In the world of running, injuries are an all-too-common narrative. Each year, a significant portion of the running community grapples with everything from muscle tears and stress fractures to ankle sprains.
Amidst this backdrop, antigravity treadmill training has emerged, offering new pathways for injured runners to ease back into activity.
Antigravity treadmills are treadmill machines that employ Differential Air Pressure (DAP) technology to create a controlled environment where users can modify their effective body weight.
The inception of this groundbreaking technology isn’t just another page out of a science fiction novel, although NASA researcher Dr. Robert Whalen invented it for astronauts.
But the question arises: Is antigravity treadmill training a transformative approach enabling runners to maintain fitness during recovery, or is it merely an overhyped and costly piece of equipment?
This article dives deep into the world of antigravity running, exploring how it works, its benefits, potential downsides, and applications for injured athletes.
What is Antigravity Running?
An antigravity treadmill might look like its conventional counterpart at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals a “plastic cocoon” enveloping the lower half of the machine.
This cocoon is not a whimsical feature; it’s a sophisticated piece of technology that enables individuals to exercise from the waist down under conditions of reduced gravitational pressure.
The origins of this innovative device can be traced back to the corridors of NASA. Pioneered by Dr. Robert Whalen, a biomechanics researcher, the antigravity treadmill was initially conceptualized to aid astronauts.
Spending months in space, astronauts faced the challenge of muscle and bone atrophy due to the lack of gravity.
With its ability to simulate Earth-like gravity through pressurized air, the antigravity treadmill became a solution for maintaining astronaut health on long-duration spaceflights.
Fast forward from the space station to the office of your local physio, the antigravity treadmill has found a wider application in aiding recovery from lower extremity injuries and enhancing athletic performance.
When using one, you are required to wear specialized shorts. They’re akin to a kayak skirt if you’ve ever been out kayaking. These shorts connect to a surrounding cocoon at the waist, sealing off to form an air chamber.
Then, the treadmill’s DAP system inflates the chamber, creating a buoyant, lifting effect. This technology allows users to adjust their perceived weight, enabling them to run anywhere from their full body weight down to a mere 20% of it.
Upon engaging the treadmill and selecting a preferred level of weight support, you’ll immediately notice a difference in sensation compared to traditional treadmills. The experience of running with reduced weight is often described as surreal or akin to floating.
This innovative piece of equipment significantly alters the impact on the body (less impact), making it a revolutionary tool in both exercise and rehabilitation.
The Role Of Antigravity Running In Rehabilitation
At the heart of antigravity running is the concept of reducing the gravitational force exerted on the body.
Injuries, whether minor strains or more severe conditions, compromise the body’s ability to handle the usual stresses of weight-bearing exercises.
Its foundation lies in a simple yet profound principle: when injured, the human body can withstand significantly less physical load.
This understanding is crucial for devising recovery programs that respect the body’s temporary limitations while fostering healing and strength rebuilding.
By using an antigravity treadmill, individuals can “lighten” their weight, significantly reducing the stress on healing bones, joints, and muscles.
The adjustability of the antigravity treadmill makes it an invaluable tool in rehabilitation. Starting at a significantly reduced weight, patients can gradually increase the load as their body heals, effectively tailoring the rehabilitation process to their specific recovery timeline.
This gradual reintroduction to normal weight-bearing activity helps maintain cardiovascular fitness, preserve muscle mass, and retrain neuromuscular pathways without overloading vulnerable tissues.
Antigravity treadmills, such as the alterg treadmill, are likely to significantly benefit lower extremity or lower body injuries, such as Achilles tendonitis1Saxena, A., & Granot, A. (2011). Use of an Anti-gravity Treadmill in the Rehabilitation of the Operated Achilles Tendon: A Pilot Study. The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery, 50(5), 558–561. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.jfas.2011.04.045, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and stress fractures.
A 2022 study published in Arthroscopy, Sports Medicine, and Rehabilitation looked at the “Role of Antigravity Training in Rehabilitation and Return to Sport After Running Injuries.”2Vincent, H. K., Madsen, A., & Vincent, K. R. (2022). Role of Antigravity Training in Rehabilitation and Return to Sport After Running Injuries. Arthroscopy, Sports Medicine, and Rehabilitation, 4(1), e141–e149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asmr.2021.09.031
They found support for antigravity treadmills in rehabilitating running-related injuries, notably in maintaining aerobic capacity, preserving muscle function, and preventing muscle loss compared to standard rehabilitation methods.
Furthermore, a runner capable of running without discomfort at greater than 95% Body Weight Support (BWS) for more than 30 minutes may be ready to resume running on solid ground safely.
In summary, the role of antigravity running in rehabilitation is transformative, offering a science-backed, versatile approach to recovery and strength building. That said, further, better-designed research is needed to assess the benefits properly.
Other Notable Benefits Of Antigravity Running
Antigravity treadmills can also be useful tools for enhancing athletic performance in various ways, from speed training to managing high mileage.
#1: Speed Training
Speed training on an antigravity treadmill can help runners work on their running mechanics in a way that would be difficult under normal gravitational forces.
This environment enables the body to adapt to the demands of high-speed running in a controlled setting, essentially “teaching” the muscles and nervous system the patterns required to achieve top speeds safely.
#2: High Mileage Training
The concept of adding considerable training volume without the added risk of overuse injuries is a game-changer for endurance athletes and distance runners.
Infamous coach Alberto Salazar has been a proponent of using antigravity treadmills for this very purpose, training his athletes at 90-97% of their body weight.
This slight reduction allows for an increase of 10-25% more volume on average, according to Salazar’s observations.
The principle here is simple: by lowering the impact of each step, athletes can endure longer training sessions or increase their weekly mileage without the cumulative stress that typically accompanies high-volume training.
#3: Obesity Aid
For individuals struggling with obesity, starting a conditioning program can be daunting due to the increased load on their joints and the psychological barriers to exercise.
An antigravity treadmill can significantly alter this experience by enabling users to feel what it is like to be 20, 30, or 50 pounds lighter, for instance.
This not only reduces the physical strain of exercise but also has a profound psychological impact, making the idea of working out less intimidating and more achievable, aiding in weight loss.
#4: Training for the Elderly
Aging often comes with a decrease in the ability to support one’s body weight, which can severely limit the capacity to engage in aerobic exercise.
Antigravity treadmills offer a solution by providing up to 80% body weight support. This allows elderly individuals to continue aerobic training, enhancing cardiovascular health and maintaining muscle tone in a safe and supportive environment.
By reducing the load on their bodies, the elderly can improve their stamina and mobility without the fear of falling or suffering stress-related injuries.
Considerations and Limitations Of Antigravity Running
While antigravity treadmills offer a range of benefits for rehabilitation and performance enhancement, there are also some drawbacks to consider:
#1: High Cost
One of the most significant barriers to widespread use is the cost. Antigravity treadmills are expensive.
Their cost, typically ranging from $35,000 to $75,000, limits accessibility to specialized facilities such as well-funded sports facilities, rehabilitation centers, and some affluent private users, but out of reach for the average individual or small clinic.
#2: Limited Availability
Due to their cost, these treadmills are not as widely available as traditional treadmills. Access is often limited to specific medical or athletic institutions, which can make it challenging for the general public or smaller sports teams to benefit from this technology.
For many people, there won’t be any possible access to one. For the lucky few, you’ll be paying a high premium for regular use.
#3: Complexity of Use
Operating an antigravity treadmill requires more setup than a standard treadmill.
As discussed earlier, you must wear specialized equipment and understand how to adjust the settings to their specific needs, which will likely require assistance from trained personnel or a physical therapist.
The antigravity treadmill has garnered attention not only from those in post-operative recovery but also from elite athletes and running enthusiasts.
It offers a way to train without the full force of body weight, which can be instrumental in rehabilitation from injuries like stress fractures or surgeries.
It’s an impressive blend of aerospace technology and medical ingenuity housed in a machine that, at a glance, could be mistaken for your everyday gym equipment.
As the technology becomes more accessible and its benefits more widely recognized, its use is likely to expand, hopefully becoming more accessible for the average runner.
If you have unfortunately found yourself suffering from a lower limb running injury and have access to an antigravity treadmill, give it a go!
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