9 Ways To Protect Your Joints on the Treadmill
Do it right and walking or running on a treadmill can be easier on your ankles, knees and hips than pounding the pavement
If you’re not using your treadmill for hanging clothes and are instead actually, well, using it, good for you. A treadmill is a great way to get aerobic exercise even then it’s nasty outside. Treadmills can also be more forgiving to joints than hard surfaces such as sidewalks and running tracks — if you use them right.
Related: How to Avoid a Treadmill Accident
1. Wear the right shoes. Just because you’re running or walking indoors rather than outside doesn’t mean you can wear whatever shoes you came home from work in (don’t laugh, people have done it) or go barefoot. You’ll want a good pair of supportive running sneakers. They provide more shock absorption than walking shoes, which is what you need to protect the joints, says Nicholas DiNubile, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine and author of “FrameWork: Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones & Joints.”
It’s worth the extra effort and added cost to be fitted at a specialty running shoe store by an expert who watches you walk or run on a treadmill and can recommend the best shoes for your natural gait.
2. Set the right pace. If you’re new to exercise and using a treadmill is your activity of choice, start by walking. During a run, your joints are subjected to two to three times your body weight with every footfall, so “you have to have a base level of fitness to run,” DiNubile says.
Start at a moderate walking pace, which on a treadmill is a speed of 3.0 to 3.5 miles per hour, or go slower if you need to. A brisk pace 3.5 to 4.5 mph. As you near 5 mph, you’ll find you need to jog to keep up.
You should lower your speed if you feel like your hips are popping or jerking with each stride.
3. Start with 10 minutes. “Your body doesn’t have a red light that comes on when you’re overdoing it to tell you to stop,” says DiNubile. Especially if you’re new to using a treadmill, it’s important to note that your muscles aren’t the only part of your body that needs to build up strength. The ligaments and tendons that support your joints and bones also must become stronger. Don’t go from no walking to walking for an hour at a grueling pace. Even 10 minutes at a moderate speed is enough for a first workout.
4. Watch the incline. Most treadmills have a setting that allows you to move on an incline. Walking or running uphill works muscles differently, which can round out your workout. It also burns more calories. However, going up an incline puts more strain on the fronts of knees and on the ankles.
Start with walking just a few minutes on a low incline (3 percent, say) to help your body adjust. Increase your intervals of incline before you bump up your speed on them. Only once you feel ready should you give the preset programs a go.
5. Don’t be grabby. Don’t hold on to treadmill handrails while you’re working out. It will throw your form out of whack and put your joints at risk. If you find you need to grab the bar to keep up with the belt, slow down.
Follow the usual walking and running tips, too
Whether you’re walking or running indoors or out, these tips can help avoid joint strain.
Pain is not a gain. If something really hurts — especially if you feel pain in one joint or specific area — don’t try to work through it. See a doctor or physical therapist to make sure you don’t have an injury or an underlying chronic condition such as arthritis.
Mind your form. Posture makes perfect for your joints. As you move, keep your torso upright, your chin parallel to the ground and your shoulders back (not hunched) and stacked over your hips. Try not to pitch your body or jut your head forward.
Swing your arms naturally by your sides with your shoulders relaxed and not hunched up toward your ears. Be as light on your feet as you can, rather than pounding them into the belt. To make sure your posture and movement are correct, have a friend take a short video of you on the treadmill.
Rest and assess. Allow enough time to recover between sessions. It may take as long as 24 to 48 hours for your muscles and joints to fully feel the effects of a workout. Protect them by taking at least a day between bouts of activity to see how you feel. If you’re excessively sore, go easier the next time.
If you’re overweight, drop a few pounds. According to Harvard Medical School, “When you walk across level ground, the force on your knees is the equivalent of one and a half times your body weight.” That means that with every step she takes, a 130-pound woman will put 195 pounds of pressure on her knees.
“Losing some weight will take some impact off joints, especially when you pick up the pace,” says DiNubile. In fact, says the Arthritis Foundation, a 2005 study found that losing one pound of weight took four pounds of pressure off the knees of people with osteoarthritis.