A winter deep freeze combined with persistent snow on the ground forces many runners to train inside on the treadmill. And, while treadmill designs have improved over the years, it is certainly not the same as running outside. Research suggests it changes your biomechanics. So why is this big deal?
Studies consistently show that on a treadmill there is over-activity of the hip flexors and calves, and under activity of the gluteal (buttocks) muscles. On the treadmill you become the “hamster on the wheel”, basically just keeping up with the speed of the belt rolling under you. This can create altered muscle recruitment patterns that lead to an injury once you return to running outside. Common overuse injuries with this situation include calf strains and Achilles tendinitis, proximal (high) hamstring tendinitis, IT band syndrome, and knee pain.
So how do you prevent these injuries when you are forced to do more indoor training and then move outdoors when weather permits? Some studies suggest inclining the treadmill to a 1-2% grade better mimics outdoor running. Having to work just a bit more against gravity on the treadmill, rather than riding the belt, certainly could promote a more natural push-off, or propulsion phase, and ultimately minimize muscle compensations.
Another strategy would be to hold off on hill running for two to three weeks when you return to the outdoors. Uphill running should place more demand on the gluteals as a primary muscle, however with the weeks of treadmill running and under recruitment of those muscles, you are likely to compensate with the calves during push-off phase. Allowing your body a couple weeks to readjust to outdoor running before doing harder training sessions makes the most sense.
Each sport has different demands on your neuromuscular system. For instance, the primary muscles used in swimming are quite different than the primary muscles used for running. If the goal is pain-free running, even if you have to rely on the treadmill for several weeks, it is important that you maintain good recruitment (activation) of those primary muscles. In testing injured runners in the clinic, nearly every one of them displays muscle imbalances and asymmetrical muscle recruitment patterns. It is almost as if key muscles have gone on a “labor strike,” which causes the body to have to utilize other secondary muscles to complete the training runs.
Treadmill running is not bad; it’s just different for our bodies. Recognizing that the biomechanics are different, being smart with your training, and perhaps doing some injury prevention exercises to keep those primary running muscles alert and activated can keep you from suffering an injury coming out of the winter season. Visit us at ReboundSportsPT.com for more info about Rebound or if you think you might need some pre-Spring exercises!
This post written by Brad Ott, owner, MSPT