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Running on a treadmill promotes muscle imbalances and hurts your ability to run in the real world.

I should probably lead off by explaining that I don’t particularly hate treadmills. I do however believe that the humble treadmill is probably one of the most misunderstood pieces of equipment in the gym today.

It is of course, hands down the most popular piece of gym or home equipment known to mankind.

However, successful as the treadmill might be at helping people exercise and catch up on Oprah or Ellen at the same time, it is not without its faults.

Used properly, the treadmill can be great way to burn fat and even works well for a getting the blood flowing before a workout. With it we can exercise any time of day, in any weather.

Thanks also to this running technology we can take our workout indoors where our own HD surround sound media center ensures maximal distraction from the actual physical pain and distress of doing the task at hand. But don’t think that you are getting the same workout as if you were running outside…

Running on a treadmill is not the same as running outside or on a track

In fact, it’s not even close.

This picture and blog is brought to you by the letter ‘O’.

I think of treadmill running and running the same way dairy farmers compare cows milk to soy milk (I like soy milk, really I do – but it isn’t really milk, is it? But to be fair to the soy farmers, I might not be so keen to put it on my cereal if it was called ‘crushed soybean residue’ now, would I?)

Running on a treadmill actually develops imbalances in your running style and muscular development, which will lead to improper form and increased risk of injury.

Here’s why:

If you would, think briefly as to how the belt beneath your feet works.

If you place a foot on a moving treadmill it gets thrown back along the line in which the treadmill is moving – the treadmill is moving your foot back, not the foot moving itself back…

I will resist the urge to place a video here of people falling off their treadmills (although it was extremely tempting).

As you walk/run on a treadmill, the main difference your body experiences is related to the moving belt beneath you feet.

A treadmill moves you in a different way than regular running

Real world running

As you run in the real world, you are using a series of muscles combined with your momentum to create forward motion.

The crux of that last statement is ‘create forward motion’ – more specifically, your hamstrings and glutes pull back to drive your body forward relative to your planted foot in stride phase.

Whoah – I think I just accidentally channeled my college kinesiology textbook. Let me put that in terms my more-often-used primal brain can understand.

You use the back of your legs to help drive your body forward as you run. You propel from the back of the legs to keep yourself moving.

Non-Real world running

If I am on a treadmill, I no longer NEED to pull my body forward with the back of my legs. My left foot lands, the treadmill drags it behind me and I land the right foot before the left gets dragged back too far. I am essentially lifting the back foot forward then cushioning the impact with my knees without needing to pull the leg back (since the machine does that for me).

To simplify in a different way, we can break the lower body down into three major phases of a running movement:

  1. The impact on the foot on the ground
  2. The swing through of the back leg to the front
  3. The pulling back of the planted leg to drive the body forward and into the next stride

Here it is again with the major muscle groups being used for each phase:

  1. The impact (Quadriceps and Calves)
  2. The swing through (abs and hip flexor)
  3. The pulling back (hamstrings and butt muscles)

Starting to understand my sick and twisted mind? If you are with me so far (and kudos to you if you have managed to read this far down the post without falling into a state of catatonia) then you now understand why I believe this to be the truth:

When you run on the treadmill, the treadmill robs you of #3 (the pullback phase)

Where this really becomes a problem is when have been running on the treadmill for a while then decide on a nice day to go for a 5K jog outdoors instead… The result is a run that puts your joints and muscles into an exercise they have not been truly prepared to do.

Be creative with your cardio

So mix it up, people – or at least add some more hamstring work to your exercise routine. I am of course referring to the exercise routine that you say you are going to do but always end up running again on leg day because you don’t really know what to do and those sweaty jock dudes are always hogging those machines anyway.

No more excuses. Go work those hamstrings and butt muscles to balance out your overdeveloped quads and hip flexors! Need help with ideas? Get yourself a free introductory session with a personal trainer (or if you are really desperate, ask me).

Or just go running outside as much as you run inside. Hows that for a happy compromise?

click here to read part 2 of this article

And now for something that is just for fun:

Watch the video below to see what happens. My Korean isn’t that good, but I think it says “when treadmills attack“.

The funniest video EVER!


Jamie Atlas

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