When Mother Nature turns cantankerous, take your workout indoors with our introduction to the use, abuse and purchase of treadmills.
Posted Sunday, 1 March, 1998
Among running's best selling points is its interaction with the environment. The allure of gliding through the sights and sounds of the world around us is undeniable. Sometimes, though, the environment becomes a bit too cantankerous. The vagaries of bad weather, cranky neighborhood dogs, wild drivers, or a work schedule that forces you to run at night -- they can all threaten to deep-six a workout.
This, of course, is where the treadmill comes in, making indoor workouts possible.
Treadmills are not for everyone. While many runners feel that treadmills give them more freedom by neutralizing the whims of Mother Nature, others say they feel like a lab rat on a wheel. Regardless of where you find yourself along this spectrum, you will probably find that time passes a bit more slowly during a treadmill workout than during a jaunt outdoors. Creature comforts like music or television can often help, when staring at the same four walls starts getting a little stale.
Aside from the lack of scenery, treadmill running offers a fairly close approximation of the real thing. An advantage is that the belt of the treadmill tends to be more forgiving than the pavement or hard earth of your outdoor route. A disadvantage, though, is the absence of wind resistance. This means that you are get much hotter, much faster; steer a fan in your direction to keep you cool and to keep the belt from getting wet and slippery. The lack of resistance also means that you are likely to run at a slightly faster pace than you would outdoors; set the treadmill to an incline of 1 to 2 percent compensates for the difference.
The ability to change the speed and incline of the treadmill offers the possibility of creating precise workouts, from strength-developing hillwork, to blistering speed sessions, to pace-specific long runs. Keep in mind that your effort increases to between 10 and 15 seconds per mile for each 1 percent increase in elevation (i.e., if your machine is running at a 7:30 pace, your actual effort feels more like a 6:45 pace). It's a good idea to vary both speed and incline throughout the workout to give your legs some variety and more closely mimic an outdoor run.
Shopping for a treadmill>
It goes without saying that using a treadmill is not terribly complicated. But with a huge range of options and pricetags, shopping for one can be. While you can find basic treadmills out there for as little as $200, it is oh-so-true that you get what you pay for. If you really intend to use the treadmill seriously, you should be prepared to spend at least $1000 and probably at least $2000 (top models go much higher). It's a substantial investment, so browse carefully before making the leap.
A few features to consider:
You will almost certainly want to invest in a motorized treadmill if you want to get the most realistic running experience. Because non-motorized treadmills require you to drive the belt as well as your pace, they give you a skewed sense of your own effort and can alter your pace and gait. Make sure, too, that the motor is rugged and powerful enough to keep up with you. Your treadmill should have at least 1.5 horsepower under the hood; make sure it's rated for "Continuous Duty."
Look for a treadmill that does not top out until at least 10mph (a 6:00 pace). There are many treadmills that operate between 5mph and 8mph; these are designed for walking, and just won't go fast enough to keep your attention. While there are treadmills out there that can go as fast as 12mph, this is probably unnecessary since you can always adjust the incline slightly to demand the effort of a faster pace. For most runners, a top speed of 10mph is fast enough.
Durability and warranty>
If you hope to use the treadmill for serious training, you have to get equipment than can take punishment as well as dish it out. This becomes especially important for larger runners, or for those who tend to run fast and long. Shop around for a treadmill with large or heavy-duty rollers (preferably "coated" for lubrication) and a welded frame. Find a machine with at least a three-year warranty on parts and one year on labor.
Virtually all treadmills let you adjust the angle of incline, but the difference is whether you can do this at the press of a button or whether you actually have to do it manually. More than the previous features, this is more a question of convenience than necessity. It does tend to break up a fast workout to stop and crank your treadmill everytime you want to go uphill. Some treadmills do have manually adjustable inclines that don't require you to get off the machine and interrupt your workout.
Even better is a treadmill that handles the incline for you on its own. Higher-end models allow you to choose a virtual route, with speed and incline changing throughout. Most treadmills in this category let you program your own course. Be sure, though, that you have the option to control the speed to adjust for leg length, conditioning, etc.
To prevent wear and tear and keep the machines operating smoothly, treadmill decks are lubricated. Most machines require that you re-lubricate them every couple of years. Some, however, have "non-maintenance" decks which don't require this -- for a savings of several hundred dollars per lubrication.
Belt and board>
Not all treadmill belts are created equal. As mentioned, treadmills tend to be more forgiving than the ground underfoot on an outdoor run. But not all belts are created equal, and some have boards that provide more shock absorption than others.
Checklist aside, there is no substitute for actually trying out the treadmill, and you should test out several. You may be surprised how different they all feel under your feet, and you should take your time in evaluating a number of them back-to-back if possible.