Is Treadmill Running Bad for Your Knees? What You Must Know!


Bad weather, seasonal allergies, or time of year can force you to take your running indoors. If you don’t have access to an indoor track, the easiest option is usually hopping on a treadmill.

For most runners, the treadmill isn’t’ their first choice – in fact, some even refer to it as the “dreadmill.” But is it just due to the boredom of being stuck inside, or is there something else that makes treadmill running worse than the great outdoors? More specifically, is treadmill running worse for your knees than the same impact you’d have from running outside?

In the short term, running on a treadmill is unlikely to cause major damage to the joints and knees. However, the unnatural movement can lead to discomfort, pain, or injury, especially over prolonged periods of time.

Let’s dive into the reasons treadmill running can be bad for your knees and ways to make it less painful.

Do Treadmills Damage Your Knees?

Running on the treadmill will not immediately damage the knees. However, the treadmill can really wreak havoc on a runner’s form, which can lead to injury over time. To mitigate this effect, many people tend to run on their toes when they use a treadmill (rather than aiming for that mid-foot strike). This leads to more force being absorbed by the joints on each step, which can cause stress that’s ultimately detrimental to the knees (Source).

This can be mitigated by putting effort into landing in the middle of the foot in order to relieve some of the impact.

In addition, running on the treadmill ultimately requires less muscle than running outdoors. The treadmill track moves your leg back rather than you having to exert energy to push yourself forward, reducing the work of your hamstrings (Source). 

This can lead to under-developed muscles, especially if you only ever run on treadmills.

We also recommend that you check out our post “Is Cycling Good for Runners Knee? (What To Do About It!)” &Is Running Bad for Your Hips? What Runners Need To Know!

How Do I Protect My Knees when Running on A Treadmill?

Hopping on a treadmill and doing an easy run for under an hour isn’t going to immediately destroy your knees. However, there are things you can do to limit any damage and prevent injury. This is especially important if you’ll be on the treadmill for long training runs or over a long period of time (like a cold, icy winter).

Try walking

Use the treadmill for some easy walking exercises. You can increase the effort by putting it on a steep incline. This is less taxing on your joints while still elevating your heart rate and getting in time on your feet.

Dial in your posture

Focus on keeping your core engaged, shoulders relaxed and away from your ears, and arms bent at your sides. It’s easy to go into auto-pilot mode while zoning out on the treadmill, so periodically checking in on your form can help alleviate discomfort and reduce the risk of injury.

Keep an easy effort

Treadmill runs aren’t the best time to shoot for a PR or sprint at your race pace. You’ll likely run a bit slower on the treadmill than you would outside due to the forced, consistent pace and unnatural movement. By keeping these runs in the zone 2 realm, you’ll be less likely to push too hard and damage your joints.

Make sure you have proper running shoes

Properly fitted shoes can make a world of a difference when it comes to treadmill running. You may even want to purchase a pair of shoes specifically for treadmill running. Not only will they last longer and keep the treadmill in better condition (rather than bringing your outdoor shoes inside), you can also opt for shoes with more cushion than you’d normally go for.

It’s always best to get properly fitted for running shoes, so go to an in-person shop if possible. They’ll usually analyze your gait on a treadmill, which will give you a good idea of how the shoes will feel.

Are There Benefits to Running on A Treadmill?

Running on a treadmill isn’t all doom and gloom (even if it may feel like it). There are some benefits to be found. Here are some positive parts of treadmill running to help get you through your next session:

Maintain a consistent pace

Being able to maintain a consistent pace makes it easier to stay in your targeted heart rate zone for longer. You don’t have to worry about sudden hills spiking your heart rate so you can have more control over your training (Source).

No obstacles

You don’t have to worry about tripping over cracks in the pavement or crossing traffic when you’re on the treadmill. This can lead to a safer, more focused run overall.

Enjoy your favorite show

While it won’t affect your overall fitness, one of the best parts about running on a treadmill is being able to throw on your favorite show or video so you can watch while you workout. It’s important to still make sure you have good form, though, so don’t get too distracted.

You should also make sure to look around periodically to keep your neck and shoulders from getting too still.

What Are the Alternatives to Running on A Treadmill?

If you really don’t want to run on the treadmill but have to get some running training in, you have a couple of options. Ideally, you’d be able to run on an indoor track, but that’s not always an option. Here are a few options you might not have considered:

Rowing Machine

This is the ultimate full-body cardio workout and can be a great addition to any training regime. This wouldn’t be a long-term solution (you’ll still need to get your runs in if you’re training for a race), but it can be a great option.

Elliptical

The elliptical machine is a great low-impact option that keeps you upright. You can get a solid workout in just using the elliptical while also increasing your core strength and balance (Source).

Embrace winter sports

If you’re using the treadmill during winter months to avoid the outdoors, consider embracing some winter sports as part of your training plan. Cross-country skiing is an incredible workout that’s similar to running. Or break out a pair of show shoes and hike through the woods.

Anything that elevates your heart rate and keeps your body moving is great for cross-training.

More to Consider

Running on the treadmill doesn’t have to be painful, but it also shouldn’t be your only form of running. Your natural gait can be severely limited while on the treadmill and you may not notice potential injuries or stress until it’s too late. Be sure to keep your treadmill workouts easy to mitigate some of the risks.

Aprill Emig

Based out of Duluth, MN Aprill loves to write about the outdoors, education, and all forms of adventure. You can find her mountain biking, running, or playing roller derby.

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