Tips for choosing and using a treadmill

At this time of the year when the weather is bad, it can be tough to tie on your running shoes and open the door and when it is icy it is dangerous, too.

Face it, there are days you wish you had a treadmill.

Choosing a treadmill

If you are thinking about buying a treadmill, first consider carefully what you want to do with it. You can buy a no-nonsense motorized treadmill for as little as $500; at the other end of the scale you can spend more than $4,000.

You may think you just want a machine that will let you enjoy a slow run on those days when the weather is really obnoxious. But if you buy a no-frills machine, you may find later that you like running indoors enough to wish your treadmill was more versatile, so that you could run hill workouts or intervals.

The basic points you need to consider think about when you set out to choose a treadmill include:

Size and weight. You need space for a treadmill, but lighter and smaller are not the way to go. Sturdy, well-built machines last longer and are more trouble-free. Make sure the surface is wide enough and long enough to keep you comfortable and safe up to your fastest pace. Give machines a good trial in the store.

Power. Consider only machines rated at 1.5 to 2.0 horsepower continuous duty (not peak power). Lighter motors may make your legs drive the motor until you get up to cruising speed.

Speed range. There is a range of top speeds. Many less expensive machines peak at 8 mph (7:30 minutes per mile). Others go up to 9 mph (6:40 pace), 10 mph (6:00 pace), or 11 mph (5:27 pace). While you don't want a treadmill that is too slow to meet your most demanding needs, there's no point in buying an 11 mph machine if your time for a 400 meters interval is 1:40 (6:40 pace).

Incline. Many machines have inclines up to 10% or 11%, and you should not choose less if you want to run hill workouts. Some treadmills go up to as much as 25%, but it is hard to run on such a steep incline with good form.

Smooth controls. If you expect to change speeds or elevation during a workout, check for controls that you can reach while you are running, and that work smoothly and don't change speed too quickly.

Program options. On less expensive machines, you may have to change speeds and inclines yourself. Next up the scale come simple intervals that may let you choose speeds but not duration (for example, switching every 60 seconds). Others will offer you a choice of preprogrammed intervals and accept a number of workouts that you can customize for yourself and punch into memory. These can be as few as four preprogrammed and four additional workouts up to as many as 10 or more.

Other options. By the time you're up to intervals and custom programmed workouts, you may also find features such as a heart rate readout and calories burned. If you're a numbers freak, these may have some attraction, but remember that although the heart rates may be accurate, the calorie figures can only be approximate because there are too many personal variables that the computer doesn't know.

Treadmills have moving parts that must wear out eventually. American Running Editorial Board Member Douglas Lentz, C.S.C.S., recommends that you check the reliability of the manufacturer, and the service reputation of the stores you choose from. This is even more important if you consider buying a used treadmill from a second-hand store.

If you want a treadmill for simple runs when the weather is awful and you don't need too many bells and whistles just a well-built machine that will reach your top speed and you can look at machines in the $500 to $1,000 range.

If you want to program hill and interval workouts, you're facing a price range that begins at about $2,000, and can go well beyond that.

In view of the investment you will make in a good quality treadmill, give several models a thorough test drive before you make a decision. Make sure you are comfortable with a machine in the store before you take it home.

Using a treadmill

When you substitute a treadmill run for a road run, if the quality of effort is important to you, please recognize that treadmill running is easier than road running at the same speed.

There are two reasons for this. First, there is no air resistance when you run on a treadmill, and yes, this does make a significant difference even compared to no wind on the road. Second, on a treadmill you plant your foot on a moving surface. This reduces the braking force your foot experiences and tends to move your footstrike farther forward. These effects also make treadmill running less demanding, in terms of impact and effort, compared to road running.

If you want the same quality effort at a given running speed, set the incline at 1% instead of running on the level. Since level treadmill running is less stressful than pounding the roads, it is well-suited for getting back into shape after an injury.

Better yet, Editorial Board Member Jack Daniels, Ph.D., says "Slower speeds on steeper inclines reduce landing shock and are very good for conditioning with less chance of injury."

Copyright, The American Running Association

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