Treadmill Trouble?


It’s been a tough winter in the northeast and with that rough weather, alternate means for many athletes has been a necessity. Bike routines, GS circuits/basement tempo, and pool workouts are a few means of getting in some training when running surfaces are unavailable. Additionally, when the joints need lower impact options other than the hard, harder, and hardest surfaces available with indoor tracks and hallways, mixing in alternate means can serve to unload the body.

Treadmill workouts are an additional option for athletes that come with some advantages and some dangers. The athlete is actually running which is a plus, but the interaction with a backward moving belt is by no means the same as running over real ground.

First here are some advantages and some adjustment musts I’ve noted with athletes:

-The athlete is actually running and experiencing ground contacts. The advantage of the running is obvious and the softer surface is nice as a change to reduce impact. I recently had a distance runner start up coming off of swim season. Building a base straight out of the pool onto asphalt everyday would be an invitation to blowing up and not in a good way.

-I like to use incline and speed combinations vs. just speed selections to match up to various types of running. Many athltes become very backside dominant on treadmills and arm lazy. A light incline serves to cue good running actions and also provides additional unload for the joints. Dr. Jack Daniels has a wonderful table in his Daniel’s Running Formula book obtained from real work with runners that is a great resource when designing speed/incline combinations.

-Athletes can easily be held accountable to pace and effort levels of desired intensity with careful monitoring of technique quality and changes.

-Fans provide comfort and are important for athlete perspiration and temperature regulation.

-Treadmills provide a good option for programming classical hill training workouts for the distance set with full programmability to get the desired incline. Again Daniels has a great table and notes here.

Some Cautions:

-Treadmills are an alternate means and nothing replaces real running on grass, woodchips, trails, or on the track. Alternate offers different stresses and force dynamics which can be a plus, but you’re getting away from actual ground based actions which has obvious consequences and minuses to go with the above pluses.

-Athletes with aberrant gait need to be very wary of treadmill training. Crisscrossers, late stance folks, and other bad strikers can potentially get into big tissue and tendonal messes on a treadmill. In my experience, whether it is the moving belt and or softer surface, I see an exaggeration in the aberrations. I’ve watched athletes with the above described gait issues who hold up ok on flat ground get into tough myofascial and tendinosis issues when coaches panic with limited surfaces and start overdoing it on the treadmill.

-Too much training on a treadmill doesn’t prepare people to handle the harder or uneven surfaces they’ll race and train on in future training and races.

-Speed and incline are programmed in. Athletes will self-adjust pace and subsequently technique with fatigue on flat ground. On a treadmill pace is programmed in and as athletes fatigue without body mediated pace adjustments, you have to be careful to not get in struggling and harmful patterns. Surviving work bouts and getting lazy with technique changes can cause bad patterns and tissue tie-ups if paces and inclines are not carefully selected.
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Matt Gardner
As a track and field coach Matt has produced school record holders and state champions in the sprints, hurdles, jumps and middle distance events. He has coached athletes from a wide variety of sports including Professional Football, World Cup bobsleigh, Swimming, Track and Field, Olympic Weightlifting, Baseball, Tennis, and Golf. Matt has extensive experience consulting and collaborating with high level sports medicine professionals to help rehabilitate injured athletes and optimize the performances of healthy ones.