Most people don’t expect to start a run at the gym and finish it in the hospital. But treadmill-related injuries sent 24,400 people to the emergency room in 2014, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
The recent death of David Goldberg, 47, the chief executive officer of SurveyMonkey and husband of Sheryl Sanberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, brought attention to the risk of using exercise equipment. Goldberg was found lying by a gym treadmill with head trauma.
Though deaths may dominate the headlines when they occur, the CPSC says only about three people died in treadmill-related incidents each year between 2003 and 2012 (the last year statistics are available).
The reports don’t specify the types of trauma or how they happen. Fitness, sports, and recreation safety expert Laura Miele-Pascoe, Ph.D., who testifies in court cases about these injuries, says many occur when runners fall and sustain burns, shoulder injuries, or head trauma. Fortunately, both runners and fitness facilities can take steps to prevent falls and other accidents, as well as minimise the risk of serious injury if they do occur, she and other experts say. Here’s how.
1. Minimise distractions. Fill your water bottle, fine-tune your playlist, and double-check your shoelaces before you begin your workout. As you’re starting up and increasing your speed, focus on the task at hand rather than looking at the TV or checking out the speed of the person next to you. Once you’re off and running, avoid the urge to multitask, Miele-Pascoe says. Don’t check your email, send texts, or take phone calls.
2. Start off right. To mount a treadmill properly, use the handrails to balance while you step onto the sides, straddling the belt. Step onto the belt before pressing “start.” Increase your pace gradually, because “speed may sneak up on you,” Miele-Pascoe says, and you risk going flying or face-planting if you can’t keep up. This goes double if you’re on an unfamiliar treadmill, says John Henwood, a running coach and founder/CEO of TheRUN, a treadmill studio. Do an easy warmup to familiarise yourself with the way the machine operates rather than jumping immediately into a tempo run or speed workout, Henwood says.
3. Use the safety features. All treadmills come equipped with a safety key you can clip to your clothing. If you do slip, the key pulls out and immediately stops the belt. Use it rather than leaving it twisted around the handrail or hanging down the side. Make use of the “stop” or “pause” buttons to halt the machine if you need to hop off mid-workout, Miele-Pascoe says. You’re much more likely to lose your footing when stepping back on a moving belt. And if you step away from the machine while it’s running, another runner may step on without realizing the belt is moving – a recipe for disaster.
4. Check your clearance. Fitness facilities must allow 48 inches, or four feet, of clear space behind a treadmill in case a user falls off, Miele-Pascoe says. That’s a good guideline to follow with home treadmills, too. Hard concrete or cement flooring could increase your risk for a major injury if you do fall. Consider rubber matting or thin carpet that cushions the blow without interfering with the calibration or balance of the machine, she advises.
5. Stay controlled. You can run a solid speed workout on a treadmill. After all, that’s the whole premise of Henwood’s studio. But sprinting too hard can increase your risk of injury, he notes. Use the rate of perceived exertion scale, where zero is standing still and 10 is an all-out sprint, and try not to exceed nine out of 10.
6. Keep children away. Some of the most tragic treadmill injuries occur not among runners, but among kids who play on or near the equipment. If you have a home treadmill, keep in it a room where you can lock the door or otherwise prevent children from accessing it without supervision, says Tina Beebe, a running coach and marketing manager at Club Industry, a publication and trade show for fitness facilities.
7. Educate yourself. If you have a home treadmill, read the manual, Miele-Pascoe says. Follow manufacturer’s directions on how to set up and operate the machine, as well as how often to clean it or schedule service checks. If you’re at a new gym and have questions about how to use the equipment, speak up and ask. And if you see anything that concerns you – say, a frayed wire or inappropriate use – report it to facility managers, Beebe says.