When the weather is too hot, rainy or cold, the treadmill often replaces an outdoor track or road. The treadmill allows you to continue running, jogging or walking during conditions where running outside isn't necessarily an option.
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However, just like performing these exercise activities outside, your intensity and fitness level can contribute to pain or soreness, especially in your legs. Here are the most common causes of leg pain while on the treadmill.
1. Muscle Soreness
One of the more common causes of treadmill-related leg pain is as a side effect of the natural muscle-growth process — muscle soreness. If you're new to exercise or pushing yourself to a new level of exertion, you'll be more likely to develop soreness.
That's because, when you run or walk on a treadmill and apply more than your typical amount of resistance to your muscles, you can develop microscopic tears in the muscle tissue. These tears activate the natural muscle-building process as cells rush to the damaged areas to heal and strengthen muscle fibers.
For example, increasing the incline may put more stress on your calves, hamstrings and glutes, increasing your risk of soreness. Extra incline can also overtax your dorsiflexor muscles, the muscles on the front of the shin, leading to sore shins or shin splints. Stretching your calf muscles, taking more time to warm up and lowering the speed and incline can help prevent this.
However, the tears that can cause pain and soreness will typically subside once the tissue has been healed. The amount of pain or soreness from this process depends on how intensely you work out on the treadmill, as well as your overall fitness level.
2. Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps can also cause pain in the legs and calf tightness while running on the treadmill. Cramps often result from prolonged workouts, dehydration, fatigue or excess stress.
Because the surface of a treadmill belt never changes, treadmill workouts easily lend themselves to overuse injuries.
Repetitive motions can lead to wear and tear to the peroneal tendon, causing ankle pain while running on treadmill, especially if you have high arches. According to OrthoGate, pain is often on the outer edge of the ankle and worsens with activity.
And Overuse of your soleus muscle can lead to calf pain with running. According to a February 2015 study published by Journal of Physical Therapy Science, the soleus muscle works much harder when running than with walking.
4. Muscle Pull, Strain or Tear
A more rare cause of leg pain on a treadmill is a muscle injury. Treadmill injury types can range in severity from a light pull of the calves, quads (upper thigh pain) or hamstrings to muscle strains or tears. A mild strain may only bother you slightly as you run, while a severe strain can make even walking difficult.
Pain near the lower calf is likely due to a strained soleus muscle, while pain throughout the entire calf region probably includes injury to the gastrocnemius muscle. And a tear in the adductor longus muscle, also referred to as a groin pull, can cause pain in the upper inner thigh when walking, according to the Sports Injury Clinic.
These types of injuries are more common if you're running or pushing yourself far beyond your fitness level. But injuries can also develop from fall or miss-stepping on the treadmill.
5. Ligament or Tendon Tear, Strain or Sprain
Other connective tissues can also be injured while on a treadmill, resulting in leg pain. Tendons attach muscles to bones, while ligaments connect bones or cartilage together.
While both tissues are designed to have some stretch to them, exercising too intensely on the treadmill or falling on the treadmill can cause the tissues to stretch past their limits, resulting in a sprained ligament, strained tendon, or torn ligament or tendon.
For example, if you recently lost your balance on the treadmill or stepped off it awkwardly, you may have overstretched the ligaments in your ankle, causing a sprained ankle, according to MedlinePlus.
A mild sprain may not be immediately noticeable, resulting in subtle symptoms such as swelling and tenderness. But if there's bruising or excessive swelling or you have trouble walking, see your doctor.
Different treatments are available for treadmill-related leg pain depending on how severe the pain or injury is. But generally, the initial treatment for pain — particularly strains and sprains — involves the RICE method, according to the Mayo Clinic. This acronym stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation.
- Rest gives the muscle time to recover.
- Ice can help reduce swelling and intramuscular bleeding, limiting the extent of damage and lessening the discomfort.
- Compression involves wrapping the calf with an elastic sports bandage.
- Elevation helps drain the swelling and remove the added strain of your body weight.
Over-the-counter medicines like pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications can also be used to help control the leg pain.
If your leg pain does not subside in a couple days, gets worse or is accompanied by severe swelling, talk to your doctor to see if further treatment is needed. Avoid working out on the treadmill until your doctor gives you permission to resume your workout routine.
One of the best ways to prevent leg pain while on the treadmill is proper muscle preparation beforehand. Warming up your muscles with a series of basic movements can help prepare your calves for the rigors of running.
Gentle stretches help keep your muscles limber and can help you avoid muscle tears, joint injuries and leg pain after running on a treadmill. Before hopping on the treadmill, do some dynamic leg stretches.
While you're on the treadmill, focus on your posture and avoid leaning too far forward. Then slowly increase the speed and/or incline to help prevent leg pain. After your workout, do some static leg stretches. Performing leg-strengthening exercises on non-treadmill days can also help prevent leg pain.
Wear shoes that support your feet and aren't worn out. You may also need insoles or a supportive brace.
- Sports Injury Clinic: "Calf Strain"
- Mayo Clinic: "Muscle Strains"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Activity of lower limb muscles during treadmill running at different velocities"
- Family Doctor: "Leg Problems"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Sprained Ankle"
- OrthoGate: "Peroneal Tendon Problems"
- Podiatry Today: "When Treadmill Running Causes Foot Pain"
- Sports Injury Clinic: "Groin Strain"
- MedlinePlus: "Strains"
- Sports Injury Clinic: "Thigh Contusion (Quadriceps Contusion)"
- MedlinePlus: "Strains and Sprains"