Treadmills Are Not for Runners

Treadmills Are Not for Runners

(Excerpt from Dr Colgan’s forthcoming book, The Running Power Program.)

Treadmills are OK for cardiovascular fitness but really bad for running. Despite their usefulness for fitness programs in every gym, including the Colgan Institute, treadmill running is detrimental to running performance.

Because of their massive commercial sponsorship, however, and huge profits, coaches are leery of criticizing treadmills. But this is a book to increase your running power, so I tell it like it is. Sports scientists have known the problems with treadmills for over 40 years, ever since the work of LG Pugh in 1970 at the National Institute of Medical Research in London.(1)

It’s true that scientists still use treadmills for testing because there is no cheap and effective way to get all their pulmonary and other gear onto runners on the track, and certainly no way on trails. When I was working at the Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs, we had a van loaded with a metabolic cart and a half a ton of electronics, pacing around the track with runners attached to the gear. But balancing the headgear interfered with running form, balance and stride so much it never worked well.

Whenever I reject treadmills for running training, I get every objection under the sun from runners; from weather, and traffic, and villainous dogs, to fictitious claims of fantastic runs on the treadmill in the gym. By the way some gyms are quick to fine tune the adjustments of the treadmill so the gauges will read a greater distance than actually travelled, more calories burned etc etc.

Even with a perfectly set treadmill, however, good coaches deter their runners from using them because the neuromuscular patterns and rhythm are entirely different from those used when you run on the ground. Here are a few of the problems:

1. Running on the ground, your legs create propulsive spring forces through the chain of the big toe and forefoot, plantar fascia, Achilles tendon, and hamstrings which accelerate your centre of mass forward. Each foot-strike then decelerates your center of mass. Propulsion then accelerates it again, in rhythmic fashion. The backward movement of the treadmill belt disrupts this essential rhythm, and the hundreds of different muscle contractions involved.

2. On a treadmill, your centre of mass is static; there is no forward movement. The backward movement of the belt repositions your legs and feet behind your center of mass, so that the foot-strike becomes flat and excessive, thereby reducing your ability to use the Achilles (the biggest spring in the human body). The flat foot-strike puts excessive impact on the heel, while simultaneously negating the action of the Achilles that normally damps the transmission of impact from heel to sacroiliac joint. At any speed above a walk, the treadmill action thereby puts excessive stress on the sacroiliac joints and lower back.

3. The backward movement of the belt interferes with the normal hamstring action that keeps the hips forward. (Primary rule of Arthur Lydiard, my mentor and the greatest running coach of all time, “Keep your hips forward”.(2))

4. The hip flexors have to increase contraction to stop the belt dragging the contact foot backwards (eccentrically), and to pull the lower leg forward (concentrically).

5. The backward movement of the belt disrupts the key ability to toe-off and spring that we covered in Chapter 2.

6. There is no air resistance. Since LG Pugh’s work, we have known that the energy cost of running against still air is approximately 8% of the total energy cost in moderate distance running, and approximately 10% in fast distance running (at 3 minutes per kilometre).(1) So any apparently great runs you have on the treadmill don’t count for diddley because you have to subtract 8-10%.

7. There is no training in downhill running on the treadmill. (Downhill training is essential, as we will see in Chapter 12.)

8. Treadmills are even and unchanging requiring only minimal balance. They de-train your proprioception and vestibular balance systems that we covered in Chapter 7. Treadmills worsen your balance for roads and trails.

Overall, running on treadmills disrupts the biomechanics of your stride, compromises your spring at toe-off, threatens your lower back, worsens your balance, and reduces your running economy. If you train for running on a treadmill – stop right now!
Don’t play the weather card either. Bill Bowerman (super running coach and founder of Nike) was dead right when he said:
“There is no bad weather, only soft runners.”

1. Pugh LG. Oxygen intake in track and treadmill running with observations on the effect of air resistance The Journal of Physiology, 1970;207: 823-835.
2. Lydiard A. Athletic Training by Arthur Lydiard A Guide to the Brooks, American Track & Field Lydiard Running Lecture Tour, 1999. Des Moines: Fitness Sports ,2000.