Treadmill is a dirty word among runners and their subset of attention deficit brethren – triathletes. Most of us cringe at its mere mention, eyeing it with derision as a tool of the gym rat: the dude who has been told to do thirty minutes of cardio following a heavy lift session and does so dutifully – sometimes with thunderous strides as long as a unicorn’s.
‘I run outside.’ One of my clients told me at our first meeting. ‘I’m from Quebec. I like the cold. I don’t do treadmills.’
Facebook too is littered with woe-is-me status updates of kvetching about having to run indoors due to inclement weather. ‘Braved the dreadmill today. Too cold out.’ Followed by a handful of there-there sympathy comments from fellow runners and well-wishers.
I know I’m being harsh, and I do it too. I complain. I have no love for the rubber-belted beast. I rail against its inherent shortcomings as a training tool, the tedium of its use, and having to haul myself to a gym to run.
So let’s kick things off with three things that treadmills do not do well.
- Reduced posterior chain engagement: a runner on a non-moving surface must fire her hamstring and glute muscles of the leg in contact with the ground in a hip extension to propel herself forward. On the treadmill, the belt pulls her foot backwards, reducing the action required by these two muscle groups. If the treadmill is the primary means of run training, then these muscles never learn to fire efficiently, and her top speed will never be all better than mediocre.
- There is no wind resistance on a treadmill. Aerodynamics is much less of a factor to runners than say cyclists, but it is not entirely inconsequential. One of the reasons that treadmill running feels easier at the same pace than outdoor running is the absence of drag. This is true in zero wind conditions – nevermind a headwind.
- Hill training cannot be done to the same effect. Hills are a runner’s mean-spirited friends. They kick her ass, but make her stronger for having run them. Even setting a treadmill to incline doesn’t properly simulate outdoor climbing. There is no appreciable change in potential energy of her centre of gravity: her torso remains more-or-less static – just the legs climb. Descending is possible on some of the high-end models, but I have never used one, so I cannot comment on their effectiveness. Suffice it to say that most gym treadmills are not capable of allowing a runner to work downhill. Downhills are key too: they’re real quadriceps molestors.
But before I appear to be too bigoted, here are three reasons when I would argue that running on a treadmill is a good idea.
- When you can’t run – or at least run fast – outside. We all prefer to head outdoors, but there are days when the sidewalks are better suited to speed skating than running. Anything faster than the long-slow pace is an exercise in frustration, cursing, and wipeouts. So between the choice of no speed work and speed work on the treadmill, I chose and prescribe the latter.
- Form correction. One advantage that treadmills have over pavement is their frequent proximity to mirrors. If she grabs a machine facing a mirror, a runner can make meaningful improvements to form. While her gate may not be exactly the same on a treadmill and outdoors, it won’t be all that different. It’s much easier to monitor running no-nos like excessive vertical oscillation (bouncing) and arm cross-over in a mirror than having someone else tell you about it the field.
- Hard landings can also be monitored. If the sound of her feet striking the slider bed is louder than the pumping bass, then she’s landing too hard. Imagine what that impact is doing to her joints. Running on a treadmill is a good opportunity to learn to be light of foot. Her knees, hips, and lumbar spine will thank her.
No. I have no love for the treadmill. but I do appreciate its occasional usefulness. Given that, I really have no moral high ground to judge you complaining about it. Kvetch away.
Helping you get where you’re going: in the water, on two wheels, on the pavement