By Rick Morris
Are you new to treadmill running? Did you get a treadmill as a holiday gift? Do you want to learn the proper way to run on the treadmill? You’ve come to the right place. The treadmill is a great tool for learning to run, improving your running performance, increasing your fitness level and losing weight. However, there are differences between running outside and training on a treadmill. Treadmill running should match, as closely as possible, free-range running. Your running form should be the same. Your stride length and stride frequency shouldn’t change when you run on the treadmill. Your running mechanics – foot plant, push off, posture, etc. should all be the same. If there were no differences between treadmill running and free-range running, this would be simple and easy to accomplish. Unfortunately, running on a treadmill isn’t the same as free-range running. There are several major differences. The good news is that these differences are easily overcome. Here are some common treadmill running problems and how to correct them.
Overcoming Lack of Wind Resistance
One of the most obvious treadmill training problems is also the easiest to overcome. The lack of wind resistance and the assistance of the moving belt make treadmill running slightly easier than free-range running. When running on the treadmill you’re running in place. You aren’t moving through the air. When you run outside the air creates resistance. Studies have estimated that outside air resistance creates an increase in your workload of between 2 percent and 10 percent, depending on your running speed. The faster you run, the more of an effect the air resistance has on you. This problem is very easily overcome by elevating your treadmill to 1 percent or level one. The slight elevation will make your treadmill workout more equal to running on level ground outside.
Maintaining Proper Running Form
Your running form shouldn’t change when you’re training on the treadmill. Unfortunately, the moving belt of the treadmill can create havoc with your running mechanics. The moving belt can cause some runners to lean too far forward at the waist in an attempt to “keep up” with the belt. Other runners may run with an extremely “bouncy” stride or may run with a very short and tight stride. You can avoid these form problems by focusing on your running mechanics.
All runners should concentrate on proper form when they run, whether they train on a treadmill or the road. This is especially important for new treadmill users. It’s much better to perfect your form right away, rather than acquire bad running form habits that may be hard to break. Good running form is the same no matter where you train. Here are some running form suggestions that will keep you running efficiently and injury free.
The most efficient running posture is one that’s mostly upright and relaxed, with a slight, whole-body forward lean beginning at the ankles. You shouldn’t lean forward at the waist. Your chest should be pushed out and your shoulders back and relaxed. Avoid all tension in your upper body. Tension is a form wrecker.
Leaning too far forward at the waist will cause a stumbling, high-impact motion that will slow you down and put excessive stress on your knees, hips and ankles. Leaning backward will cause you to run with too much vertical motion and will stress your hips and back. Even the totally vertical posture many running experts recommend has some built-in stride inefficiencies. When running with a very vertical posture, you tend to reach out with both your legs and arms. This wastes energy and slows you down. A slight, whole-body forward lean will enlist the help of gravity just enough to assist with directing your forward momentum.
Keep your hips pressed forward and your butt tucked in. Visualize standing face first against a wall. Press your hips forward so the front of your hips touches the wall. Running with your hips forward will help keep your motion going forward instead of up and down. It will also allow you to drive your knees efficiently forward.
Leaning Forward at the Waist. When you lean forward at the waist you’re fighting gravity with every step. This will slow you down and place more stress on your joints. It will also cause a shortening of your stride. Leaning forward at the waist will cause your hips to be pushed back. That will result in less knee drive, shorter stride length and more up-and-down motion. This is a common posture flaw among treadmill runners because of the tendency to try to push or keep up with the moving belt. Concentrate on keeping your butt tucked in and your body straight and relaxed with a slight forward lean of your entire body. Leaning forward with your whole body will allow you to use gravity rather than fight it.
Sitting in the Bucket. This is a common form flaw, especially among beginning runners. The hips and butt are pushed out in the back, resulting in a slight sitting position. “Sitting in the bucket” causes your feet to be in front of your body. You can’t get a strong push off in this position and your stride becomes vertical and bouncy. You waste a tremendous amount of energy with this form flaw. It’s almost like running in place. Be sure you keep your hips pushed forward and your butt tucked in to avoid this error. Most of the action of your legs should take place behind your body. Concentrate on pushing off behind your body and pushing your hips forward.
Tense Upper Body. Tense muscles in your upper body means you’re diverting valuable energy to muscles that don’t need it. Keep your body relaxed and erect. Your jaw and face should be relaxed and pliable. Your shoulders and arms should be held in a loose and relaxed manner. Don’t clench your fists. One good cue you can use is to imagine you’re holding a butterfly in your hands. You want to hold on to it, but not crush it.
The two components of running speed are stride length and stride rate. Stride length must be maximized in order to run your best. But, you must accomplish this without overstriding. You need to find the stride length that works best for you. Many top runners actually run with a shorter, quicker stride. But the important thing to remember is that they’re running with the maximum stride length that works best for them. As a treadmill runner, you must pay close attention to maintaining your stride length, because the moving belt of the machine can easily cause you to over or understride
So, how do you find your ideal stride length? You’ll fall into your best stride if you follow some key stride points. There are three components to running stride – push-off, flight and support.
Push-off. The push-off is the portion of the stride when you drive off your rear foot. Most of the force generated from the push-off comes from ankle joint extension and hip extension. Your ankle joint is extending when you’re pushing the front of your foot down. Push off strongly with your rear foot and drive your lead knee powerfully forward. Push your hips forward, not your head and shoulders. Where your hips lead, your body will follow. This will keep all of the force you’re generating moving forward. If you push your head and shoulders forward, you’ll develop a forward lean at the waist.
Your push-off leg shouldn’t be totally straight at the end of the push-off. Keep the push-off leg soft and slightly bent. This will help keep your body low to the ground and will maintain a forward direction to the force you’re producing. A straight push-off leg will result in a more up-and-down motion, which wastes energy and slows you down.
During the push-off, the knee of your forward or swing leg should be driven powerfully forward. Don’t try to lift the knee high. Concentrate on driving the knee forward. Your knee will automatically be driven higher as your speed increases. Let this happen naturally. Don’t try to artificially drive your knee higher. Pick your feet up quickly. This will give you a light, quick running motion and you’ll waste less time on the running belt. It’s this combination of a powerful push-off, quick feet and a strong forward knee drive that will increase your stride length.
Your lower (calf) portion of your swing leg should fold under your thigh. Think of your leg as a series of “levers.” With your lower leg flexed or folded under your thigh, your leg becomes a shorter lever and will move more efficiently. Imagine if your leg didn’t bend at the knee and you tried to run. It would become very difficult to move the long lever of a straight leg with any efficiency.
Flight. During the flight phase, your body is totally in the air, with no support. At this point the lower leg and foot of your swing leg should begin to straighten and drop toward the ground so that at touchdown your foot is directly under your center of gravity. Allow your forward momentum to “center” your body over your forward foot. If you attempt to reach out too far with your forward foot, you’ll land on your heel, initiating a “braking” effect, which is overstriding.
It’s at this point that both overstriding and understriding can occur. If you reach out too far in front of your body with your forward foot or don’t allow the forward momentum of your body to “center” your body over your center of gravity, you’ll overstride and slow yourself down. If you drop your forward foot too quickly you’ll have a short, choppy stride and won’t generate much speed. Just allow all of your forward momentum to remain in motion. Don’t allow an overstride or understride to interrupt this valuable momentum.
Support. The support phase begins when your foot touches down and your leg is flexed. At this point, your muscles are preparing for the next push-off of your other leg. Your touchdown should be either flat-footed or slightly on the ball of your foot, with your heel touching down just after the ball of your foot. If your heel strikes first, some overstriding is present. Running with a slight, whole body, forward lean will encourage this flat-footed support phase.
Upon touchdown, your foot will flex a little. This action will slightly stretch the powerful Achilles tendon just above your heel. This action “loads” the Achilles and calf muscles with energy in preparation for another powerful push-off. When running on the treadmill you should pay very close attention to this phase. Treadmill runners show an increase in the amount of time spent in the support phase. Longer time on the ground will result in a less efficient running stride and a decrease in running performance. Concentrate on being light on your feet with a quick and powerful push-off. Try to forget you’re on a treadmill and visualize moving forward.
Your stride should be light, quick and quiet. Try to run like you’re sneaking up on someone. Your feet should be making as little noise as possible. A quiet stride means you’re running efficiently and powerfully. The best way to achieve a quick, quiet and sneaky stride is to pick your feet up quickly. A heavy and slow stride results when you spend too much time with your feet on the ground or running belt in the support phase.
Arm action is basically for balance and coordination. Keep your arms loose and relaxed. Don’t waste energy by clenching your fists or tightening muscles in your arms and shoulders. Let your shoulders swing freely. Any tension in your upper body can translate into tension throughout your body.
Most top runners keep their arms bent at 90 degrees at the elbows. During the arm swing, most of the movement is behind the body. Try not to let your hands travel above your chest. Don’t cross your arms in front of your body. A common arm action flaw is reaching out in front of your body. This wastes energy and can result in a number of problems, including overstriding. Concentrate on driving your elbows back and keeping your arm action compact.
Another challenge of treadmill training is staying motivated. Using a treadmill in an empty room provides very little in the way of motivation. Running while looking at a blank wall should probably be considered a form of torture. The treadmill isn’t supposed to be mentally painful. It’s a valuable training tool and can be a very enjoyable way to run. With just a few adjustments to your environment and your training habits, you can stay motivated workout after workout.
Environment. If you have your own treadmill, try to place it in a position in which you have a view from a window. You may not be moving, but something outside is. You can see changing weather conditions, animals, children, cars, anything to engage your mind, even a little bit. If you’re using a treadmill in a gym, there will probably be a window nearby. At the very least you’ll have other members of your club and other machines nearby to keep your attention. If you have a home gym, make your environment as pleasant as possible. Keep it clean and clutter free. Paint it a color that you like. Install a water cooler for easy access to cold water. Do anything you can to make your workout area a place you enjoy.
Entertainment. Almost all experienced treadmill runners do one of two things. They either watch television or listen to music while they run. Your treadmill workout is, in fact, a very good time to enjoy some guilt-free television. When else can you watch TV and not feel like you should be doing something more productive? Some walkers read while they exercise. This isn’t suggested for runners for two reasons. It’s very difficult to read while you’re running. There’s simply too much movement to make out the words clearly. When you’re running, it’s important to focus on your form, mechanics, stride, breathing, etc. You can watch the boob tube and listen to music without having to concentrate on them.
Watching television is an ideal method of adding entertainment to your workout area. Most runners can watch television without losing the focus and concentration. Any television will work, but of course a larger set will make it easier to see while running. Place your television in front of your treadmill. It should be close enough to see without squinting, but far enough away so that it doesn’t present a hazard. Don’t forget that you may be sweating heavily during your workout. If the TV is too close, some of your sweat could fly onto the set. A two-hour movie is just about right for many long runs. Make sure your television is located in a stable position. Running on the treadmill can cause some bouncing of the floor. If the television is placed on top of an unstable stand, the bouncing might cause the stand to topple.
If you have the ability to connect external speakers to your television, you may want to consider doing so. Even with the quietest treadmills, it’s sometimes hard to hear the small television speakers when you’re running. Try to mount the speakers above and just in front of the treadmill. This position will give you the best acoustical advantage. If there are other family members living in your home, they’ll appreciate the lower speaker volume.
Using Feedback Data
Almost all motorized treadmills will display your total calories burned, total miles, current speed and total time. Some will also give you calories per hour, average speed, current pace, average pace and heart rate data. Using the abundance of data that’s available can be both entertaining and motivating. You can scan through the data and see your progress. You can also set goals for average pace, calories burned, distance or time.
For most runners, the use of the console feedback functions is a motivational tool, but for some, watching the miles and minutes tick by on the console only adds to the tedium and makes the workout seem longer – a bit like watching paint dry. Some of these runners will drape their workout towel over the display so they can’t see it. I would discourage this practice, because the towel can fall off the console onto the moving belt and trip you as you’re running.
Other Psychological Challenges
There are other, less common psychological problems associated with treadmill running, including lack of visual cues, perception of limited room and lack of confidence. These must be overcome with practice and experience. The disorientation associated with the lack of moving scenery shouldn’t be a problem after the first week or two of treadmill running. Most treadmill users adapt even faster than that.
The perception of limited room and lack of confidence should be overcome with experience. Once you do a few workouts and discover that you won’t step off the machine, you’ll gain confidence. The lack of confidence in the training benefits may take a bit longer. Your trust in the training will grow as you discover your level of exertion when training. One good way to increase confidence is to go to the track and do a speed workout. Then go home, hop on your treadmill and do the same workout. You’ll find that your workout on the treadmill feels just as hard (if not harder) as your track workout.
Overcoming Running Surface Differences
This is another difficult problem to overcome. The smooth and even surface of the treadmill can’t be made rough and uneven. The main negative result of this is the lack of proprioceptive training.
Proprioception is an important skill when running on the treadmill. Proprioception is basically intuitively feeling and knowing the position and motion of your body, feet, legs, arms, etc. at all times. It’s being aware of all of the different actions of your running stride. This is something that, to a limited extent, you do naturally. But to maximize your level of awareness, practice consciously being aware of your position on the belt, the amount of your forward lean, the position of your hips, the angle of your feet and all stages of your running stride.
When running outside, you encounter all types of uneven and unstable running surfaces. This type of surface will force your neuromuscular system to become more proprioceptive because it must make split-second adjustments in order to keep your body stable and moving in the right direction. The flat and even surface of the treadmill takes away this valuable skill. So, if you do most or all of your workouts on the treadmill, you should practice proprioception at all times. You can also use a wobble board. A wobble board is just what it sounds like. It’s a board with a half sphere on the bottom of it. It “wobbles” when you step or stand on it. Use of this type of board will help build and maintain those proprioceptive skills.
Proprioception is important in all running activities, but even more so when running on the treadmill. Runners tend to allow the action of the belt and the lack of wind resistance to change their stride to a more upright, bouncy form, with a shorter, less powerful stride. Being more aware of your running mechanics will make it easier to transfer your normal stride to the treadmill.
Mounting and Dismounting the Treadmill
The first difference in treadmill training that must be overcome is mounting and dismounting the treadmill. A moving treadmill belt is traveling at between 1 and 12 miles per hour. If you’re careless in getting on or off the machine, you could find yourself airborne.
The proper way to mount a treadmill is to stand on the machine with the belt stopped and your feet placed firmly on the frame on each side of the belt. Start the belt at its slowest setting and carefully step onto the belt, one foot at a time. Once you’re on the moving belt and walking steadily, gradually increase the rate of the belt to your desired speed. To dismount, slow the belt gradually to a stop and then step off. Some treadmills have an emergency off switch. If you press this switch, the treadmill will slow and stop very quickly. This can throw you off balance. For this reason, when stopping the treadmill, you should gradually decrease the speed using the speed controls and then stop it using the normal off switch. The emergency off switch should be reserved for its intended use. There are also some treadmills that use a safety key. There’s a cord on this key that’s intended to be wrapped around your body with the key inserted into the treadmill. The treadmill won’t operate without this key. The idea is that if you’re thrown off the treadmill, your body will pull the key out and shut down the machine. If you use this system, be sure there’s enough slack in the cord. If the cord is too tight, your normal movement on the machine could cause the key to be pulled out and shut down the treadmill. This could take you by surprise and knock you off balance.
A lot of experienced treadmill runners will mount and dismount the treadmill with the belt moving at running speed. I would discourage this practice for the obvious safety reasons.
As we discussed earlier, running form and mechanics on a treadmill should be no different than free-range running. But, for the first few sessions, this will probably not be the case. Your first steps on a treadmill will probably feel awkward and unsteady. This will not last long. Most runners adapt very well to treadmill running within the first session or two. It takes some practice, but any runner will be able to duplicate and even improve their stride.
When you first start running, it will feel different and probably a bit disconcerting. The first few times you step off the treadmill after a workout, you may feel slightly dizzy and disoriented. This is the psychological effect caused by the lack of visual cues indicating movement. You’ll adapt to this quickly and it shouldn’t be a chronic problem. Be careful if you do feel dizzy or disoriented. Step off the treadmill carefully and hold on to something solid to steady yourself until the feeling passes.
Run slowly for your first few treadmill workouts and concentrate on maintaining your normal stride. Focus on keeping a strong push-off with your back foot and a forceful forward knee drive with your forward leg. There’s a strong tendency for beginning treadmill runners to shorten their stride and spend more time with their feet on the belt. Strive to keep your stride free and loose with a lot of push-off. You’ll want to keep your float (the portion of your stride in which you’re in the air) at its maximum. As you become more comfortable on the machine, go ahead and gradually increase your speed. Start to vary your workouts. You’ll soon be able to do all of your various training runs with no discomfort.
Run on the center of the belt. Don’t run toward the back or the front of the machine. If you run too far forward, you may find yourself striking the cowling on the front of the machine. If you run too far toward the back of the belt, you risk stepping off the back of the treadmill.
One bad habit you want to avoid is hanging onto the handles or frame of the treadmill while you run. However, as you’re adapting to running on a moving belt, don’t hesitate to grab the handles to steady yourself. If you feel like you’re losing your balance or are in danger of falling off the machine, grab the handles until your balance is recovered. It should only take one or two sessions on the treadmill for you to begin to feel comfortable. Some runners have no problems even on the first try, while others may take several sessions.
One primary difference between treadmill and free range running is the self-generated wind that keeps you cool when you run outside. If you’re running at 8 mph, you are, in effect, generating an 8 mph wind in your face. That wind performs a great service in evaporating your sweat and keeping you cool. When you run on the treadmill, you must turn to other methods to keep yourself cool.
The easiest way to keep cool is to place a fan in front of your treadmill. When you start to get too hot, just turn on the fan. The breeze generated by the fan will do the same job as the wind you generate outside. A fan with a remote control is a very handy feature. It will allow you to control the direction and the speed of the fan from your treadmill. Air conditioning and open windows will help keep you cool, but neither will help as much as a breeze directed at your body. A ceiling fan located over the treadmill is also a good way to keep cool, but again, a fan blowing a breeze directly toward your body will make your treadmill workout more like running outside.
Keep a stock of workout towels nearby. It will come in handy for wiping sweat off both your body and the treadmill when you’re done. I like to keep a stock of towels nearby along with a container to toss the used towels into for later laundering.
Another great benefit of treadmill training is that you’ll always have plenty of fluids nearby. No worries about bringing a sufficient amount of fluid with you. When running outside you either have to carry it with you or hide it in a nearby bush.
Be sure you stay well hydrated when running on the treadmill. Just because you’re not exercising in the sunlight, doesn’t mean that you aren’t depleting your body of fluids. Your body is constantly using fluids to cool itself and water is a by-product of the production of energy. Follow the same hydration habits you follow when running outdoors.
Hydration recommendations have changed somewhat in recent years. Experts used to recommend drinking before you feel thirsty, and drinking at least 8 ounces every 15 minutes. The theory was that if you waited until you were thirsty to drink, you were already dehydrated and you would have a hard time “catching up” with your hydration needs. Those recommendations have fluctuated somewhat due to somewhat due to incidents involving excessive water consumption.
There have been some cases of hyponatremia, especially in marathon runners. Hyponatremia is a condition caused by drinking too much water and diluting the sodium concentration in your blood, which is a dangerous condition. In order to reduce the chances of suffering from this serious ailment, the latest recommendations suggest drinking only when you’re thirsty and consuming a sports drink containing sodium when running for more than one hour. This is probably a bit of an overreaction. Hyponatremia is rarely a concern for the vast majority of athletes and is never a problem with any runs or workouts of less than 90 minutes. The problem with this recommendation is that your thirst does lag behind your hydration level. If you wait until you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. So, I would suggest continuing to drink every 15 minutes. If you’re doing a run in excess of one hour, include the sodium-containing sports drink. If you’re exercising for less than one hour, there’s little chance of developing hyponatremia. Drinking plain water will work fine, unless you’re working out in a high heat environment. In that case, you should use a fluid replacement drink.