It seems like it has been a rough winter in Colorado. I cannot tell if I am becoming more sensitive to the cold as I get older or if Fort Collins has transformed itself into a northern Siberian metropolis. It may be compounded by the fact that I am married to a woman raised in New Mexico with very little body fat who constantly reminds me how cold this winter has been. Perhaps both of our tolerances to the cold have decreased with age and it is time to become snow birds.
Regardless of whether the climate in Northern Colorado has been measurably artic compared to years past or my willingness to suffer frozen extremities has decreased with age, I have found myself doing much more running on the treadmill this winter. There was a time (college and grad school) where I refused to work out inside and would brave the elements no matter what. I believe I felt it was “unnatural” to exercise inside and the elements made me tougher physically and psychologically. This year I have succumbed to comforts of the gym while watching Good Morning America, Sports Center, and The Walking Dead. My mind is mentally stimulated with pop culture TV while my legs are running with my body going nowhere. This process has begged a question, one that we often get in the clinic: what is the difference between treadmill running and running outdoors over ground? How do our mechanics change when we move over the ground versus when the ground moves under us?
There are multiple factors to consider with running on a treadmill versus outside. Top among them is how we move differently when the surface below us is moving back and comparing it to pushing our body forward on a stable ground. When we propel our body forward over ground, we are ideally using our glutes and hamstrings (butt and back of thigh muscles) to extend the leg back at the hip in order to propel the body forward. On a treadmill the belt assists our glutes and hamstrings to pull the leg back at the hip, thereby potentially requiring less work from those muscles to pull the leg back and propel the body forward. This is perhaps the biggest issue we see as one goes from running on a treadmill during the winter to outdoor running in the spring and summer. The glutes and hamstrings are used to having the belt assist them with the running motion, so they are often not firing like they should when you are running over ground. This can create injuries as these big muscles are not properly stabilizing and moving the leg back in order to propel the body forward.
Additionally, EMG studies find that there is an increase in calf muscle activity on the treadmill compared to over-ground running. This is because the calf needs to engage more in order to achieve an efficient push off from the treadmill as the belt is moving back. Hip flexors are also more engaged as we tend to pull the leg forward from toe off to heel contact. Over ground we are utilizing the glutes and hamstrings to extend the leg back, creating somewhat of a “slingshot” by the elastic energy created. If you think of using a slingshot, you pull the band back and let it go so the rock flies to your target. In our leg, the glutes and hamstrings pull the leg back and the stretch-reflex mechanisms in our muscles and tendons of the front part of the leg “slings” forward to heel contact. When you are not utilizing the glutes and hamstrings properly (because the belt is assisting to pull the leg back) you lose the “slingshot” affect and are forced to use your hip flexors to pull the leg forward to heel contact. This is why Brad Ott discussed in the last blog to be careful as you transition to running over ground and perhaps holding off on hill running for a few weeks as your muscles and body adapt to moving over land and not having the land move under you.
Another factor to consider with treadmill versus over ground running is the environment around you. Studies suggest runners tend to take shorter, quicker strides on a treadmill compared to a similar speed over ground. This is attributed to the immediate environment around you. Picture yourself outside on a bright sunny day running along a bike path or open space. The sky is big, the land is spacious, and your peripheral vision is filled with trees, bushes, fellow runners and cyclists off in the distance. Your ears are filled with distance sounds of birds chirping, dogs barking, children laughing at the nearby playground. Now picture yourself in a gym on a treadmill. You are in a narrow, tight environment on the treadmill. The hand rails are grazing your arm hair and the belt allows for 6 inches of lateral movement. A screen or TV is often brightly lit within an arm-length in front and ear buds are wedged in your ears as you listen to the guys on SportsCenter re-hash the previous weekend’s football games.
The tight, restricted environment is often attributed to taking shorter, quicker strides. We are in a state of higher apprehension on the ‘mill due to our surroundings, forcing us to take shorter and more cautious steps. These shorter, quicker steps tend to contribute to the increase in hip flexor, calf, and hamstring activation to move the leg in a shorter, more finite and controlled movement. Additionally, our extensor tone is increased due to the restricted environment and “tunnel vision” of the screen in front of us. This can increase back, neck, and calf tightness as our bodies help us adjust to the environment.
So what can we do? How can we be relatively warm and comfortable on a treadmill, stay healthy, catch up on the morning news and watch Rick defend his clan against zombies, and still prep our body for the spring and summer races? Consider the following suggestions:
- Place the treadmill on a 1-2% incline to help simulate running over ground. This may help facilitate proper glute and hamstring activation. Much debate is out there on if the incline is appropriate and how much. From my personal experience as a runner and professional experience on what I know about the human body, I would tend to agree that a slight incline will better help prep the body for over ground running versus no incline.
- Utilize a treadmill at the gym that is far away from the TVs. Try not to run on one with the TV on the treadmill. If that is your only option, look off in the distance frequently (without falling off the treadmill!) so your eyes, neck, and back are not strained by the visual input. Regardless of where the TVs are located, be aware of your periphery. Take note of the person a few treadmills away without directly looking at them.
- Give your ears a break! Take the ear buds out every 10-15 minutes and be aware of your auditory surroundings. When the ear buds are in, keep the volume as low as you can while still being able to understand what you are tuning in to.
- If you are training for an event outside, run outside when you can! Even if most of your miles are on a treadmill, try to get outside for a few minutes to run. This will help your neuromuscular system prepare for the outside environment as the ice melts away and the mornings become sunny once again.
Running on a treadmill is a great form of aerobic exercise and can help us prepare for those spring and early summer races out here in the New Siberia of Northern Colorado. However, we may need to slightly modify what we do on the treadmill and as we transition to outdoor running so we stay healthy through the spring and summer. Soon our insulated running tights and wool socks will be swapped out for our short shorts and t-shirts. My wife may speak for most when she reminds me that summer can’t come soon enough!