It appears to be the easiest option in the gym. Hop on a treadmill, press start, and jog away, right?
But we’ve all seen those people that somehow manage to royally screw it up—keeled forward, holding onto the side rails, and dragging their feet the entire way.
Don’t be so quick to judge: Even those of us who think we know what we’re doing are likely making some mistakes. And some of them may be pretty critical when it comes to maximizing your workout and reducing risk of injury.
When it comes to form, incline, speed, and recovery.
Think your form is on point as you run intervals like a pro, getting a great workout in utilizing the incline? You’re probably making one of these mistakes:
“If you are sitting back on your hips, which usually happens as a result of fatigue, you are not engaging those important muscles of the back and you are letting your spine take on more impact than it needs to,” wrote David Siik, creator of Precision Running for Equinox, in The Ultimate Treadmill Workout.
Correction: “Running coaches often talk about tilt, or forward lean. It is important to make sure that your torso weight is shifted ever so slightly over and in front of your hips, as opposed to behind,” he said. Doing this engages your back and core to stabilize the body and absorb shock.
Looking down, up at the TV, or checking yourself out in the mirror.
Looking anywhere other than straight forward not only strains your neck, but can also make you feel dizzy. Many people “look up and over the treadmill trying to watch TV. If this is you, stop! Tilting your head back to much can be the primary culprit of a stiff and achy neck,” wrote Siik.
Correction: Luckily treadmill manufacturers designed with this in mind, placing the monitors at a neutral position. “Make sure to look at the upper part of your treadmill and not around the room in a daydream,” wrote Siik. “You are designed to look out and slightly down to see the terrain in front of you. The place to keep your eye line is usually at the top of the monitor, which will keep your head in just the right position.”
Hugging the front of the treadmill.
“You are literally running into a wall … running that close up causes major problems with your form,” wrote Siik. “It limits your range of motion, preventing you from running with your natural stride and arm drive. You will have a tendency to swing your arms in a short, choppy motion. This causes a great amount of tension in the back, shoulders and neck.”
Correction: All you have to do is move back a few inches. “You should always try to sprint in the middle of your treadmill,” wrote Siik.
This is when you reach your legs in front of you to cover more ground, lengthening your stride to excess. “The problem with this is that your foot is landing in front of your body weight as opposed to underneath you. It’s like doing a lunge with bad form,” said Siik. This puts undue pressure on your hips and knees. Siik sees people doing this more often on the treadmill than outdoors as people tend to overcompensate for the moving ground beneath them.
Correction: Many coaches will teach you to increase your cadence, which basically means taking more steps per minute by shortening your stride. “Biomechanically this shorter stride can reduce force and impact on the body,” said Siik. However, he also clarified that he doesn’t believe you should force cadence changes that don’t feel natural. When sprinting especially, “a full, natural stride is important, beneficial, and for runners, efficient and pain-free.”
Swinging your arms across your centerline.
“The biggest mistake people make is that they swing their arms left to right across their centerline. It’s easier that way, taking less energy and less effort,” wrote Siik. “You’re missing the opportunity for a great full-body workout and you could be creating future health problems.” This excessive side to side arm swinging causes your hips to twist and pivot, which over time can cause tightness, pain, and other issues in the hips and lower back.
Correction: Think, opposite arm, opposite leg. This helps you to offset the torque, which is the twisting force created by lifting one leg at a time. “Your opposite arm swings to counterbalance this force,” wrote Siik. “You want to remember, especially on sprints, to drive your arms parallel to your legs, thinking of them both on the same railroad tracks.” And don’t over swing your arms: “nice relaxed hands should not reach and extend past your shoulders … your arms will naturally drive in proportion to the force being created by your legs.”
Sprinting too fast.
Interval training has become increasingly popular, and is a great way to increase stamina. But running too fast can cause some issues. “One, you step off the treadmill early because you consistently can’t finish the interval,” wrote Siik. “Or, your form starts to degrade to an unsafe point where you start sitting back on your hips and feel like you are reaching forward to hold on.” And the next day probably wont be pretty either: “Often this ‘pedal to the metal’ speed work leaves people feeling terrible the next day, full of aches and pains,” he wrote, which will affect your ability to workout again.
Correction: You should never feel out of control. There’s a fine line between challenging yourself and pushing yourself to a breaking point. “Sprinting at top speeds should always be reserved for the last half of your workout. The systematic and gradual build of speed is the safest and healthiest way to achieve top speeds,” said Siik. And consider reducing your top speed a bit, which Siik refers to as speed cushioning. “Bring down your fastest speed just a bit, and balance that with a slightly faster recovery, essentially creating less of a gap between your top and bottom speeds.”
Sprinting at an incline above 5.
Swimsuit season is quickly approaching—so you jack up the incline and sprint it out. One problem: “You can seriously hurt yourself blasting too fast up a steep incline or doing too much incline work,” said Siik. When running there are two forces at play on your body: the initial impact force and the breaking force as you push off the ground. “These forces can be nearly eliminated when running on an incline,” wrote Siik. But, and this is a big but, that doesn’t mean the more incline the better. There is a third force—propulsive force—that drives you forward and actually increases with incline (a study published in The Journal of Biomechanics found this force to increase by 75 percent). “The steeper the incline, the more compromised certain joints in your body will become, especially the ankles, hips and low back.”
Correction: Focus on the ratio of speed to incline. “You don’t need to sprint on steep inclines to get the benefits of incline running,” wrote Siik. Instead, keep the incline from zero to five percent when sprinting. He recommended keeping a medium pace when at an incline between six and eight percent, and a slow, easy pace at an incline of nine to 12 percent.
Increasing the speed right as your interval starts.
“The biggest mistake people make is they start late by waiting for the machine to rev up,” wrote Siik. For example, you start the clock for a 30-second sprint and then speed up—but the treadmill can take five to 15 seconds to reach your desired speed. You actually end up doing less than 15 seconds of the actual work you’re trying to achieve.
Correction: “To solve this problem, simply always start speeding up about 10 seconds before every interval,” wrote Siik. “You may feel like you’re eating into your recovery time, but that will make you much stronger and more fit than eating into your interval time.”