When I was a kid, the old school hamster homes with the tubes and the hamster wheel were all the rage. Being neat freaks, my parents wouldn’t let my brother and I have one, but the idea of the hamster structure still made an impression.
It looked like the hamsters had it pretty good to me—one of those water droplet tubes any time they were thirsty, plenty of bedding to rest in, and of course the main attraction, the hamster wheel. I’m not sure if kids these days still covet hamster homes, but nowadays the human hamster wheel is unquestionably the king of all fitness equipment.
If there is one piece of equipment that many people have at home, it’s likely a treadmill. Treadmills are frequently the most popular and sought after pieces of equipment. Over 44% of gym goers regularly use one when they go to the gym. I worked for a HIIT training company for years where we used treadmills as one of the stations in our exercise classes and the vast majority of our patrons always rushed to use the treadmills first.
The treadmill reigns supreme for good reason—it replicates the most basic of all human movement patters, walking (and/or running). Plus, treadmills are super-efficient. Why head to the gym for an hour or more of weights when you can work up a better sweat banging out 30 minutes of hard running on the treadmill? Whether it’s a time or calorie burn, compared to going on a long bike ride, heading over to the pool for a swim, walking 18 holes of golf or playing a few sets of tennis, the treadmill is the king of efficiency.
I’m not going to lie. Like a lot of you, I am semi-addicted to the treadmill. I’m on that damn hamster wheel at least twice a week, if not more. I use it to warm up for my lifts, I use it for indoor training runs, and I use it for interval training and running sprints. A treadmill is a super handy companion, but it’s also not without its downsides. When it comes to the treadmills, there are the do’s and don’ts.
Use the treadmill when you’re injured. When you’re running on a treadmill the cushion of the tread is absorbing some of the impact that your body would otherwise be absorbing outside pounding the pavement. Furthermore, some manufacturers, like Woodway, make anti-gravity treadmills that allow for partial weight bearing where you’re only putting part (50% or even lower) of the impact on your body. Ironically though, the repeated stress patterns of a treadmill can also potentially cause injury, so rehab wisely. Once you have stabilized your injury and have built up your foundation, get back outside where you can strengthen your body through more natural and randomized movement patterns.
Run intervals using the treadmill. The very best thing about the treadmill is the instant feedback and ability to change your speed and incline metrics instantaneously. When you’re outside on a five mile run you can’t always control the timing of when you might encounter some incline or decline. It can be cumbersome to constantly check your fitness tracker or watch for feedback, but on the treadmill, it’s all right there at your fingertips.
Use the incline feature. I don’t want to hear that it hurts your knee and hamstrings to run with incline. If you can run, then you can run with incline. Besides, just how do you think you’re going to strengthen your knees and hamstrings anyhow? I have news for you, outside in the real world there are hills. That means, theoretically, at some point you will have to run (or walk) up and down them. Training on the treadmill without incline is like riding a spin bike without any resistance (which plenty of people also do, incidentally). The truth is it’s the resistance and incline that makes you stronger, so use it.
Use the mirror to check your stride. Have you ever wondered why there are mirrors in gyms? Hint, it’s not to check yourself and others out or critique cute outfits—they are there so you can check your form. Some basic running cues are as follows: look straight ahead (as in at the mirror), your shoulders and hands should be relaxed, keep your elbows at 90 degrees, use short and quick strides with your head and chest upright, and foot strike in line with your knees. It’s utterly amazing to me how many people have terrible running form with arms and feet flailing about and yet they seem completely oblivious to the fact. If you don’t know whether you are running correctly or wearing the right shoes it would be a good idea to have a gait analysis and/or hire a running coach—your knees, hips, shins, and feet will thank you.
Never use the treadmill as your main training modality when you’re training for an event. Here’s the thing, with a few random exceptions, they don’t hold races on treadmills. Whether you’re training for a 5 k, half marathon, or ultra-distance, the majority of your training should be done outside to best prepare for your race environment. Lots of swimmers run into problems because they tend to train only in the pool (versus open water) and come race day, they feel like a fish out of water. The same logic applies with running—do the distance and road work outside, run your intervals inside.
Don’t use the treadmill when it’s a nice day. I live in Colorado where the sun shines over 300 days a year. I am absolutely dumbfounded how often people are inside at the gym on a nice day pounding away on the when treadmill when it’s nice out. What is wrong with you? Get outside and get some fresh air. The vitamin D and scenery will do you some good. Furthermore, studies show that exercising outdoors is “associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy.”
Don’t use it like you’re on a leisurely stroll. It kills me to see people just hanging out on a treadmill walking like they’re taking a Sunday afternoon nap. The whole point to the treadmill is to use the speed and incline to efficiently maximize your workout. Not every city or suburban neighborhood has sidewalk that are conducive for running, but those sidewalks sure are made for walking. If you’re planning on just strolling, do yourself a favor and get outside. Let someone have the treadmill who will actually use it for training.
Please don’t be an a-hole and hog the treadmill at your gym. Here’s a little newsflash, if you’re on a treadmill that isn’t at your house, it isn’t yours. You should look around when you’re on a treadmill at the gym and ask yourself “is the gym and equipment around me full?” You might be thinking that it isn’t your job to keep track of the cardio machines at your gym, but it is your job as a decent human being to be respectful. If the gym is packed and you’ve been on for more than a half hour, it’s time to get off.
Make sure you’re not an idiot on the treadmill. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were over 24,000 treadmill related injuries treated in hospitals last year. Use the same precaution as when driving your car. Avoid talking on your phone, texting, and posting on social media— you or others could get hurt. You’re on a moving belt, after all, so be mindful.
The Treadmill Gets the Job Done
Until virtual running and aerobic imagery becomes the next fitness craze, the treadmill isn’t going anywhere. For most of us, we’re grateful to have access to this super-efficient and calorie burning training tool. That said, running isn’t just meant to be a mindless hamster wheel. There’s scenery to see, fresh air to breathe, and races to run. The treadmill is one of those companions you should see casually like a work acquaintance—a relationship that helps you perform better at your real job and helps you gain fitness and health while learning how to move your body better.