Effectiveness of Treadmill Exercise Depends on Your Goals

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EFFECTIVE CARDIOVASCULAR EXERCISE DEMANDS WE EXAMINE IT’S MYTHS AND REALITIES IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE A MORE EFFECTIVE WORKOUT.

Roughly one-quarter to one-third of most health clubs are dedicated to cardiovascular training — but far too many gym goers are wasting time in this space. It’s not at all uncommon for individuals to find after years of treadmill training on a routine basis that their body composition is unchanged and they are not running any faster.

That’s about as good as using a medicinal hair loss preventive and ending up bald anyway. You’re not getting your money’s worth.

Fortunately, there are many ways to fix this. We can look at the myths and realities of treadmills and provide ideas for changing up your use of treadmills to greater effectiveness. (Note that many of the factors discussed here also apply to elliptical machines, stationary bikes and stair-climbers.)

First up, anyone using a treadmill should never hold the handrails while exercising (there are exceptions for individuals directed to do so in orthopedic therapy). The rails are there for safety only. If you have to use them, it is an indication that your speed or incline level is too high.

But beyond matters of technique, let’s consider the different goals people have in using treadmill trainers, where things can go wrong and how to do it right.

Typical goals of cardiovascular exercise

To not be a couch potato: You show up at your club several times a week to read a book or watch TV while walking a set distance, time or caloric expenditure. It beats sitting in a recliner chair and watching TV at home. Recently reported research out of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia (Dunstan et al., 2008), finds that prolonged periods of being sedentary correlates with high death rates from any cause, particularly cardiovascular disease. So if this is you, you’re on the right track.

Just don’t expect weight loss if you’ve been doing this for more than a few months without raising the difficulty (speed, distance or incline). Once the muscles have reached a set level of fitness, there is no progress unless you ramp it up.

To lose weight: You want to drop some pounds, so you look at the calorie readout on the treadmill control panel. But this number is an estimation, at best — it leaves out an important part of the equation. It doesn’t factor for EPOC (excess postexercise oxygen consumption), which basically says that you burn calories up to a day and a half after exercising. In this postexercise phase, your body is trying to lower its temperature, clear lactic acid, replenish energy stores and lower the rate of blood circulation to pre-exercise states. Depending on how intense your exercise is — a rapid pulse and panting breath are good indicators — this EPOC effect can last up to 36 hours.

But you don’t get an EPOC effect if you are doing the same workout every time you’re there. You need to add difficulty through greater speed, steeper inclines and, better yet, greater speeds on steeper inclines. Yes, work that makes you sweat. But note that intervals — say, 1 minute on, 30 seconds off — are a smart way to accomplish this. Try it for a month, don’t change your eating habits, and you’ll probably drop some pounds.

To improve running performance: You want to improve your 10K, 20K, half-marathon or marathon times. There are purists who say the dynamics of running on real terra firma are so different from running on treadmills that you simply should stick with the outdoor running. But those purists don’t understand my town, Chicago, where we have flat land and cold winters. We don’t get the benefit of hill training and thus would suffer in the Boston Marathon (Heartbreak Hill, a 600-meter ascent at mile 20) and other such races. There is also risk in subfreezing temperatures, just the same as running during ozone-alert days in Houston might not make sense. Indoor treadmills have their place.

The treadmill runner can follow any number of training programs, but generally speaking the program should involve variations in speed and incline as well as distance.

To warm up or cool down: You integrate running into other fitness activities, such as weight training, and know that the body can benefit from walking or running before and after other exercises. A warm-up has terrific psychological as well as physiological advantages: after 5 to 10 minutes of brisk running on a treadmill, your body temperature is raised, your respiratory and circulator systems are fired up and your body will consequently respond better to other exercises. But also, it puts you into a state of mental momentum, where you just feel like you’re in a groove, ready for action and able to keep up that pace through your workout.

Cooling-down with a treadmill is important to individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular impairment so that pooling of blood does not occur. Unspent adrenaline generated by the exercise session also can adversely affect cardiac function.

For the healthy, serious lifter, there is some debate regarding treadmill before versus treadmill after resistance training. This is largely a matter of personal preference, as some fitness buffs see their ab-defining “cardio” as something that can wait until after they’ve thrown some iron around, while others prefer it as a warm-up.

Regardless of which type of treadmill user you are, you can also try lateral (sideways) running and walking backward. Start out very slowly and raise speeds only gradually. By forcing your muscles to work in different planes and in opposite directions, you change the equation considerably.