By Simon Gould
No exercise program or activity is without its risks. You should also check with your physician before undertaking any exercise program especially something vigorous. Treadmills are certainly better than most equipment for the back. A treadmill workout may be advised in some cases to help alleviate back pain. So can a treadmill actually cause back pain itself?
6 Reasons a treadmill may cause back pain
1. Bad posture
Bad posture or running form is the most common. You need to run like you run outside and not hold onto the bars as you go or slouch. Keep your back straight and be tall as you run. Look ahead and not down as this can make the back curve which can cause pain. If you put more pressure on one foot than the other, this can cause an imbalance which can lead to pain over time.
If you exercise a lot and maybe run long distances, your posture may suffer as you get fatigued. Sometimes when we’re trying to do our long run or walk, we might use our muscles on away they weren’t designed to be used in the hope that we can achieve our goal. Our form changes and this could affect the back and lower back particularly. Try and maintain an erect shape even if you feel tired.
2. Over using the incline
If you use an incline, it should be brief and not for long periods as this can cause back pain. To mimic the treadmill to being outside the research by The Journal Of Sports Sciences says you should set the incline at 1%. If you have any kind of back pain or spine problem then you’re better off walking instead of running.
Being on a treadmill should be no different to walking or running outside. You don’t see never ending hills outside, so you shouldn’t be on a never ending steep incline on a treadmill. All of the above still applies if you experience lower back pain or pain in your shoulders. It takes a certain running form to go up an incline and this exaggerates as the incline increases.
3. Inherently weak back
People who tend to get back pain, may feel it more on a treadmill. It may aggravate an existing injury. If it’s prevalent and doesn’t go, you may need the services of a chiropractor. Age could be a factor for you. Years of slightly poor posture could be realized as pain during exercise. Bone density reduces as we get older. Our backs take the strain in most of our everyday activities.
4. Underlying back condition
You could have underlying medical conditions that cause back pain like sciatica or a herniated disc. If it’s bothering you then seek medical help especially if it doesn’t go away or gets worse. The impact, especially if you run or jog on a treadmill sends vibrations up the back which may cause discomfort. Fortunately using a treadmill doesn’t involve any twisting that could cause sprains.
5. Sudden increase in intensity
If you’re suddenly running long distances or doing speed training without gradually increasing the intensity. This can cause back pain. The muscles and tendons in your back will be used to a certain amount of exercise and stress. No part of our bodies like it when we increase the demand too quickly. Our backs can cope with a lot of work, we just need to introduce it gradually.
Exercising on a treadmill is different from outside. We don’t change your speed, the terrain doesn’t change and neither does the incline. The same muscles get used over and over. If you’re running a high mileage every week and you only do it on a treadmill, you could be asking for trouble. Try running outside and take rest days so your back can recover.
What to do if you have back pain from a treadmill
When it comes to the back, caution is the watch word. Back pain has a bad reputation of lasting for years if the cause isn’t stopped. If you feel any pain during a treadmill run or walk, then stop straight away. If it’s severe, seek medical attention. This is the same with your knees and other delicate joints. Don’t run through it, thinking it will go away.
If you’re mildly sore after your workout, then reduce the intensity or take a few rest days. Find out what’s causing it, if it’s any of the reasons above. If you’ve hurt your back away from the treadmill then use one with caution in case you make it worse. Always seek advice from a professional if any existing back problems could be affected by a treadmill.
6 Ways to prevent back pain in the future
1. Analyze your running form
You should use the exact same technique you have when you walk or run outside. This can be difficult on a small treadmill deck, but a natural motion is not something that should be causing you back pain. You’re probably walking or running differently on a treadmill. Have a friend or professional observe you and they may be able to spot something you don’t normally do outside.
2. Strength train and stretch
The idea is to strengthen the muscles of the back. This will support it and better protect it from any pain causing injuries from a treadmill. Weight baring exercises include squats and dead lifts help. Planks help too. Try dynamic stretches that target the back before and after a workout. Walk or run at a lower intensity to warm up and cool down for 5 minutes.
3. Get a good treadmill
Good treadmills come with good cushioning. The more you pay, the more advanced it is and the shock absorption is kinder to your back. The lowest I would pay for a treadmill is $999. From this price you will find the specifications are better and the components more reliable. Don’t shy away from a heavy machine, they’re more stable and won’t move around.
4. Get proper running shoes
Even on a treadmill you need proper running shoes that are tailored around your feet and the way you run. A specialty running store will look at the arches in your feet and they’ll look at how you pronate when you run. All these factors determine which running shoes are best for you. If you already have proper running shoes, make sure to replace them every 400 miles or 6 months, whichever is sooner.
5. Take rest days
There’s a lot of fitness trends and one of the seems to be “streaks”. This is when you exercise every day for a month, sometimes longer. There’s no need to do this, there’s absolutely no benefit. You should always take one or two days off a week. If you’re feeling any pain then you should rest until the pain goes away and you’ve recovered.
6. See a physiotherapist
If you get any pains or niggles form exercising on a treadmill you should see a professional. This is especially the case if it’s the same problem all the time or something doesn’t go away. It may seem mild and not bothersome but it could build up to a bigger problem over time. As I said before, back issues have a reputation for never going away.
Our back is a very complicated piece of human engineering that can take all kinds of punishment. However, it’s best we don’t push it too far. Treadmills can cause back pain, but only because of how we use them. If we use them in the wrong way, have the wrong equipment, or over do it, then pain can occur. Most people use a treadmill without any problems whatsoever, and with a few precautions, you can too.
- Physiotherapy article about lower back pain when walking or running
- Mayo Clinic gives some causes of back pain and when to see a doctor
Thinking of buying a treadmill? Here’s my favorite, I always recommend it when asked*