With the warm weather, many runners are heading outside for their daily runs. However, some of us continue to use the treadmill—an easy way to maintain your cardiovascular fitness in the comfort of your own home or the accessibility of the gym—for its convenience and consistency. Yet, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, treadmills are the most common cause of injuries among all types of exercise equipment.
Statistics show the injuries happen to people of all ages, at home and in gyms. The recent tragic death of Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg after falling off a treadmill and hitting his head has focused new attention on the risks of the hugely popular exercise machines. Though treadmill deaths are rare in the United States, injuries are not. In 2014, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 24,400 injuries associated with treadmills were seen in hospital emergency rooms. For the 10-year period ending in 2012, the commission reported 30 deaths. In 2012, emergency rooms treated 62,700 injuries due to exercise equipment, with treadmills leading the way.
Keeping safety in mind, here are 10 common treadmill mistakes to avoid to help ensure you don’t become one of the injury statistics.
1. Failing to properly warm up
This a common mistake many people make when doing any exercise, not only using the treadmill. While it is tempting to just hop on the treadmill and start running at your desired speed, your body needs to tune itself for your run. Cold muscles lack flexibility and blood flow, so it’s essential to warm them up before putting stress on them through exercise. A good warm-up may begin by performing static stretches and range of motion exercises and then slowly walking for five to 10 minutes. If you just start running, you risk injuring your muscles, tendons and joints. You also run the risk of cramping up, which can shorten your workout or lead to injuries.
2. Failing to properly cool down
When using a treadmill, it is good practice to reduce your speed gradually toward the end of your run instead of merely jumping off of the machine. Most treadmills will automatically cool you down by taking about two minutes to reduce speed as you reach the end of your program. At the end of your workout, many treadmills also include a cool-down program about five minutes long. Cooling down the muscles is an important part of injury prevention because muscles tighten quickly if activity suddenly stops.
To effectively cool down their muscles, exercisers should run or walk at a slower pace for the last 10 to 15 percent of their time on the treadmill. They should also stretch their hips, legs and lower back in order to avoid cramping and dizziness. (If you run at maximum speed and immediately stop, your heart rate experiences a sudden drop, which can result in dizziness that may lead to possible injuries.) Cooling down properly will reduce your heart rate in an efficient manner.
3. Not letting go of the bars
People think that holding onto the treadmill makes the machine safer. In fact, the opposite is true. By holding on, and aligning your body in an unnatural way by leaning over, you’re increasing the risk for longer-term injuries and pain, especially in the shoulders, knees, lower back and hips. Odds are you will be very sore when you step off the treadmill after you are done running. In addition, holding onto the machine makes the exercise easier and less intense. That means you’re burning fewer calories. The treadmill may display one number for total calories burned, but the treadmill doesn’t know that you’re holding on. It’s estimated that holding onto the treadmill results in 20% to 25% fewer calories burned. If holding the bars gives you a feeling of security, decrease the speed, the incline or both.
4. Getting off a moving treadmill
Many people decide to get off the treadmill while it is still in motion for a number of reasons. However, when you do so, you are cutting out your cooling down period. And, most importantly, you run the risk of slipping off or losing your balance. If you do that, you could wind up with a serious injury. Slow to a stop before getting off.
5. Improperly using the incline
Most treadmills allow you to adjust the incline. This can increase the efficiency of your run by making you move uphill. Most experts agree that a one to two percent incline helps to make a treadmill workout more comparable to an outdoor one. However, some people use too steep of an incline when exercising. Using a large incline poses several potential problems. First, you run the risk of falling off the treadmill if the speed is too high. Second, you are putting dangerous pressure on your back and knees each time you increase the incline, which is not the goal of your run.
You are better off using a modest incline and a slightly faster speed to get the most out of your run. If you do wish to add hill work to your routine, I typically recommend not going above five percent and not going for more than five minutes at a time. You should avoid running at a steep incline for more than five minutes. You’ll get a much better, safer workout if you switch between running a couple of minutes with an incline and running a couple of minutes without an incline. To mix things up, you might want to try doing shorter hill intervals, like 30 or 60 seconds. This will make your runs more interesting, preventing boredom.
6. Exceeding your optimal heart rate
Most treadmills come with tools to measure your heart rate. This is something you should take advantage of when running. To figure out your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Depending on the style of training you are doing, there are certain heart rate levels you should maintain while running. Even for the most intense training, you should keep your heart rate below 85 percent of the maximum. If you are exceeding that number, you’re putting strain on your heart. Pushing the maximum heart rate won’t help you burn any more calories, and it’s definitely not good for your heart, so don’t risk it.
7. Taking bad strides
Running on a treadmill has a different feel than running on the street or sidewalk. It’s common for people to feel nervous about falling off a treadmill, so they change their running form from the one they typically use when running outside. Wrong! You should be running on the treadmill in the same way you would run outdoors. Try to run with your natural gait; avoid taking short, choppy strides, which can increase your chances of stumbling and injuring yourself.
Another common form mistake is overstriding, or landing heel first with your foot well ahead of your body’s center of gravity. Since the treadmill’s belt is moving you forward, overstriding creates a braking force with the belt. To avoid this, keep your feet under your body, not ahead or behind it. When you first start using a treadmill, you should figure out a comfortable and efficient stride. Then, do your best to maintain that stride every time you run. The key is to find the right balance.
8. Adopting bad posture
Anything that throws off your posture, whether it is hunching over to watch your feet or leaning to the left for a better view of the TV or your buddy on the next treadmill, is generally a bad idea. Your neck is pulled to the right or dropped forward and one part of the musculature is getting stretched while another is getting tightened. If your gym is equipped with TV screens, you’re better off in the back row so you don’t have to crane your neck to see the screen. Or better yet, use a treadmill equipped with its own screen.
9. Texting while running
Gym-goers who exercise while constantly checking their cell phones, watching TV or reading the newspaper make trainers nervous. Distractions may help pass the time, but multi-tasking can be dangerous if it throws off your stride or hinders your balance.
Before you get on the treadmill, make sure you have everything you’ll need. This includes water. You want to stay hydrated, and the last thing you want to do is cut your run off in the middle so that you can get water. Most treadmills have pockets where you can put things you might need. And don’t forget to bring a towel in case you perspire.
10. Not acknowledging your limits
You want to push yourself while you run, but not to the point where you lose control. It is important to find a workout that serves you best. If you feel strained, stop running or transition to jogging. Not knowing your limits can lead to a series of aches, pains and injuries. Everything from tendonitis to sore feet can occur if you push yourself too hard.
Dr. Michael Gross, the founder and director of Active Orthopedic and Sports Medicine, is the section chief of sports medicine and the orthopedic director of the Center for Sports Medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center, as well as medical director of Active Center for Health and Wellness.