It’s the dead of winter, and many of us are now locked inside with a treadmill. Treadmills are an easy way to maintain your cardiovascular fitness in the comfort of your own home or in the warmth of the gym.

However, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, treadmills are the most common cause of injuries among all types of exercise equipment. Statistics show that injuries happen to people of all ages, at home and in gyms.

Here are 10 common mistakes that can sideline you while you’re already sidelined indoors. While reading, keep in mind these common mistakes can be easily modified for any indoor exercise equipment – elliptical, stationary bike, StairMaster, rowing machine, etc.

  1. Not Warming Up

Not warming up is a common mistake many people make when doing any exercise – not just when 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 is important 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 walking slowly for 5-10 minutes. If you just start running, you risk injury to your muscles, tendons and joints. You also run the risk of cramping up, which can shorten your work out or lead to injuries.

  1. Not Cooling Down

Cooling down is just as important as warming up. When using a treadmill, it is good practice to reduce your speed gradually toward the end of your run instead of just jumping off of the machine. Most treadmills will automatically cool you down by taking about 2 minutes to reduce speed as you reach the end of your program. Many treadmills also include a cool down program about 5 minutes long, to use at the end of your work out. 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 10-15 percent of their time on the treadmill. Exercisers should also stretch their hips, legs and lower back. This is to avoid cramping as well as feeling dizzy when you are done working out. If you run at maximum speed and immediately stop, your heart rate has a sudden drop. This results in dizziness, which can lead to injury. Cooling down properly will reduce your heart rate in an efficient manner.

  1. Holding The Handlebars

Holding on to the handlebars may provide you with a certain measure of security, but it is not a good idea. Primarily, holding the bars is reducing the efficiency of your run. Holding the bars makes it easier to run, so you aren’t getting the most out of your routine. More importantly, it is altering your running form. You are increasing your risk of neck and back injuries because you are leaning over. 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, you increase 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 fewer calories burned. 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 20-25 percent fewer calories burned. If holding the bars gives you a feeling of security, decrease the speed, the incline, or both. I like to remind patients the bars are there to help you get on and off the treadmill, not to use while you’re moving.

  1. Stepping Off The Treadmill While It’s Still Moving

This should fall under the category of common sense. Don’t spit into the wind and never step off of the treadmill while it is still moving. You may think it is a no issue, but you are taking a risk you don’t need to take. Many people decide to get off the treadmill while it is moving for a number of reasons. However, when you do so, you are cutting out your cooling down period and, most importantly, you are running 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. Before you get on the treadmill, have everything you need with you. 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. Consider bringing a towel in case you sweat.

  1. Improper Incline Use

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 1-2 percent incline helps to make a treadmill workout more comparable to an outdoor workout. However, some people use too steep of an incline when exercising. There are several potential problems involved with using a large incline. 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 want to add hill work to your routine, I usually recommend not going above 5 percent and not going for more than 5 minutes at a time. You should avoid running at a steep incline for more than five minutes. You’ll get a much better and safer workout if you switch between running a couple of minutes with an incline and running a couple of minutes without an incline. You could even do shorter hill intervals, like 30 or 60 seconds, to mix things up. It will make your runs a lot more interesting and prevent you from getting bored.

  1. Exceeding 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 are putting strain on your heart. Pushing the maximum heart rate won’t help you burn any more calories; calories burnt equals weight multiplied by distance.

  1. Bad Strides

Running on a treadmill has a different feel than running on the street or sidewalk. The belt makes many people nervous, and they compensate by taking shorter strides. This is not a good way to run. It increases your chances of stumbling, which could lead to major injuries. It’s common for people to feel nervous about falling off a treadmill, so they change their running form and don’t use the same running form as they use outside. You should be running on the treadmill the same way you would run outdoors. Try to run with your natural gait and avoid taking short, choppy strides. Another common form mistake is over-striding, 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, over-striding creates a braking force with the belt. To avoid this, try to keep your feet under your body, not ahead or behind it. When you first start using a treadmill, you should figure out a comfortable stride that is efficient. Then, do your best to maintain that stride every time you run. Using strides that are too big are equally dangerous. The key is to find the right balance.

  1. Bad Posture

Anything that throws off your posture – whether it is hunching over to watch your feet, leaning to the left for a better view of the TV or to check on the progress of your buddy on the next treadmill – is generally a bad idea. When your neck is pulled to the right or dropped forward, 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. Best is a treadmill equipped with its own screen. Keep your shoulders down, not up by your ears, and keep your arms relaxed.

  1. Don’t Text and Run

Gym-goers who exercise while constantly checking their iPhones, iPods or iPads, watching TV or reading the latest newspaper, make trainers nervous. Distractions can help pass the time, but multitasking can be dangerous if it throws off your stride or hinders your balance.

  1. Know 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, you should 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.

Treadmills are great exercise tools, especially once the cold weather sets in; however, they are only useful if you can use them correctly. Unnecessary injuries are not only frustrating, but will keep you from maintaining the fitness level you are training for. Common sense and good exercise habits should help you avoid these common pitfalls that come with running on a treadmill. Take some time to get used to your treadmill and your running habits.

By Dr. Michael Gross

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.

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