring your form, pushing your limits) to safeguard yourself from those pitfalls hampering your running progress too much. In the end though, as long as you are movin’ and groovin’ and enjoying what you do… then that’s all that really matters!

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