The tragedy of the treadmill

By Sparta Science

March 10, 2010

One of the most common comments from parents and sports agents when entering Sparta is, “Oh…you guys don’t have any treadmills or bikes.” We only train elite athletes; it allows us to focus on making these programs better every day. This focus includes the creativity of not using machines, like a treadmill, due to their complete irrelevance to sport. Let me immediately dispel the exceptions to this rule, it doesn’t matter if you’re running on a high speed treadmill to gain speed, if you’re coming off surgery, or if there is a hurricane outside, machines will impede your performance and recovery.

As discussed previously (see Sparta Point 11/5/09), the treadmill alters the normal mechanics of movement. Before we get into the research that proves the irrelevance of treadmills to sport, it is common sense to see that the best route for making a movement better is to do that movement more, making it a highly-tuned skill (see Sparta Point 2/24/10). To run faster, work on sprinting mechanics by sprinting, or make better agility cuts by rehearsing that agility run over and over again. Pretty groundbreaking, huh?

The Sports Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Alberta found that at slower velocities, there were major differences in knee drive and contact time on a treadmill versus the ground. These are the critical components of stride rate and stride length, which are the major determinants of running speed. As the velocity of the treadmill approached near maximum, even greater mechanical breakdown and differences were seen. Because the belt pulls your leg through, rather your own leg, there is a significant decrease in the muscles in the back of your leg (i.e. hamstrings and glutes).

The result is an increased stress on the quads (muscles in the front of your leg) and the knee joint. If this pattern is repeated enough so that it is learned, it will transfer negatively when the athlete runs on the ground and may result in hamstring pulls because of the athlete’s newly learned “skill”.

This article is one of many to not support treadmill running, especially high speed work. These machines have become popular because they look high tech and generate more revenue than watching or telling athletes to go on the field or track to run. The solution is simple; get stronger in the weight room to apply bigger forces into the ground and have an experienced coach to provide feedback on your running technique.

But if you’re competing against our athletes please continue to train on treadmills, because when these machines become a sport, you’ll have the best skill.

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