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How to Make the Most of Your Time on a Treadmill

WalkingonTreadmill_400Running on the treadmill is prime time to practice many aspects of your technique. Here’s what you should focus on, from ChiRunning.

For almost all of us, there’s a time when we need to run on a treadmill: too hot, too cold, unsafe area, time crunch, convenience. If for whatever reason you need to make friends with your local treadmill, these focuses should help. Running on the treadmill is prime time to practice many aspects of your technique.

  • Posture. Whether you’re running or walking on a treadmill, it’s especially important to focus on good posture with every stride. Before you even push the start button, establish your posture from the feet up. In order to maintain good biomechanical efficiency, keep returning your focus to your posture throughout your workout. If there is a mirror nearby, use it to confirm your body alignment, while Body Sensing how it feels.
  • Lean. The console/bar at the front of the machine gets in the way of a good lean and arm swing, so stay about an arm’s length back from the bar at all times. I have found it harder to lean and get my feet landing behind my center of mass on a treadmill. Setting your treadmill to a slight incline can help with this (start with a minimum of 1; I found 1.5 to 2.0 to be the best for me). Keep your ankles relaxed and be sure to keep your heels comfortably down on your landing.
  • Midfoot Strike. Keep your stride quick and short and lift your feet to help minimize the impact transferred to your legs by the moving belt. Exaggerate the heel lift a bit more on the treadmill because there is no forward momentum to help your feet travel in a circular path. Be aware of not letting your foot swing forward into the oncoming belt. Instead, your feet should be landing with a midfoot strike, moving in a rearward direction as you make contact with the treadmill.
  • Begin by setting the speed at a slow enough pace that you can comfortably jog while instating the ChiRunning focuses.
  • Practice pelvic rotations with each stride. Every time your leg swings out behind you, let your hip be pulled back with it. This allows your entire lower body to rotate along your vertical axis and absorb much of the shock of your foot hitting the treadmill.
  • Use a metronome on the treadmill to set your cadence. Most people have a very slow cadence on the treadmill — as low as 70. Keep your stride short and quick. Make achieving your optimal cadence a top priority.
  • Practice running at different speeds with the same cadence. Mary Lindahl, one of our Master ChiRunning Instructors, explains it beautifully in this letter: “My first major ‘aha’ experience with ChiRunning came just after I had bought my metronome and was matching my cadence to it, while running on a treadmill. I warmed up for a mile and got used to matching my stride to the beep, then I increased the speed of the treadmill by a minute per mile. I had this unusual feeling of slowing down to continue matching the metronome, yet I knew I was running faster as the speed shown on the treadmill didn’t lie. I thought, ‘If I can feel like I’m slowing down yet know I’m running faster, I want this technique!’ I literally got off the treadmill, went upstairs to my computer and looked for the next ChiRunning workshop. I felt lucky to have had this experience on the treadmill as I might have thought I was imagining the extra speed if I was on the open road. The beauty of the treadmill is that it can take some things that are usually variables and make them constants.”
  • Practice the Lateral Stride. Set the treadmill to an incline of 5 and run for thirty seconds straight ahead, toward twelve o’clock. Then turn your body to the left — toward ten o’clock — for 30 seconds. Go back to twelve o’clock for 30 seconds, then to the right toward two o’clock for 30 seconds, then back to twelve o’clock again. It takes only a few minutes to get used to the feeling of running with your body turned to the side. Repeat this cycle as many times as you like. One thing that you can Body Sense is how much more difficult it is to run with your body facing forward than rotated to the side. On a treadmill you can make the grade of the hill and your running speed both constants.
  • Videotape yourself. You can get instant feedback by setting up your video camera to observe your running gait. You can also use a mirror to get good feedback — or even use your reflection in a TV screen.
  • Watch your shoulders to see if you’re keeping them square to the front (correct) or whether you’re rotating them with your arm swing (incorrect).
  • Practice running barefoot. Run barefoot for a few minutes at a time to break any habit of heel striking. This helps you become aware of how you are landing on your feet so that you can Body Sense better when you have shoes on.
  • When you get off the treadmill, picture the earth like a treadmill. All you have to do when you’re running is pick up your feet and let the earth pass by underneath you.

Things to be careful of when practicing ChiRunning on a treadmill:

  • Be careful not to let the treadmill do too much of the work for you. This can happen with a slow cadence because your foot is in the support phase too long. I recommend lifting your heels as quickly as possible, which results in a quicker cadence. Make achieving your optimal cadence (usually 90) a top priority if you run on a treadmill.
  • Follow the principle of Gradual Progress when adjusting to running on a treadmill, or adjusting to the streets again after a winter of treadmill running. When first running on a treadmill, you may find it harder until you get used to balancing on the moving belt. Most people who get used to doing lots of miles on treadmills find that returning to the streets creates much more impact on their legs. Asphalt and pavement are much harder surfaces than the average treadmill surface.
  • The quality of the treadmill can cause experiences to vary. The less expensive models have more spring to them, which may be harder to balance on in the beginning, but they also provide more cushioning. The more expensive “club” models do a better job of imitating running on the road, as they require less balancing and create less vertical displacement. They also have much more stability during faster running. The longer the treadmill the better and the easier to adopt the ChiRunning lean.
  • Log some miles on the road. Most people say treadmills are easier on the legs than pavement or asphalt. Training on the treadmill is okay for some of the time, but it is important to mix in some mileage on the roads. Your body needs to be acclimated to concrete or asphalt, especially if you’re training for a distance event.
  • Avoid doing prolonged speed work (intervals, tempo runs, etc.) on the treadmill. The moving belt can introduce more impact at the landing, and that impact is magnified by speed. For safety reasons, it’s just not the place to run faster than a comfortable aerobic pace. So whether you’re simply maintaining your aerobic base or doing marathon training, always keep it easy on the treadmill. If you want a little more of a workout, you can slightly increase the amount of incline.

Danny Dreyer, author of ChiRunning (Copyright © 2004 by Danny Dreyer), is an esteemed running and walking coach and accomplished ultra marathon runner, finishing in the top three in his division in thirty-nine ultra marathons. He is an international speaker, and has been seen on CNN, NBC News, and the Discovery Channel, and has been covered in Runner’s World and Running Times.



Danny Dreyer, an esteemed walking and running coach, is a nationally ranked ultramarathon runner. He conducts workshops nationwide and lectures frequently at races and events. He is the coauthor, with Katherine Dreyer, of ChiRunning.


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