ChiRunning Tips for Treadmill Running

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It’s the beginning of March and it is still cold and snowy outside in a lot of places in the world! And though the days are getting just a bit longer now, it can still be a challenge to get out in daylight for our runs and walks. (For more thoughts on keeping your exercise program going when it’s cold and dark outside, refer to our article, The Chi Guide to Winter Running & Walking) If for these or any other reasons you need to make friends with your local treadmill until the days get warmer and longer, this article is for you! We’ll share how to apply some specific ChiRunning and ChiWalking focuses to the treadmill, and how best to compensate for the machine’s limitations while still working on your running technique. Running on the treadmill is a prime-time opportunity to practice injury free running.

We often hear from runners and walkers who feel discouraged when they switch from the treadmill to stable ground, complaining that they get winded quickly and can’t go as far or as fast as they perceived on the treadmill. This is perfectly normal, because treadmill running is not at all the same thing as running on solid ground. First of all, the moving belt does much of the work for you, and because you are stationary, there is no resistance from the air that you have to move through when you’re outdoors. Secondly, because you are basically running on top of a moving object, the moving belt requires that your feet adapt differently as they make contact with each step, requiring more stability in the muscles and tendons of your ankles. The moving belt can also send more impact, rather than less, up the line to your knees and hips. Still, we love nothing more than a challenge, so here are some training tips that will help your treadmill running (For great visuals of these tips, see our ChiWalking DVD and ChiRunning DVD):

1. Posture

Walkers and runners can focus on good posture wherever they are, including (and maybe especially) on a treadmill. Before you even push the start button, establish your posture from the feet up – feet hip width and parallel, spine lengthened, pelvis level, and statue tilted. In order to maintain good biomechanical efficiency, keep returning your focus to your posture throughout your session. If there is a mirror nearby, use it to confirm your body alignment, while body sensing how it feels.

2. Lean

Because all movement on the treadmill is stationary, there is no engaging gravity for propulsion. The console on the front of the machine gets in the way of a good lean and arm swing, and unless you’re a risk taker, you probably want to stay away from the back of the belt. Use the machine’s incline feature to simulate the lean. Keep your ankles relaxed and make sure you can still get your heels comfortably down on your landing.

3. Heel lift, stride and cadence

Keeping your stride quick and short, and lifting your feet, will help minimize the impact transferred to your legs by the moving belt. You may find it necessary to 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 moving in a rearward direction as you make contact with the treadmill. To insure that you’re not heel striking and sending shock to your knees, you should always be landing with a mid-foot strike.

Keeping your attention on these focuses will help you maintain a relaxed state of balance on the machine. Here is how to get the most out of these focuses during your treadmill session (See ChiRunning book on pages 188-189):

1. Begin by setting the speed at a slow enough pace that you can comfortably jog while instating the ChiRunning and ChiWalking focuses: posture, lean, picking up your feet and cadence.

2. Set the incline (if your machine has one) up so that you feel the tilt, but not so high that you can’t get your heel flat on landing. One to two degrees should do it. This will also help compensate for the lack of wind resistance. Remember to hinge from your ankles, don’t bend at the waist! Walkers, make sure you can keep your heel down until your rear leg is straight. If you can’t, you should lower the incline until you can.

3. Most treadmills have a timer on the display panel that tells you the minutes and seconds you’ve been running. Use the seconds counter for setting up your cadence. Every three steps another second should elapse. If you can do that, then your cadence is exactly 90 strides per minute with each leg. Having a cadence of 85-90 will help to reduce the impact of the treadmill on your knees because it will insure that your stride is kept short. For walkers, use your variable cadence as you would on the ground but focus on keeping your stride short.

4. To keep the impact low, exaggerate your heel lift, picking up your feet a little bit higher than you would in the same gear outdoors.

5. Avoid doing all your runs and walks on the machine if at all possible. That will ease the adjustment to outdoors when the time comes.

6. Another way to reduce impact caused by the treadmill is to practice pelvic rotations with each stride. Every time your leg swings out behind you, let your hip be pulled back with it. This will cause your pelvis to rotate along your vertical axis and absorb much of the shock of your foot hitting the treadmill. (See page 179 in the ChiRunning book, pages 90-91 in the ChiWalking book.)

Finally, some thoughts on speed: Runners should 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. Also, the speed indicator on the machine is only as good as the last time it was calibrated, so it is an approximation at best. Keep your pace slow, your stride rate quick and your step short. If you want a little more workout, you can slowly increase the amount of incline and use your arms more to simulate running up a hill. Shorten your stride if needed to get your heel down on the landing. Always think of treadmill running as “maintenance running,” not strength building. It’s just not the place to be running 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.

Use these tips and tricks to get the most out of your treadmill session, and Spring will be here before you know it.

In search of a treadmill to match your needs?
Check out the “Best Treadmill Brands” by ConsumerAffairs

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