The Pitfalls of Treadmill Running

Do you use your muscles in the same way when running on the treadmill, compared to when running on the road or trails?

The answer to this is NO!

When you run on the road, the muscles in the front of your leg, including your hip flexors and Quads, lift the one leg and move it forward, while the muscles at the back of the opposite leg, including Gluts, hamstrings and calf muscles, plant the foot on the surface and then move the body forward by extending the hip, flexing the knee, pointing the foot and finally lifting the foot off the ground.

During this movement, the Glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles work extremely hard as they carry the full body-weight while the opposite leg moves to the front. This process becomes even more intense during fast running.

The same sequence takes place when the runner runs on a treadmill, except that the treadmill moves the planted leg backwards, and by doing so, relieves the Glutes, hamstrings and calfs from having to move the body forward. The load on these muscles is therefore considerably lower and even more so during speed training on the treadmill.

Runners who exclusively run on the treadmill, develop strength where they need it, which is predominantly in the front of the leg. This happens in any sport where some muscles work harder than others. The problem arises however, when the runner decides to run the same pace off the treadmill, expecting the Glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles to engage in a way that they have not been trained or conditioned. This is why we find so many hamstring and calf injuries when runners start running on the road after spending long periods on a treadmill.

The same happens when runners spend most of their time running uphill, where the front muscles do most of the hard work, this time over-flexing the hip, extending the knee and lifting the ankle against gravity. The front muscles over time becomes stronger and shorter while in comparison, the Glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles lengthen. When this athlete suddenly starts training on a flat surface and at a faster pace, the unconditioned Glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles again overload and end up getting injured.

Make sure that you strengthen and condition the muscles that you will need for your activities. If you want to run trails, train on trails, if you want to run hills, train on hills and if you want to run fast, train on a flat surface. And if you want to participate in a variety of terrains and tempos, plan your training accordingly.

If your main aim is to perform on land, use the treadmill when you have no other option, or intermittently, to make sure that you build strong enough Glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles to support you on your runs.

Keep in mind that your stronger muscles, the muscles that you use more, are the muscles that will tend to shorten. Shortened muscles cause lengthening of other muscles and lengthened or overstretched muscles are vulnerable and can easily get injured. Make sure that you maintain flexibility of your strong muscles, to prevent unexpected injuries.