The dreaded treadmill

A matter of the heart

Treadmill running is a matter close to my own heart, quite literally. An avid runner since my childhood, the first time I ever set foot on a treadmill was after being diagnosed with my cardiac condition (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) back in 2005. Cardiologists told me then that my running days were over, as running would heighten my risk of cardiac arrest and dying suddenly. I was faced with a dilemma … to run or not to run? The thought of not running was unimaginable. The thought of collapsing and taking my last breaths somewhere on a suburban pavement didn’t seem a pleasant option either. This was at a time in my life when my children were young and I was working full-time. I didn’t have the flexibility to train with a regular running group. Most of my running was done solo in whatever gap I could find during the week.

I compromised. For the next few years, I opted for running 30 minutes two to five times a week on a treadmill at the local gym where there were people all around me. I figured that if I were to ever fall off the treadmill (heaven help me!) I would be in good company.

Treadmill running feels rather different to running overground, outdoors on the road or trails or athletics track. I have since returned to overground running but still incorporate the treadmill into my training when I feel like it. I discovered that treadmill running does have some surprising benefits. It is not simply for the faint-hearted.

Heart health advantages

Treadmill running offers you the regular suite of heart health benefits associated with any form of aerobic exercise. Repetitive movements of your limbs and muscles encourage physical effort, which increases your breathing and heart rate and the blood flow between your lungs and muscles. In a pioneering study in 1996, researchers showed that the treadmill is the most efficient form of aerobic exercise compared to other forms of indoor exercise equipment. Research also shows that VO2 max is the same when running on a treadmill and outside. The take home message here is simple.

A treadmill workout is better than no workout at all.

I don’t mind fessing up that I tend towards the treadmill more often in winter when I am most at risk of athletic ambivalence. Cold weather just doesn’t cut it for me.

‘Real runners’ train on treadmills

Don’t be intimidated by people telling you that treadmill running is a ‘soft’ option. Phil Latter of Runners World writes a neat article on ‘real runners’ who train on treadmills. He speaks to elite athletes and their coaches and reveals their strategies for integrating treadmill running into their regular training programs.

Gain an advantage over so-called ‘outdoor junk miles’.

‘Increasing pace tempo’, ‘Lactate flushing session’, ‘The endless uphill’, ‘The long run’, ‘The hill circuit’ … nothing is left for the imagination. Garth Fox provides a similar coverage of pro triathlon indoor workouts. I recommend you check them out.

A number of famous athletes have used the treadmill in their race preparation: Chris McCormack, Chrissie Wellington, Haile Gebrselassie, Kerryn McCann, Emma Snowsill, Jackie Gallagher and Mo Farah, to name a few … Mo Farah apparently has access to a state-of-the-art underwater treadmill that allows him to add extra mileage without extra wear and tear on his legs and recover effectively from his road work.

The variety of programs that have been developed for treadmills shows that there are no hard and fast rules to follow, simply find a session that works for you. And, it doesn’t need to be a fancy one at that. Biomechanics expert, Casey Kerrigan, favours simplicity and opts for running on a flat treadmill with no incline at all. I personally like to combine the treadmill with an aerobic weight circuit and core strength-conditioning program. I typically run for an equivalent 8-10km, get off the treadmill and do a weight/strength circuit for around 15 -20 minutes, get back on for another 5-10km before finishing off with some consolidated stretching. I find this adds real value to my indoor workout.

Treadmill running won’t affect your running biomechanics

While there has tended to be a bias against treadmill running in the past, the general consensus now is that biomechanical conditions are essentially the same for treadmill and overground running. Notably, your hip, knee and ankle kinematics (movement patterns) are comparatively similar during the stance phase of overground and treadmill running. If you are keen to learn more about the biomechanics, I recommend these articles by Kerrigan and Hashish.

Treadmill running – easier than running outdoors?

This is widely claimed because wind resistance is eliminated in treadmill running. You run at whatever speed the belt is moving. Running outdoors, on the other hand, requires you to displace the air in front of you, pushing through the resulting wind resistance.

A treadmill gradient of 1% has been widely quoted as the ‘gold standard’.

Setting the gradient to 1% is said to offset the lack of wind resistance and make treadmill running as effective as running outside. However, Kerrigan points out that researchers in the original study which influenced this trend showed this to be effective only when running at a pace of 7:09 min/mile (4:27 min/km) or faster. Otherwise, there is no difference in energy costs between running on the treadmill or overground.

Stride cadence – why is it important?

You can readily calculate your stride cadence (the number of strides you take each minute) on the treadmill by counting how many times the same foot touches the ground in one minute.

Experts recommend a stride cadence of 90 or above to prevent overstriding.

A cadence less than 90 results in excessive forces through your joints, bones and tendons increasing your susceptibility to injury over time. Treadmill running is an effective way to regularly monitor and adjust your cadence. Higher cadence (or shorter stride length) is usually demanded of distance runners and recommended for triathletes running off the bike. The treadmill is said to promote just that, as there is a natural tendency to shorten your stride to keep up with the limited length of belt.

Potential injury hotspots

The treadmill offers a certain amount of compliance or springiness that dampens peak forces through the joints. It provides a lower impact surface for running workouts and its smooth, flat surface enables runners to avoid the risk of rolling injuries typically encountered on outdoor trails. Yet, there are some differences between treadmill and overground running.

Your Achilles tendon and calf muscles are vulnerable in treadmill running.

Hashish (see link above) gives us the biomechanical basis for why this is the case, explaining that there appears to be an increase in energy absorption to the ankle in treadmill running. The important message here is that you must ease into any new training regime, including treadmill running. Build speed and distance gradually. Allow sufficient recovery time to prevent injury. And, if you suffer from calf or Achilles strains you may benefit from running overground with shorter strides, and spending less time on the treadmill.

Check your form

Running on the treadmill gives you time and space to focus on your rhythm and style of running. Purely running. Nothing else gets in the way when you are on the treadmill. You also have the opportunity to experiment with your technique.

Have you ever watched yourself run?

Prop up a mirror in front of your treadmill to develop a greater ‘kinaesthetic sense’ of yourself. Check your form. Are you lifting your knees? Are you standing tall?  Do you drive with your arms? Experiment with ways to change it.

Take your ‘fantasy workouts’ to a higher level

Treadmill running, with today’s tech savvy features, provides a way to simulate race courses and produce precise pacing in a controlled environment.

Treadmill running enables training ‘specificity’, which can be critical in fine-tuning an athlete’s competitive strategy.

The London Marathon has developed for its famous race an incredible app, Virtual London Marathon, which is designed for download to an iPad and propping up on a treadmill. The app is so sophisticated that it responds to vibrations in your running and can adjust the course to reflect your stride. You can interact with avatars of other competitors, the likes of Tsegaye Kebede and Emmanuel Mutai.

Running video apps set new standards for ‘fantasy workouts’.

Research also supports the place of music in improving athletic performance. Eminem has recently received kudos for increasing athletic performance by 10%, due to the emotional resonance he generated for British endurance swimmer, Ben Hooper, during training workouts. While it is commonplace these days for runners to listen to music while running outdoors, cars, inattentive people, and dodgy animals pose risks for runners ‘tuning out’ outdoors. The treadmill provides a safe environment for switching on your favourite workout tracks. Robbie Williams (Live at Knebworth 2003) paces me just nicely through a 70-minute treadmill set.

Variety is the spice of life

The treadmill originally came about for me as a way to stay in the running game at a time when my own heart health and thus training options were compromised. I have grown to like many aspects of treadmill running and am comfortable with it now assuming a regular place in my training regime. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life.

I’m very happy to report that I haven’t fallen off the treadmill yet!

I encourage dedicated athletes to consider the value of treadmill running in the scheme of their own training. For beginners / novices, don’t be reluctant to get on the treadmill if this will help you to maintain your aerobic program through the winter months. The next time another athlete questions the value of the treadmill, just be sure to ask them if their last run included any ‘outdoor junk miles’. I think they’ll get the drift.


Kara Gilbert of KMG Communications


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