Is Running on a Treadmill Really Running?

feet on treadmill
Photo by Sasha W.; CC License 2.0

The crocuses are up, the frogs are occasionally chirping, and after a long snowy winter I’m out running again. Occasional workouts on the treadmill inside kept me from losing too much fitness during the winter, but every Spring I realize again that running on a treadmill isn’t really running. It looks like running but it’s a lot easier.

Of course a lot of trainers and treadmill manufacturers want you to believe differently, but stand back and watch someone working out on a treadmill and you’ll notice that no matter what you do on that machine your center of mass stays put. You aren’t propelling yourself forward, upward or braking on a downhill. You’re moving your legs. That’s good cardio exercise, but even if you don’t hang on to the treadmill handles the machine is doing some of that leg work, too. The belt physically carries your feet backwards whether you’re pushing off or not. According to some interesting research by Harvard student Deborah Sternlight, in running your speed depends on how far your legs actually throw your body forward with each step, not how many steps you take per minute. See the Harvard Gazette article by William J. Cromey for a detailed explanation of something few runners know about running. Treadmills don’t teach that part.

I appreciate the motorized treadmill for what it is, a help when the weather sours and I can’t do my outside runs. I do snicker at the people on tv who think they’re running at 10 mph on the mill when it’s actually set at 10 kph, but the deception goes much deeper than the readout on the panel. Someday they’ll go outside and wonder why it’s so much tougher out there. Take a look at this Woodway video if you want to see the real 10 mph treadmill run, not the Biggest Loser version.

OK, that’s genuinely tough training, but there may be a simpler and surprisingly efficient way to keep your summer-time power through the winter. Get rid of the motor. Manual treadmills increase the calorie burn by up to a third and depend on your activity to turn the belt and spin a flywheel. Instead of riding on the belt your feet actually push backwards. The harder you push, the faster you go. It’s still not quite running because there’s no hill to go up or down. If you change the inclination on a treadmill all you’re doing is changing the way your feet hit the belt. A manual treadmill actively  works the calves and the backs of the thighs. In the Spring you’ll have more essential power after training on one, instead of wondering why that hill was so much easier last Fall.

Professional manual treadmills like the Woodway Curve are priced beyond the budget of most households, but these $6000 machines could be at one of your local gyms if you check around. If you like the privacy of home workouts, the Cory Everson Manual Treadmill offers an intense workout at a budget price. The Everson also folds up to a small size for apartment storage and spins quietly in comparison to a motorized machine. The Everson carries up to 250 pounds and includes an LCD display which measures speed, distance, time elapsed and calories burned.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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