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Is Running on a Treadmill Bad?

author image Martin Booe
Martin Booe writes about health, wellness and the blues. His byline has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Bon Appetit. He lives in Los Angeles.
Is Running on a Treadmill Bad?
The treadmill is not without its risks, but do they outweigh the benefits? Photo Credit tiler84/iStock/Getty Images

Although they have little solid evidence of it, some people firmly believe that running on a treadmill is bad. Just plain bad. They avoid treadmills with the same dread as breaking mirrors and other bad luck superstitions. They may declare them to be nothing more than the fast path to skeletal decay. Or, they may even associate the treadmill with death.

On a less dramatic note, you may wonder if running on a treadmill makes you vulnerable to injuries such as sprains or strain to the lower back. Here are a few scenarios in which treadmill running could be bad and a few where it's not.

Read More: Foot Pain and Injuries from a Treadmill

Why Some Hate Treadmills

The treadmill's re-invention as an exercise machine arose in the 1960s, when exercise was first being re-packaged as self-improvement. The treadmill quickly became a symbol of over-determined drudgery in the service of weight loss.

But drudgery is the essence of the treadmill: it was actually invented as a way to wear out and subdue potentially rebellious prisoners in the 1800s. And at the same time, their effort could be harnessed to crush grain or pump water.

There is also an urban myth that makes the rounds every several years in which somebody knows something like seven people who died while running on a treadmill for a cardiac stress test, and it always happens to a close friend of a friend.

Most Common Treadmill Injuries

Maybe you've seen the old cartoon of George Jetson getting gobbled up by a treadmill. Turns out that treadmill accidents do keep emergency rooms hopping-- to the tune of 24,400 treadmill-related visits in 2014, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The most common injuries: abrasions, broken bones, rectal bleeding and chest pain. From 2003 to 2012, treadmills were associated with 30 deaths, according to the CPSC. However, it's worth considering that treadmill injuries are a fraction of the near 500,000 ER visits from walking and running in 2016.

Other Complaints

Treadmills provide only crude simulations of outdoor running conditions, perhaps opening the door to some repetitive motion injuries. On treadmills, runners tend to lengthen their stride, which can distort gait. Longer strides may shift some of work load to the back of your legs and cause your foot strike to move toward the heel. You can correct this by making sure to pick up your feet when running on the treadmill.

Because you're not really propelling yourself through space and the belt is sweeping your feet behind you, your joints in general and feet in particular may absorb shock in ways that may strain muscles all over your body.

On the other hand, treadmills may provide more cushion than a typical outdoor run -- especially if it's on pavement -- so your knees and ankles absorb less shock.

Treadmills may distort your gait in ways that could cause pain.
Treadmills may distort your gait in ways that could cause pain. Photo Credit tzahiV/iStock/Getty Images


Treadmills have some pros and some cons. There is a risk of injury but if you are mindful of your surroundings, speed and physical space when on a treadmill, you are unlikely to come to harm. And for rounding out your gym visits with some cardio treadmills are great.

It is widely believed that adjusting a treadmill to a 1 percent grade provides a near perfect simulation of an outdoor run, but this has become controversial and criticized as an over-simplification. Needless to say, a treadmill can't simulate the twists, turns and uneven surfaces that make running a unique challenge, so if you have aspirations to serious running, you're going to want to stay outdoors as much as possible.

However, treadmills have the advantage of allowing you to train indoors and in all kinds of weather and are a great backup. They won't replace training for serious runners, especially if you're prepping for a race, but they're a great back-up when the weather makes running outdoors difficult.

Read More: Causes for Leg Pain When Using a Treadmill

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