7 Treadmill Mistakes Sabotaging Your Running Workouts
By Ashley LaurettaUpdated January 9, 2020
The treadmill has a reputation for being monotonous. But some people actually prefer to run on it, especially when the weather is less than optimal. While the treadmill can be a great training tool — especially for beginners — there are a few common mistakes that can become a setback to your workout.
Focusing too much on the treadmill display can prevent you from enjoying your workout.Credit: EmirMemedovski/E+/GettyImages
Stop sabotaging your indoor running sessions by fixing the following all-too-common treadmill mistakes.
1. Skipping Your Warm-Up
Even if you aren’t running on the road or a track, you should still go through all the motions. Warming up before exercise preps your body for the coming workout and helps prevent injury by increasing blood flow to the muscles, according to a February 2018 study from the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation.
“Nothing changes just because you are on a treadmill; you still have to take care of your body like any other running day,” says Mwangi Gitahi — aka Coach Mwangi — running coach and founder of RUNFIRST. “Spending a few minutes doing your warm up routine, even right next to the treadmill so that nobody else claims it, can go a long way toward keeping you healthy.”
You should put at least 1 to 1.5 percent incline on the treadmill, as it more closely mimics road conditions and keeps the treadmill from simply “pulling” your feet backward as you run and actually helping you do the work, says Ryan Bolton, owner and founder of Bolton Endurance Sports Training (BEST).
2. Running With Zero Incline
Unless you’re using the treadmill as your warm-up for a strength workout (in which case, start out slowly and keep it short), you should take at least a few minutes before your run to walk and do some dynamic moves (such as high knees and leg swings) to get ready for your run.
Not only should you automatically set the incline up slightly every time you run, you should also take advantage of its full potential. You can still get a great hill workout on the treadmill, which is especially crucial if you are training for a hilly race and live in flat conditions.
“Having the incline function on a treadmill is one of the best attributes of training on a treadmill,” Bolton says. “With the ability to create hills of 0.5-percent grade to upward of 20-percent grade on treadmills, it’s very easy to replicate any type of hill workout on a treadmill from short, power spurts of 50 meters on a high incline to lower incline, longer 800 meter to mile threshold type repeats.”
3. Using the Rails for Support
While you may have heard the advice that you should never, ever hold onto the rails while walking or running on the treadmill, things aren’t always that black and white.
A February 2013 study from the Journal of Exercise Physiology concluded, “There appears to be no scientific reason for not holding onto the handrails if the exerciser feels more confident in controlling his or her exercise session.” If you’re simply resting your hands on the rails to help you feel more stable and balanced, it’s likely not throwing your workout off too much.
The problem, however, arises when you put your weight into the rails — either by pressing down into your arms or by leaning back. This lessens the amount of weight in your lower body, which throws your stride off (which can result in injury when you switch back to road running) and shortchanges your workout.
In fact, leaning back decreases your calorie burn by almost 32 percent, according to a November 2014 study from the International Journal of Exercise Science.
4. Relying Too Heavily on the Display
While it may seem like a benefit to have your pace, distance and calories burned displayed on the treadmill, you shouldn’t rely on that data to be 100-percent accurate. Not only can it vary from machine to machine, but it also requires the treadmills to be serviced regularly and correctly, which you can’t always guarantee (or know the exact date this maintenance and recalibration happened).
“The two biggest parameters measured on treadmills, pace and incline, are both subject to this variability, although pace seems to vary more widely,” Bolton says. That’s why exercising with your regular running watch is a better bet, he says. Sure, there’s variability there too, but if you’re using the same watch you always use, you’ll at least have a more accurate basis for comparison.
Additionally, Mwangi recommends using a heart rate monitor (a functionality that some watches now have built in) to get a more accurate picture of calories burned and heart rate zone.
5. Copying (or Racing) the Runner Next to You
It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening on the treadmill next to you, but don’t try to match strides with the person next to you or to turn it into an imaginary race. Focus on your own workout.
“There can be a tendency to mimic what other people are doing on the treadmill, especially when you don’t have a plan of your own,” Mwangi says. “It can also be hard to resist competing with the person next to you. Call it the treadmill wars! Both of these scenarios can lead to running too hard or too long, and that is never a good thing.”
6. Only Running on the Treadmill
Even if you’re using the incline to get more road-like conditions while running on the treadmill, you should still vary your running surfaces. The road, track and treadmill work your muscles in different ways, which can help you avoid injury and make you a more well-rounded runner.
“The movement of the treadmill belt can reduce the need to push off and therefore engage those muscles that help you move forward, like the hamstrings, calf muscles and glutes,” Mwangi says. “When you run on the road in addition to the treadmill, you train your body to engage those muscles because the road requires you to push off in order to run.”
7. Swapping a Training Run for a Pre-Programmed Workout
If you’re training for a race, it’s important to use the treadmill in a mindful manner. While it’s definitely easier to just hop on, press a button and go through the motions of the pre-programmed workout, you aren’t doing yourself. Instead, do your prescribed workout as planned, especially if you’re using the treadmill because of unfavorable weather.
“Those pre-designed workouts can work fine if an athlete is just trying to get in some general fitness, but if following a specific plan with specific goals, those pre-designed workouts should be ignored and an athlete should create their own workout on the treadmill by altering the incline and speed to their specific workout needs,” Bolton says.
You may need to sit down with your coach to find out how to use the incline to match the road or track conditions your workout calls for, but the little bit of extra effort that requires will benefit your training immensely.