The treadmill is the most popular piece of exercise equipment in the U.S., according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturer's Association. Over 50 million were sold in 2010 — roughly twice the number of ellipticals.
One step into the Guilderland YMCA's massive aerobic area proves the point: The entire north wall is lined with treadmills, many of which, even at 1:30 in the afternoon, are occupied.
"There's a lot of benefits to the treadmill," says Casey Garvey, wellness director at the Guilderland YMCA. "It allows you to track everything — heart rate, calories, incline. You can replicate a course without risking injury. You don't have to deal with the weather. If you're running on the street, you need gear."
While the machine itself seems simplistic — you just get on it, right? — a treadmill is also a breeding ground for bad habits that can sap a workout of its benefits. Here are some top tips from Capital Region trainers for maximizing the efficiency of your treadmill time.
Footwear is crucial to a safe and effective treadmill workout. "If walking or running, you need to wear shoes that have good support and comfort. Running shoes are generally lighter, flexible, and breathable to avoid problems with sweating, rubbing and pressure. They should be cushioned in the heel and midfoot," Garvey says. He also recommends replacing shoes every 300-400 miles.
Watch Where You're Looking
Believe it or not, where your eyes focus is important to a productive workout. "When running or walking on a treadmill, you should look straight ahead, and maintain good posture," Garvey says. "Don't crane your head forward. It will create a toppling effect." Mat Nark, assistant director and running coach at Plaza Fitness, adds, "We always want a neutral cervical spine [aka your neck] and eyes in direction of travel."
The trick is to keep it natural. Don't try to maximize the workout by doing super long or short strides. Garvey says, "Your feet should land directly underneath your body. As your foot strikes the treadmill or ground, your knee should be slightly flexed so that it can bend naturally on impact. If your lower leg extends out in front of your body, your stride is too long." If you want to get really technical, "an optimal stride length will produce about 180 to 200 steps per minute," says Nark.
Your back should be straight and your arms relaxed. "Never hold the bars as you run!," says Nark. "This will create a shearing effect on the discs of the lumbar spine. This can hurt the outer covering of the discs and lead to disc damage." Garvey agrees: "Holding onto handrails forces you to hunch over — an inefficient form that can lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain. If you can't keep up with the treadmill without grabbing handrails, you're probably going too fast."
Interval training is a great way to vary your treadmill workout, which can often become monotonous and inefficient. Nark says, "Training programs should consist of easy running and interval training on separate days. Intervals are running bouts or lengths of time spent running at a predetermined pace. For example, an athlete that wants to run a 5k may do 4 reps of 800 meters (around half a mile) at their 5k goal pace with two minutes of easy recovery between reps."
Don't overdo it, though, Garvey cautions. "Never do it two days in a row." Even slight inclines can get your heart rate up without straining your body or causing rail-holding.
"The moving of the belt on a treadmill may encourage greater heel striking," Garvey says. "You should aim to touch the belt first with the ball of your foot, keeping it directly under your hips. Avoid allowing the heel to strike first in front of your body. This can put a lot of stress on your knees and hips. If you land on the ball of your foot, you minimize impact and keep moving with a steady forward momentum." Try as best you can to emulate running in a natural environment. In other words, don't change your form because you're on a treadmill.
Optimum Heart Rate
Is there an optimum heart rate on the treadmill? While there is no standardized optimum heart rate for everyone, you can figure out (roughly) your target heart rate, Garvey says, using an equation. To find this number, you first have to determine your maximum heart rate. Subtract your age from 220, then decide on your desired training intensity, which should be anywhere between 60 to 90 percent (a moderate to high intensity workout). Finally, multiply your maximum heart rate by the percentage of your desired intensity to get your target heart rate. This should give you an estimate of the "magic number" to shoot for on the machine. While most treadmills have heart rate displays, Nark cautions against relying on them since they are frequently inaccurate. Garvey says that it may be beneficial to wear a heart rate monitor for a more correct estimate, but he also stresses not to rely too much on standardized equations since each person's exercise ability is different.
The bottom line: It's beneficial to pay attention to your heart rate, but never ignore how you feel to reach a certain prescribed number or percentage.
Like heart rate, an optimum incline differs slightly for every person. "As a benchmark you should avoid running at a steep incline for more than five minutes," says Garvey, "It is best to not go above a 7 percent incline. It places too much strain on your back, hips and ankles. You'll get a much better and safer workout if you alternate between running a few minutes with an incline and running a few without the incline." Nark adds, " A 1 percent incline will most closely resemble that of outdoor running."