Treadmills: Everything you need to know about finding a good treadmill was originally published as a four part series. Due to an overwhelming response, we have combined all four parts into one, complete treadmill buying guide. -Bryan Shutts
Treadmills are complicated beasts.
Because there are so many options to choose from, it can be daunting for someone who is just starting out in their search for the perfect model for their home. Sometimes, that person may not even know what they need or don’t need, and that’s where we come in! Buyer's guides are great, but in person advice is better. If you have a question, use the button below to chat with a real live fitness expert, or find a fitness expert near you! You can also email me (Bryan Shutts) directly with any questions at email@example.com. Let's get started.
Buying a Treadmill
If I am going to do this properly and intelligently, and in such a way as to benefit you, curious reader, as you begin to explore the various makes and models out there today, then I’ll have to break this up into four parts. The intention here is to be as comprehensive and as thorough as possible. There is no agenda here to sway you toward or away from one brand or manufacturer, and any personal opinions I express are not necessarily reflective of G&G Fitness Equipment or any of its brands or employees. Also, I am not being compensated in any way by any specific company or manufacturer to write this blog.
Here’s how we will break this Treadmill Buyers Guide down.
I have narrowed it down to the top 9 components of the treadmill that you should be concentrating on most:
Something that will be repeated several times over the course of this series is the term cost of ownership. The cost of ownership is the financial estimate intended to help purchasers and owners understand their financial investment, both directly and indirectly. In other words: it is not just your initial investment, but also the investment(s) you will make over time to own and maintain your treadmill. Much like an automobile, a treadmill has wear-items. And like a vehicle, components of a treadmill don’t necessarily break . . . they simply break down over time. So, components that break down frequently and quickly will result in the owner having a rather high cost of ownership, and vice-versa. So, let’s begin, and start out with the frame.
THE TREADMILL FRAME
The frame is the skeleton of the machine, and a proper treadmill will have a frame that is constructed of high quality, heavier-gauged steel. This is not only cost-effective but can also support heavier users. It is one of the reasons why a company such as Precor, assigns no max user weight rating on their treadmills. The integrity of the frame is one of the crucial factors that will give a treadmill manufacturer a low cost of ownership for their customers. On a high-quality frame, where two pieces of steel are joined, you will see continuous seam welds that wrap the connection. Lesser-quality treadmills utilize spot-welding, because it is cheaper (and quicker). Why is this so important? To put it simply, spot welding is not nearly as durable. The frame of the machine is absorbing a lot of energy when a user is running on it (think 7x your body weight) and it is possible for those connections to weaken over time, as opposed to a sealed weld, which will not. This dramatically reduces the overall quality of the treadmill. Ask your expert fitness consultant to lift the treadmill up for you so you can see the underside. If you see spot welding, such as this, make a note of it.
While the treadmill is still up, look at the elevation bracket. This is the component of the treadmill that absorbs the most energy when a user is running, especially when the treadmill is elevated. The elevation bracket is what is holding everything up in the air, including you. A quality machine is going to have an elevation bracket with sealed welds, and thicker steel. A well-made treadmill like the ones on a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom will have an elevation bracket that weighs somewhere around 40 pounds or so. Cheaper manufacturers have elevation brackets that weight around 12 pounds.
To put this in perspective, I weigh about 220 pounds, and when I am running a treadmill, I am creating upwards of approximately 1,100 pounds of force. Not to mention, the treadmill weighs anywhere from 150 – 350 pounds as well. It is imperative to genuinely consider the compromises you are willing to make and prioritize. A lightweight elevation bracket will only exponentially increase your cost of ownership over the years. Save money now, pay more later.
SWEAT & TREADMILLS
Ideally, you should be sweating on your brand-new treadmill. The electrolytes in your sweat are corrosive. Conundrum? Nope! Well-made treadmills are designed around this factor and use materials, such as electrostatic powder coatings, that bond with the frame when they paint it, to make it all but impervious to rusting. Also, because they are using higher quality steels such as high-speed steel and stainless steel, as well as aluminum extensions on exposed, high-sweat areas of the frame, your treadmill will be significantly less susceptible to rusting. It also means a lower cost of ownership and less preventative maintenance expected by the owner. Cheaper treadmills with carbon steel frames will be more likely to be corroded over time by the user’s sweat and will require more maintenance. In addition, the warranty of the frame will likely be much worse, due to the inexpensive materials used.
THE TREADMILL MOTOR
The motor might just be the single most important component of the treadmill as a whole. The quality, and the type of motor is going to provide a dramatic percentage of your overall relationship with your treadmill over the course of its life.
When you are shopping for a treadmill, whether in a G&G Fitness Equipment store, or online, you are at a disadvantage. Assuming you have not spoken to an expert fitness consultant yet, the information available to you is very limited. For the most part, the most detailed and specific information you are going to find on home exercise equipment is going to be provided through specification sheets (or spec sheets) that are posted on the manufacturers’ websites and printed in their informational brochures. These spec sheets are very limited in scope and only provide you with an oversimplified basis of information. The motor is a prime example.
Most spec sheets are going to provide you the motor’s horsepower (HP) rating, and little else. But there is so much more to know if you want a powerful motor!
Peak vs. Continuous Duty
A continuous duty motor’s HP measurement Is rated with the amount of sustained power during usage, and not the actual maximum horsepower possible. So, whether you are walking at 2.0 MPH or sprinting at 9.0 MPH, the treadmill is operating at the same horsepower. This is something that is commonly confused, because peak duty motors are rated at maximum horsepower, and require more energy to perform at higher rates of speed. Also, peak motors wear out much more quickly for the simple fact that they are designed to be used for shorter periods of time and will overheat if used too long or too frequently. This is not a concern for a continuous duty motor.
Why is this so important? Maybe treadmill “A” you are considering is rated at 5 HP, and treadmill “B” is rated at 3 HP. If this is all the information available to you, it would be fair to think that you are getting a “better” treadmill with treadmill “A” because it has 2 more horsepower, right?
Wrong! Treadmill “A” is a peak motor, and treadmill “B” is a continuous duty motor. Guess what else? Treadmill “A” operates at 8000 RPMs and treadmill “B” operates at 4100 RPMs. You always want fewer RPMs for optimal performance, energy efficiency, increased lifespan and higher torque.
A Couple More Tidbits
Here’s two more technical bullet points for you to research, as well as discuss with a consultant, to find the perfect machine that’s right for you:
- DC versus AC Motors: Direct Current (DC) motors use brushes and a commutator which requires more maintenance, limits speed and decreases the lifespan due to addition moving and wear items. Alternating Current (AC) motors do not use brushes and are newer, more sophisticated technology. They are also more expensive. You will find AC motors in the treadmills at the gym more often, because the facility won’t have to change out the brushes in the motor 2-3 times a year. Most home models use DC motors because they are more cost efficient and a home treadmill is not expected to be subjected to the amount of use that a machine in a commercial gym will be exposed to. AC motors are more expensive, but if your mission is to never want to worry about replacing the motor, it is the best option.
- Pulse with Modulation: Most DC motors in treadmills are controlled by Pulse with Modulation (PWM) motor controllers. This technology works by driving the motor with a series of ON/OFF pulses. In simple terms, when a user shifts their weight and plants their foot on the belt, it momentarily interrupts the process of the motor turning the belt at a specific speed, so the PWM controller increases the voltage by providing a wide pulse to compensate. The primary advantage of a PWM controller on a DC motor is the fact that it is not as expensive as an AC motor. The disadvantage however, is when a heavier user is walking at a slower rate of speed, the motor is subjected to much heavier stress and is more susceptible to overheating. In turn, it also increases the likelihood of damage to the motor and/or the controller.
When you speak with a fitness consultant, ask them what the spec sheets aren’t telling you. This is one of the most important questions you can ask! Sometimes, what isn’t listed on a spec sheet is the most important information you need to make an educated decision. Your fitness goal is a journey, and your treadmill motor is the engine that will get you to your destination!
If you have any questions or comments, feel fee to chat with us using the button at the bottom of the screen, or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading.
Now that we have talked about the frame and the motor, lets move on to the deck, belt and rollers.
A solid frame and motor are a good start, but you’ve still got a long way to go. Treadmills are going to hold up equivalent to the cumulative quality of all components, and when you are making any type of compromise on one factor, just know that it will impact all other elements. Think of it this way: if you are at a rock concert, and everyone is playing perfectly in sync except for one member of the band, it is going to ruin the entire song, and everything will fall apart! All the parts must fit together to satisfy your expectations! (I play in a band, and I sell treadmills, so I know this to be true!)
THE TREADMILL DECK
If you are shopping for a home treadmill with the intent of running or walking on it multiple days per week for years and years to come, let me save you some time right now and advise you to purchase one that has a Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF) deck.
Medium-Density Fiberboard is engineered wood that is combined with a wax and resin binder. The particles are fused together. Because of this, it is significantly denser than plywood or particle board, which are common materials used on lesser quality treadmills. A deck that is MDF is incredibly rigid and stiff, and over time, it will be much less susceptible to bowing when a user is logging miles.
Because MDF decks are nearly impervious to bowing, some are reversible. What this means, is that when the top-side’s surface has worn down over the years, you are able to remove the deck, flip it upside down, and virtually have a brand-new deck again. You can only do this with an MDF deck with a durable coated surface, because cheaper wood materials are sure to bend over time. And once that deck is bent, there’s no going back.
The surface of the deck (that is the topside or both the topside and bottom-side) is going to have some type of protective coating. This can be as simple (and as cheap) as painting the surface with a gloss black enamel. Conversely, premium treadmill manufacturers will use more expensive materials, such as phenolic resin, which is a synthetic polymer. Phenolic resin is the same material that is used to coat billiard balls, which is the reason why they can be violently cracked together over and over and still maintain their integrity and shape and not become warped. Bottom line: it is an extremely durable material. When a company coats the top and bottom of the deck with Phenolic Resin and the deck itself is MDF, it is reversible!
The way the deck is fixated to the frame plays an important factor not only into the quality of the treadmill itself, but also bio-mechanically; that is, how it will affect your knees, hips and back over long-term use. We will talk bio-mechanics very comprehensively in Part IV, but for now we are going to talk primarily on engineering aspects.
Bolt-on decks are the most common design. At the front and the rear of the deck, on each side, the deck is literally secured to the frame with a bolt:
(Did you notice the spot-welding? We talked about that in Part I, remember?)
Anyway, one of the primary reasons why this is the most common way to fixate the deck to the frame, is because it is cheap and efficient.
These designs tend to work decently, but there are some things to take into consideration. You need to be careful when you are shopping for a new treadmill and you see that the company advertises a reversible deck, but it’s bolted on and is not MDF. Here’s why:
Imagine you take a sheet of plywood and set it on top of two sawhorses. Here’s a crude illustration for your imagination:
Imagine that piece of plywood is your treadmill deck. Just like how the treadmill is bolted to the frame, the sawhorses are providing support at the front and the rear.
When a user starts to run or walk on a treadmill with a bolted-on deck, they are applying pressure on the area(s) of the deck where there is the least amount of support. The human body is a powerful machine, and when you plant on your forefoot, you are driving upwards of seven times your body weight of force down through the deck. That’s a lot!
My contention is this: the deck is invariably important if you wish to have a reliable treadmill for years to come. Remember, the quality of your treadmill is the sum of all its components!
Let’s break this down . . .
We are going to use me as an example. I am a 220-pound male and I am 6’ 1.” We are going to assume my intentions are to jog on the treadmill at 6 MPH for four days per week consistently.
A 30-minute jog at 6 MPH is going to be approximately 4,500 steps, assuming 150 steps per minute. Multiply that number by 4 (times per week) and that’s 18,000. Now multiply 18,000 for all 52 weeks of the year and I have logged a total of 936,000 steps my first year. Fast forward to five years, and I have driven upwards to 1,540 pounds of force through my treadmill deck 4,680,000 times! The human body can be a jack-hammer!
Remember in Part I, when we said that things don’t simply break, they break down over time? A cheap deck that is sure to bend or bow is a prime example of this! All the cumulative energies that the treadmill deck is being subjected to will change the overall shape of the deck itself over time, detrimentally creating conditions in the treadmill that are not as reliable, but more importantly, not as comfortable for you. See the new, red line in our illustration that represents how the deck can bow:
You can’t reverse a deck once it is bowed. If you simply remove the deck, flip it upside down and reinstall it, it will still be bent (just convexed instead of concaved now) making the treadmill even more unusable than it was in the beginning. In addition, a bowed deck will snowball very quickly: the more it bows, the less it will be able to withstand a user’s g-forces. In addition, it can subsequently become more susceptible to cracking as well. Most importantly though, as you are training and improving your performance and cardiovascular system, your treadmill is gradually becoming less comfortable to run on! Your treadmill should never inhibit your progress, but the reality is that a cheap treadmill can absolutely hold you back from achieving your goals.
Alternatives to bolt-on decks exist, such as Precor’s Ground FX technology, which utilizes a hinge at the rear instead of being rigidly and tightly fixated with a bolt. This allows the deck to “breathe” a bit more and adapt to the way you run (combined with a sophisticated Impact Control System) instead of you having to adapt to the deck.
Notice the green line below that is indicative of the way a hinged deck will respond to a user’s planting and pushing in the front and rear of the deck:
Because the deck isn’t held hostage to the frame with bolts, it allows some flexibility to occur so that the energy of the user planting, shifting and pushing their weight won’t respond with a “diving board” type bounce-back effect. Even more importantly though, there are some extremely valid bio-mechanical arguments to be made for a hinged deck over a bolted-on deck, but we will thoroughly explore those points in Part IV. Still, I am a huge advocate that it is always better to speak with an expert fitness consultant face-to-face at a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom and have them show you all these things, as well as to have them let you see, feel, touch and experience these things in person. I said this previously in my Elliptical blog, and I will say it again: fitness equipment should NEVER be purchased sight unseen!
THE TREADMILL BELT
The belt, commonly referred to as “the track,” is the component of the treadmill that the user is directly contacting their feet. The belt glides across the top side of the deck and is turned across the front and rear rollers. The type of belt and materials used can have a dramatic impact with not only when you are using the treadmill, but also your overall cost of ownership.
When you reference specification sheets, you are typically going to see a belt described such as these:
Single Ply: The treadmill belt is one solid, piece of rubber.
2-Ply: The top side of the belt is rubber (higher quality treadmills use PVC rubber) and the underside is cotton, polyester, urethane or mono-filament.
4-Ply (3-Ply): To provide more heat absorption and dispersion, as well as added “cushioning,” some treadmill manufactures will add additional layers. This can be an additional layer of rubber, or other materials. Once, years ago, a company used carpeted neoprene, which was quickly discontinued due to the belt disintegrating. Usually, if they advertise a 4-ply belt, they are counting the layer of glue as a layer. 3-ply belts do not count the layer of glue.
At G&G Fitness Equipment, you will see that most, if not all the treadmills on our showroom floors are going to be 2-ply belts. Our consultants will advise you that a 2-ply belt is the ultimate “sweet spot” because heavier belts, with additional layers, have a negative effect on the durability of the motor due to unnecessary work required to turn the additional weight of a belt that is 2-3 times as heavy. Not only that, but the amount of preventative maintenance required of the owner will drive up the cost of ownership! Due to the additional weight of a 3 or 4 ply treadmill belt, substantially more heat will accumulate, requiring the owner to lubricate the deck every 150 miles.
Another bonus of a 2-ply belt with a cotton underside is how quiet it can be. When the belt glides across the Phenolic Resin surface of the deck, it is virtually silent! If you are out shopping at the big-box department stores, turn on one of the treadmills and set it to a mid-to-high rate of speed, but don’t get on the treadmill. Just listen to the belt run across the deck. Compare that to a Precor, Life Fitness or Matrix treadmill on a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom.
Here’s a little more detective work you can do: next time you stop into a fitness center, whether it be a health club, hotel, rec center, etc., pay attention to the belts on their treadmills. What you will see are thinner, 2-ply, stronger belts that cause less stress on the motor and require little maintenance. Gyms want treadmills that won’t constantly break down or need service. You won’t see thicker belts.
Now regarding service and maintenance. Some treadmill belts are infused with a proprietary dry or wet silicone compound into the cotton underside of the belt that releases when a user is walking or running on the treadmill. This does two things: 1) It creates a nearly friction-less surface, which produces very little heat, and 2) it is self-lubricating. Some treadmill companies guarantee their belts to hold up and require zero lubrication for 20,000 miles, or 20 years. When you stop into a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom, ask your expert fitness consultant to show you which treadmills require no lubrication.
Some treadmill manufacturers use nomenclatures that sound fancy to attract the consumer to their product or brand. Don’t be fooled. “Orthopedic belts” are typically just 4-ply belts with an over-emphasis on the thicker rubber topside, that is designed solely around adding additional cushion or support for the user. Look at it this way: if you want your car to ride smoother, with less shock, would you buy thicker tires?
Not likely. Your tires aren’t the components of your vehicle that absorb shock. Your shock dampers do that. And a premium treadmill is going to have an extremely sophisticated impact control system under the deck that does just that – absorbs shock – and protects your knees, hips and back!
In short: an “orthopedic” belt is going to provide about the same amount of shock absorption as a comfortable pair of running shoes that are correctly fitted to your feet. We are going to actually talk about real bio-mechanical technologies in Part IV, so get ready.
THE TREADMILL ROLLERS
Fact: The roller is the most common broken part on treadmills. Remember that things don’t simply break, they break down over time. A high-quality roller with stamped and sealed bearings performs better when the treadmill is used regularly, and to stop using the treadmill entirely is one of the quickest ways to increase your overall cost of ownership.
The importance of the roller can’t be understated. Even the highest quality motor won’t move the belt if the rollers aren’t turning! You want a robust roller with substantial size and weight: size because, the larger diameter the roller is, the more grip it will have on the belt. This will assist in increasing the overall lifespan of the entire drive system and keep tension on the belt which requires less maintenance from the owner. You want a heavy roller, because the heavier it is, the more inertia it will have, which lightens the demand on the motor.
A high-quality treadmill is going to use a roller that is lathed from one solid piece of steel. In contrast to the big box department stores that sell treadmills with hollowed out rollers that are compressed down into a roller shaft, a single piece of steel won’t strip over time.
Most treadmill rollers are going to rely on the quality of the ball bearings, and how much friction can occur when the rollers are spinning. The highest quality bearings will be friction-less. Most treadmill manufacturers won’t emphasize the recognized ABEC rating system primarily because differences are only felt around every 350 MPH. More importantly, your fitness consultant will show you which companies precision-fit their bearings into the rollers. This is typically a better assessment of feel for a runner.
The rollers also have a secondary job, and that is keeping the belt centered. For the most part, there are two common ways of doing this on the treadmills at a G&G Fitness Equipment store.
The first method is having the roller rest on a rod that is adjusted laterally by the owner by two large screws. When the belt begins to shift one way or another, the owner will take a hex key and using quarter turns at a time, the roller will gradually tilt diagonally until the belt becomes centered again, and then the owner will reverse the process and return the roller to its original position. This is only required by the owner when the belt has shifted and is not required to be performed on a routine schedule. By design, a roller with a larger diameter will require less belt adjustments over the course of ownership.
The second method is rather than lathing a long piece of steel with a single consistent diameter, the roller is crowned and will flare out on the ends. Given that the forces of the belt being pulled naturally will gravitate toward the center and combined with the crowned rollers that automatically push the belt back to its center, adjusting the belt is far less common on a treadmill with crowned rollers.
A COUPLE MORE TIDBITS
- Guide Pins: Some treadmill manufacturers use guide pins on the underside of the treadmill. The purpose of a guide pin is always to keep the belt centered and prevent the belt from shifting all the way to the left or right and making contact with the extensions of the frame, such as the footrails. You need to be cognizant of guide pins, because guide pins cause friction on the belt. After all, the belt is constantly rubbing up against them on its ends. If you see a belt start to fray, check to see if guide pins are the culprit.
- Rust-resistant paint: The ends of the rear roller are a high sweat area, as sweat can fall and be picked up by the roller and stick to it. Premium treadmill manufacturers are going to use rust-resistant paint on the ends of the roller to protect it from corrosion. Notice that the treadmill in the above photo is not painted on its ends, compared to this treadmill which is painted:
Welcome back to Part III in our four-part Buyer’s Guide to help you find the perfect treadmill for the home!
In Part I we explored the frame and the motor. In Part II, we talked about the deck, belt and the rollers. Now we are going to explore two very critical, and seldom seen components: the lower board and the incline motor.
Also, just to reiterate: The intention here is to be as comprehensive and as thorough as possible. There is no agenda here to sway you toward or away from one brand or manufacturer, and any personal opinions I express are not necessarily reflective of G&G Fitness Equipment or any of its brands or employees. Also, I am not being compensated in any way by any specific company or manufacturer to write this blog.
Part III isn’t the flashiest entry in this four-part Treadmill Buyer’s Guide, but don’t let that fool you. The lower electronics board and the incline motor are two crucial and integral components on the treadmill. I know I might sound repetitive, but the quality of your treadmill is the sum of its components. There are important elements of the treadmill that you are seldom going to see, touch or use directly. Look at it this way, when you are shopping for a new car, do you ask to look under the hood? You should really do the same thing when you are shopping for a treadmill: ask your expert fitness consultant to look under the hood (i.e., the motor compartment) and have them explain to you what is going on under there.
THE LOWER BOARD
The lower electronics board is the “brains” of the treadmill. It is most often going to be found in the motor compartment. Just from a visible inspection, it is easy to overlook the importance of the lower board and disregard what it is doing. Every input the treadmill receives is processed by the lower board: speed & elevation changes, storing program information, and even bio-mechanical operations.
The lower board could be the most common non-wearable part of the treadmill that fails. What’s interesting is you hardly see any information on treadmill review sites where they talk thoroughly and comprehensively about this extremely important component of the treadmill. I wonder why that is?
That isn’t a rhetorical question, and we will come back to it.
Remember, things don’t simply break, they break down over time. Typically, lower board failure is the result of 1) excessive vibration over time, 2) debris such as dust, dirt, carpet fibers, pet hair and lint, or 3) excessive heat. Now remember in Part I, I stated that the roller is the most common component that breaks on the treadmill. This is true; however, the roller is a wear item and the lower board is not. The roller is a moving part, and the lower board is not. A cheap electronics board will drive up your cost of ownership the most, because it won’t be a question of “if” it fails, but when. And the lower board is one of the most expensive components of the treadmill to replace!
Typically speaking, when you look at a lower electronics board on a treadmill, size makes a difference. A good rule of thumb is this: a bigger electronics board will outperform a smaller electronics board. This also includes larger resistors and capacitors. Bigger is better!
DIGITAL vs. ANALOG
Treadmills in a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom are going to have digital speed sensors, as opposed to analog sensors found in lesser-quality treadmills. These sensors are integral in regulating the speed of the belt when a user's load is placed upon it. Analog treadmills are going to have a slower response, and drive the motor to react more often. In addition, only digital treadmills are also capable of adjusting belt speeds upwards to 700 times per second, which is crucial for sheer stress reduction. We will explore this in detail in part four when we talk about bio-mechanics. Regardless, ask your expert fitness consultant if the treadmill you are considering is analog or digital.
The importance of the placement of the electronics board can’t be over-stated; the way it is fixated to the frame as well as its relative position to the motor will have a direct impact on its efficiency and overall life. Decades ago, premium treadmill manufacturers secured the lower electronics board to the frame horizontally, as this was the best option for the time. Securing the board to the frame was essential to combat the wear and tear of vibration, and the loosening of wires, resistors, capacitors, etc.
The problem with this method, which is still used today by some big-box department store brands, is the settling of dust. As dust accumulates on the lower electronics board, it interferes with its performance. Our service department has seen it many times over . . . dust is a treadmill’s worst nightmare!
Since then, premium treadmill manufactures are now securing the board vertically, because dust is much less likely to settle directly onto the electronics board due to gravity:
As you can see, the electronics board of the treadmill in the above image is fixated vertically to the frame, rather than horizontally. This will prevent dust and debris from settling on the board over time. But did you also notice the way it is positioned? First, the board itself is pointing away from the motor. It is also positioned as far away from the motor as possible. In addition, there is an aluminum heat sink (an insulator) attached to the board itself. These three things are all designed around protecting the lower board from the heat generated by the motor. Some cheap treadmill companies place the board directly beside the motor!
When you ask your fitness consultant to remove the motor cover, so you can see the electronics board, make a note of how the components of the board are attached to the board itself. Quality manufacturers such as Precor and Matrix impregnate electrical components to the board. Life Fitness takes it once step further with the application of an industrial heat resistant epoxy for an added measure of vibration protection:
To sum it up and simplify things, here’s a concise breakdown of what to look for in a lower electronics board:
- It should sit vertically (upright), not horizontally (flat)
- It should be as far away from the motor as possible
- It should have a heat sink, or heat shield, attached to it
- The heat sink should ideally act as a barrier between the board and the motor
- The bigger it is, the better it is
- Components should be securely attached to the board
Now let’s go back: why don’t treadmill review sites emphasize the importance of the lower electronics board on treadmills? My hypothesis is this:
- Most treadmill review sites on the internet are overwhelmingly biased, and aren’t even actually real review sites. Affiliate marketing is the practice of disguising the advertisement of products in the form of objective review articles. Take it to the bank: most of them are bought and paid for. Consumers don’t even know that they aren’t reading an unbiased review.
- Accepting #1 to be true, it would be a fair assumption to say that the primary contributors to those treadmill review sites aren’t even treadmill experts. They likely aren’t educated enough to comprehensively write and advise you about them. Even more so, it is extremely unlikely they have used all the treadmills they are reviewing and recommending. Look at it this way: I am a real person you can email or call, and I will talk to you about treadmills! I also manage a store, and you can come chat face to face with me. How many review sites can say the same thing?
THE INCLINE MOTOR
The motor that turns the belt isn’t the only motor on the treadmill. The incline motor is what pushes the user up, so the user can walk or run uphill.
To keep it simple, here is what you need to know: a cheap, lower-quality treadmill is going to have an incline motor with a thrust rating of around 300 pounds. The problem is that the combined weight of the treadmill and a user could commonly exceed 300 pounds!
Using myself as an example again, I weigh about 220 pounds. Let’s say I am using one of my favorite treadmills on the showroom floor: the Precor TRM445. The TRM445 weighs 358 pounds. That’s 578 pounds total that the incline motor must push up, and we aren’t even including the g-forces applied when I am running! Luckily, the incline motor on the Precor TRM 445 has 1000 pounds of thrust. It’s one of many reasons why a company like Precor assigns no max user weight rating on their treadmills. Even more importantly though, it is one of the reasons why running on a quality treadmill is a very comfortable, consistent experience, with minimal (if any) vibration.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Look at the location that a premium treadmill manufacturer places the incline motor (and incline bracket). It will be at the center of the treadmill, which is the best place it could possibly be. If the incline motor were off-centered, the deck would move from side-to-side when a person ran on it. Putting it in the center will offer up a much more uniform and stable experience.
Remember our earlier example of a horizontal electronics board? Look at the photo again, but this time look at where the incline motor is positioned. I’ll give you a hint: it’s off-centered.
USE THIS INFORMATION TO GET THE BEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
All of these arguments that I present to you in this Buyer’s Guide are tangible design qualities that you yourself are able to go out and investigate and make an informed decision. While you are out shopping, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Expert fitness consultants are happy, eager and enthusiastic to take off the motor cover for you and show you these things in person. They will show you every tiny detail of every treadmill, so you can make an informed decision to ensure your investment is the best thing that works for you and your family. TRY THEM ALL OUT and listen to the feedback your body is giving you!
If you are reading this buyer’s guide and you are taking notes, it is very possible that you now know more about treadmill design than a lot of the big-box department store employees do!. Here’s a test: try asking a big-box department store employee to remove the motor cover for you so you can see everything. Ask them to explain the features to you. Test their knowledge. Test their products. Compare their treadmills and staff to G&G Fitness Equipment. And don’t forget to wear comfortable shoes.
About eight to ten years ago, and decades before, treadmill electronics were much more similar from brand-to-brand than they are today. For the most part, treadmill manufacturing companies incorporated a limited number of workout programs, user profiles, simple folding models, heart rate monitor features, and minimal, bare-bones entertainment features (think headphone jacks and speakers). You would typically find display types to be limited to an LED dot-matrix display or a backlit LCD screen. Each console would have a certain number of workout programs to choose from, and that was pretty much it.
Nowadays, treadmills have exploded into a disorienting array of features designed around making the treadmill as personalized as you need it to be. This is awesome! But it can also be somewhat of a bad thing. Let’s take our time and explore it.
Most importantly, it is good, because now you have so many more tools at your disposal to reach your fitness goals more efficiently than ever; whether they are motivational features, entertainment options, fitness app integrations, or sport-specific high intensity interval (HIIT) workout programs based on highly vetted and proven scientific methods of exercise.
It is bad, because now there is so much more to choose from, and so many polarized differences. It can be confusing. Not to mention, if you are really going to do yourself service, you will discover very quickly that more time is going to be needed from you to sift through research and reviews in an effort differentiate all those options out there. Not only that, but you will have to narrow down what you need, what you don’t need, and what you may not even know you need or don’t need. But how will you know that you need something if you are oblivious to not even knowing about it? Confused yet? Don’t worry, it’s simple. And we will come back to it.
It is also bad for another reason – and this one is tricky. Let me first just preface this and profusely express that my intentions and goals here can be summed up with three simple statements: 1) I am going to be honest with you. 2) I am going to be objective with you. 3) I am using my training and experience to give you the best advice I can, so you will have the tools you need to make an informed decision when purchasing a treadmill for your home.
I say it is tricky because of this: there’s a lot of information out there I simply do not have access to, and subsequently do not know. So, I acknowledge that my opinions in certain areas – based on training and experience – are lacking. I will always support any opinion I make with some form of evidence or logical reasoning, instead of arbitrarily throwing out statements with little to no substance. And I am steadfast in remaining open-minded. I will be the first person to tell you I was wrong about something if you can present to me a valid argument or opinion strongly enough to sway me.
So, are you wondering what I am getting at? Begging me to get to the point?
Here it is: technology. This is an interesting time we are in, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge it. If you don’t believe me, just look at some of the companies that are putting 32-inch HDTV’s on their bikes and treadmills and charging subscriptions for their content (you probably don’t have to look far, their advertisements likely show up on your social media feed several times per day, every day).
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not accusing any company of practicing in “planned obsolescence.” No, I am sincerely too idealistic to do such a thing. Rather, I am simply exercising caution as we see this technological shift in the fitness industry happening before us. And it is a valid concern.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a test: look around your house. Do you have a computer at home, that is your primary computer, that is more than six or seven years old? How old is your current smartphone? What is currently your primary method of listening to music at home, while cleaning around the house? What would your answer to this same question be five years ago? Five years from now?
Now don’t get me wrong, I think the good far outweighs the bad. There are so many possibilities today! In fact, the elliptical trainer I tend to gravitate to most often for my personal workouts has a 16” high definition display on it. Watch Netflix? Check. Virtual destination courses? Check. Social media features? Check. I love it!
So, I ask you, curious reader, to empathize with me for a moment, and put yourself in my shoes. I promise, it will help you understand:
- First, it is my goal to help you find the perfect treadmill for your home that meets your needs; nothing more and nothing less. This involves a dedication to keeping your cost of ownership as low as possible. That’s very important to me. Remember, the cost of ownership is not just your initial investment, but also the investment(s) you will make over time to own and maintain your treadmill and keep it going for years and years.
- Second, I absolutely love all the exciting technological features currently available. And I have no clue how these technologies affect your cost of ownership over the long term.
My point is this, and this alone: the components of premium treadmills that are manufactured today by elite companies are designed to last 20+ years. Will the electronics and content provided last that long as well?
LET’S BREAK IT DOWN
Let’s tackle this technology thing head-on. After all, this is a Buyer’s Guide. The goal is to keep it simple and transparent. Let’s break it down so that you will be able to take this information and formulate your own opinions and arm yourself with an objective assessment of the current treadmill market. Remember, the focus right now is technology (which is not limited to just treadmills).
A few years ago, there was a divide. At first, I thought there were only two, simple paths: some treadmill manufacturers chose to embrace technology and go “all-out” with integration, while others held back and kept their machines more simplistic. This was an incorrect assessment.
No, I have discovered there are indeed four directions to choose from, like the points on a compass. Let’s have some fun and break down each category. Just like anything else, there are pros and cons for each. It’s not my job, or my intentions frankly, to persuade you that one is better than the other. But I am also going to be honest, and with honesty comes both the good and the bad. Not only that, but what works for me and what works for you are highly unlikely to be exactly the same. Do you agree?
I try to stay vague with specific brands or companies to remain as neutral as possible, however we are going to make an exception this once and use specific companies as examples for each category. Like I said earlier: it’s a Buyer’s Guide.
Now imagine that you’re standing in the middle of the treadmill market. Which direction will your technology compass guide you?
TO THE NORTH: THE MOTIVATORS
The “Motivators” are what I consider to be premium fitness equipment manufacturers who use technology as a tool, but it is not their primary selling factor. Their chief concern is the manufacturing of a quality treadmill (and to be competitive with both quality and price in the premium treadmill market, dancing a delicate balance) however they have also embraced the idea that the average treadmill owner will highly benefit from having sophisticated technological options integrated right on the treadmill itself. For the most part, they aim for ease of use and a simple interface but offer an abundance of options. We are talking a lot of options here.
The idea is straightforward: no excuses. If your excuse is that the treadmill is boring, they have an answer for that. If your excuse is that you are busy and don’t have much free time, they have options around that. If your excuse is that you don’t have the motivation, they have a solution for that. By combining these options with a quality piece of equipment, the entire burden of responsibility to use the treadmill regularly falls solely on the owner. No more excuses about why your treadmill isn’t going to work for you today.
In addition, these premium companies will typically not offer any content that requires a subscription from the user.
A good fit for: people who love tech, who are busy, who need motivation, who require entertainment to keep them going, who tend to make excuses, who need accountability
Example(s): Matrix Fitness T50 XIR
TO THE EAST: THE INNOVATORS
The “Innovators” also believe that technology can be a powerful tool, however they take a drastically different approach to that idea. Rather than full, complete integration proprietary to the treadmill itself, their designs are based around their residential treadmills working in tandem with the devices you already own, such as your smartphone or tablet. They usually execute this in one or two ways, if not both: via Bluetooth or a USB cable. They will typically have their own proprietary fitness apps that you can download for free that work in sync with your piece of equipment. Those apps can subsequently be “daisy-chained” to other popular fitness apps if desired.
I remember having a conversation with someone high-up at one of these companies, and it is worth paraphrasing here, because it was a fantastic explanation and a true insight into their design and idea processes. This is what they said:
“We aren’t a tech company. We are a fitness equipment company. If we start to put money, time and effort into making tech, all it will do is drive up the cost and take away from the quality of our equipment . . .equipment that we take so much pride in. Sure, we can make a big touchscreen on our residential treadmills. That’s easy. We already do it on our commercial treadmills. But it would cost our customers around $1000 extra. Our customers can buy a tablet for $99. Let’s just make our treadmill will work perfectly with that.
What’s the point of watching the news on a $1000 15-inch touchscreen on the treadmill if our customer already has a 60-inch TV mounted to their wall in the same room? We are not going to try to replace the devices that our customers already own, but rather make our equipment work seamlessly with them. And save them some money without sacrificing quality at the same time.”
There’s another bonus to this method of manufacturing: not being tethered down to your home treadmill only. If you travel a lot for business, or if you still like to go to the gym, all your workout data is stored in the cloud via your phone or tablet. So just take it with you and sync it up with a treadmill at the gym. In a lot of cases, you can do the same program(s) you do at home.
A good fit for: People that already own tablets or smartphones, that travel, that want the best reliability available, that want a low cost of ownership
TO THE SOUTH: THE CONTENT PROVIDERS
The “Content Providers” are the antithesis to The Innovators. All the cost goes into the technology and content services, and the equipment is just a necessity (that is not going to have the components we have discussed in Parts I, II and III of this Buyer’s Guide). These are the companies that tend to do the most advertising, and they will also have subscription fees. They offer live class services, as well as other coaching features. You will typically see much larger display screens on their equipment. These companies are an elusive breed; it can be difficult to try one of these products out in person before you decide to purchase. Many times, you can only purchase by phone or online. They gamble on their aggressive marketing and infomercials to sell you their product(s).
You will never find these brands in specialty fitness stores. You will also not see them in gyms or health clubs. It is my opinion that three very important things separate premium quality fitness equipment from the big-box, department store and infomercial “content providing” brands: 1) quality, 2) bio-mechanics and 3) you can try out every product in a specialty showroom.
I said it in my elliptical blog and I will say it again here: when a company knows that their chances of selling their products actually decline when an informed consumer goes to the extent of trying out their products before making a purchasing decision, they will do everything they possibly can to get that person to buy it before they try it. They must entice you to their products somehow. And right now, they are marketing and selling you technology.
Why call them The Content Providers? Because that’s a sincere, genuine nomenclature. When you purchase this type of machine, you are paying for the experience more than the actual quality of the equipment itself (and the sum of its components).
The Content Providers are the sole reason why I said earlier that the influx of technology in the market can be a bad thing. It has grayed the line of what is a quality product. Quality used to be a primary focus, as well as service, reliability, and local support. These are things that the Content Providers aren’t going to brag about, and they are slowly starting to be discounted. That, in my opinion, is a shame.
Now I made a promise to be honest and objective with you, and I intend to keep that promise. I would be lying if I told you that these new content services weren’t popular and, in their own niche way, intriguing. I get it. I have had a handful of discussions on the subject, with both clients and colleagues, and I would be happy to discuss it with you as well. Feel free to call or email me. If you find value in those experiences they are selling you, who am I to judge? Go for it! But, before you commit, please do yourself a favor and ask yourself these standard questions:
- How much is delivery/installation? Comparatively?
- What do I do if I need service? If something breaks?
- What if I want to return it? What is that procedure exactly?
- What happens if I cancel my subscription?
- Is this treadmill good for my body?
Just remember: you get what you pay for. If you have read Parts I, II and III of this Buyer’s Guide, you know what to look for in a quality treadmill. You have everything you need! Formulate your own opinions.
A good fit for: People not too concerned about quality, need social interaction and motivational coaching in the comfort of the home, willing to pay a subscription fee
Example(s): Peloton, NordicTrack
TO THE WEST: THE BYSTANDERS
The “Bystanders” are the companies whose treadmills are not technologically-centric, primarily to keep the cost down. They are usually going to have an LED dot matrix display, with basic functionality and options. They might have an LCD screen, but I wouldn’t bet on being able to watch TV on it. Sometimes, these treadmills will have speakers, as well as a 3.5mm stereo input for a music player. They will still have workout programs on them, such as Random, Hill Climb, Interval, etc. Some will have wireless heart rate telemetry, and others will not.
There are quite a few brands out there that are still basic and fall under this category. Basic isn’t a bad thing. After all, the less there is, the less there is that can go wrong, right? Well . . . that is debatable. I would bargain that more quality components will outlast fewer inferior components, but I digress.
For the price-conscious shopper who doesn’t want to spend more on features that they will never use, these treadmills can hold up extremely well. Let me put it to you this way: If I were shopping for a treadmill and my two choices were:
- Treadmill “A,” which has a 32” high definition touchscreen and a 2 HP peak motor
- Treadmill “B,” which has a primitive LED dot matrix display and a 3 CHP motor
I would choose Treadmill “B” every time. You know why? Because if Treadmill “A’s” cheaper peak motor burns out on me, that 32” touchscreen is worthless!
I’ve said it before, and here it is again: a treadmill is as good as the sum of its components.
A good fit for: someone who is price conscious, who doesn’t need motivated, who doesn’t need a lot of variety, who isn’t going to be a high-mileage user
Example(s): Horizon Fitness Elite T5
LET’S CIRCLE BACK
Remember that confusing bit earlier? I asked you how you would be expected to know that you needed something if you were oblivious to not knowing? I said it was simple and it is. The key is making a free appointment and speaking with a fitness consultant. It would really benefit you to stop into a local showroom and have a conversation with one of us. Stop in sometime when you have the extra time and you aren’t in a hurry. Fitness consultants aren’t in a hurry to get you in and out. We are an enigmatic breed and we are intrinsic; we genuinely enjoy helping you reach your goals. We LOVE to talk about fitness, and we LOVE to talk about you. We listen to you, and we give you the expert advice you can’t find on the internet or in the department stores. We are trained to put ourselves in your shoes and using our knowledge and expertise, help you make decisions that are best for you. Most importantly, we help you find those things you don’t even know you need.
LET’S TALK TREADMILL BIO-MECHANICS
Sit down and strap in. Now we are at the end. But we still have a long way to go. Make no mistake, we have saved the best for last. The bio-mechanics on any stationary piece of cardio equipment should be one of the most important (if not the most important) considerations of your buying experience.
First things first. What is bio-mechanics? In this context we are referring to treadmills, and the bio-mechanics on treadmills are simply the components of the machine that are designed solely around protecting your body from injury. The two main aspects we are going to explore are the impact control systems and shear stress reduction.
IMPACT CONTROL SYSTEM
The Impact control system, also known as the shock absorption system, can be described in many ways. The impact control system is the combined components of the treadmill that provide the “cushioning,” and overall shock absorption. It is what is going to make the treadmill feel comfortable and consistent as you continuously plant your foot, shift your weight, push off your load, and then plant your other foot.
In Part II, we were talking about the quality of the components of the treadmill . . . specifically, the deck. We discussed how the deck of the treadmill responds to the abuse that a human body can subject to it when running, like a jack hammer.
The deck isn’t the only thing that is taking on abuse; your body does too.
Years and years ago, before 1990, when Precor released the first treadmill that had a cushioned deck, treadmill manufacturers simply used wood decks that flexed under the user’s weight. These decks would intentionally bow and flex with every step. The idea was that the deck would have “give,” and would be easier on the users’ knees when compared to a deck that is stiff, rigid and hard to run on.
Fair enough, but there was a fundamental problem with this idea, and it was a problem big enough that it required engineers at Precor to find a solution for and fix. We talked about it in briefly Part II if you remember, and that is what is commonly referred to as the “diving board” effect.
The deck moving downward with your stride as you plant your foot wasn’t the primary issue. It was the deck bouncing back upward after a user pushed off. If you recall, most treadmill decks are secured to the frame at each end with bolts. Simply put: the more freedom the deck had to flex downward, the more intense it would snap back upward. Remember that every action has and equal and opposite reaction. This was jarring on the knee, because it was a repetitive and unanticipated force in the opposite direction of the runner:
Think about it this way. When you were a child, did you ever jump on a trampoline? Most of us did, right? When you jump on a trampoline, while you are in the air - after the initial bounce - the trampoline bed has enough time to spring back to its normal position after having flexed downward under your weight and then back upward after you push off. Jumping on a trampoline isn’t exactly easy on your knees to begin with, but at least each jump will be consistent and with no opposing force underneath you. Do you follow me?
The problem with running on a treadmill however, is that runners aren’t normally keeping a neutral, consistent load and hopping on one foot when they are running. No, just as soon as a treadmill user pushes their weight off their back foot, they shift their weight and their other foot is planting down in front immediately after.
So, running on a treadmill is more accurately analogous to jumping on the trampoline with a friend in disunity; that is, out of sync. Just like juggling two balls. Do you remember doing this as a child? It was fun, but it was also a little intense. When you are on the trampoline and your childhood friend jumps up immediately before you come down, the trampoline bed hasn’t had time to spring back to its normal resting position, and subsequently you are coming down right when it is flexing back upward, “springing” you higher up into the air.
That is more like running on treadmills with decks that flexed upward and downward, and it was not ideal for long term use. Orthopedic concerns varied, and one worry was exacerbating the users’ susceptibility to repetitive motion injuries.
Now I understand that trampoline beds and treadmill decks aren’t the same thing, but you must remember that we are talking about treadmill manufacturing before 1990, and a lot of these treadmill decks were designed to intentionally flex under the user’s weight.
So, in 1990, the Impact Control System was born, and premium treadmill manufacturers have since used rigid and stiff Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) decks, with different types of shock absorption systems on the underside. The very first cushioning system introduced by Precor was very basic, but it did the job. And similar systems are still commonly used on treadmills today.
These systems consist of elastomers that are secured to the deck into a grommet, and they are fixated in the empty space between the deck and the frame. If you fold or lift any treadmill in a department store, chances are this is what you are going to see:
These elastomers are typically going to be evenly spaced out, and they will run parallel on both the left and right side of the deck. Some treadmills will have three elastomers, some will have four. Elastomers also vary in size; some have a very small diameter and others are much larger. Some treadmills will use the same elastomers altogether throughout the deck, and some treadmills will have different elastomers that are firmer or softer at different positions on the treadmill. Obviously, my crude example here is not an accurate representation of size, but you get the idea:
While elastomers will vary in size, softness and placement from company-to-company, the central idea is the same: these elements absorb impact by compressing vertically downward and then immediately returning to their natural position in anticipation for the next footfall. These elastomers are usually very durable and will maintain their optimal “elasticity” over the lifespan of the treadmill. They are tried and tested, and they rarely fail. They were (and still are) a significant improvement over wood decks that flexed, and in 1990, this type of cushioning system was state-of-the-art and changed the treadmill market forever; a treadmill user could have a more rigid, durable and stable deck under their feet, but also have a form of impact absorption – as opposed to flexion – to protect their joints.
Still, this was 28 years ago, and while most treadmills in the department stores are still using these systems and advertising them as state-of-the-art (and simultaneously being highly recommended on phony, paid review sites), premium treadmill manufacturing companies have come a long way with improving their impact control systems and do things a bit differently now. But before we get there, let’s explain why they would.
First, a general rule of thumb is that the more consistent a treadmill feels under your feet, a more comfortable experience you will have, not just during a single workout, but for years and years of using the treadmill.
One problem with this standard cushioning system that is still commonly used today, is that the elastomers are evenly spaced out under the deck, with empty space between.
Look at our illustration again and notice the position of our runner. In this example, he or she is planting their right foot almost directly on top of the elastomer in the treadmill’s “strike zone.”
Now for the sake of this example I am just going to use an arbitrary number and say that this specific treadmill company advertises that their cushioning system has 20% shock absorption. Assuming that information is trustworthy, it would be fair to say that this runner was provided about 20% relative absorption on this footfall, because they made impact directly on the absorber.
Now stay with me here. The art of running is a series of planting, shifting, pushing and then planting again. Runners don’t “glide.” Running is violent. Now combine the rapid changes in a runner’s stride with the belt moving under their feet in the opposite direction, and it is highly unlikely that a user will strike the exact same position on the belt and deck every time they plant their feet. Look at where our runner’s very next step with their left foot has now landed:
What percent absorption did our runner achieve on that step? It is impossible to tell, but that isn’t exactly the point. The point is that this is a very inconsistent experience for a treadmill user. If the goal is for every step to feel the same, this design puts the treadmill user at a disadvantage.
Now, I am not simply being nit-picky. The reason why it is important to know this is because we are talking about these things in the context of using the treadmill multiple times per week, for years and years to come. Remember, at 6 MPH, we are talking 150 steps per minute!
Here’s another thing to ponder if you are shopping for a treadmill that has this type of system, and your primary concern is shock absorption. It is also a very important consideration if there are multiple people in the household that will be using the treadmill.
Reason number two is that these elastomers are fixated vertically, and they also compress vertically.
Now, that is exactly what they are put there and designed to do. And they do a good job. The issue isn’t whether they underperform or not. The concern is the relationship between the elastomers’ duty, and the way a human is designed to run.
When a person runs, they do not strike the ground at a 90-degree angle. It depends on a runner’s form and pace; however, they will usually strike their feet closer to a 50- or 60-degree angle:
Why is this important? Because the elastomers are designed to compress straight down, however the kinetic force applied to them is impacting down at a different angle.
Have you ever hit the head of a nail with a hammer, and it wasn’t quite straight-on? You accidently hit it at a bit of an angle? What happened to the nail? It probably bent, didn’t it?
Your elastomers aren’t going to bend like a nail, but they also aren’t going to compress as completely they are intended to do either. If the elastomers are designed to reduce impact by 40%, but that impact is traveling through the elastomer at a 50 degree angle instead of 90 degrees, and your feet strike the deck at a different place with each step, what percentage of cushioning are you actually getting? More importantly, how inconsistent is this?!?!?
Now, if you are still with me, you may be thinking to yourself, “well, why wouldn’t they build it like this then?”
That’s a great question. The answer is that it can be done better. Much better. Now, premium treadmill companies have gone in entirely new and exiting directions. Here we go!
DID YOU SAY DONUTS? (Life Fitness & Matrix)
The FlexDeck on Life Fitness treadmills, and the Ultimate Deck System on Matrix Fitness treadmills have similar shock absorbers. Gone are the vertical elastomers, and now instead, a hollowed-out oval is used, in the shape of a doughnut:
These absorbers are a significant improvement over the older elastomers for a few reasons. There is one really big difference though, and that is the fact that they are round.
Now, when our runner plants their foot on the belt, the oval absorber will more effectively cushion the blow because the spring itself is not designed to absorb energy at 90 degrees. Now, you are getting all of the benefits of what the absorbers can provide to you, as opposed to vertical elastomers, which only reduced the impact at a fraction. In addition, because the spring is hollow, the user will experience significantly more cushioning. Life Fitness, for instance, advertises that their treadmills are 40% softer than grass.
These absorbers are designed to reduce impact significantly upon the user planting their foot, but also produce spring during the transition and push-off. This way, the treadmill won’t feel “spongey” under a user’s weight, and their rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is less likely to be artificially inflated.
Here’s an experiment that might help you understand. Take a cardboard tube from an empty roll of toilet paper and hold it vertically. Without crushing it, apply light pressure on both ends. See how much it will compress with a little bit of pressure. Now turn the roll horizontally and apply the same amount of pressure in the middle of the cylinder. Ask yourself this question: which direction is both easier on your hand(s) and on the tube? This is somewhat analogous to how Life Fitness and Matrix treadmills absorbers are different than the department store models.
All Life Fitness and Matrix treadmills are going to have similar shock absorbers on their entire treadmill lines. The Life Fitness T5 treadmill is a unique model, because it allows the user to adjust the level of firmness by shifting the Lifesprings either forward or backward. It has three settings: Hard, Firm and Standard. This gives the treadmill user(s) a great amount of variability to fit their preferences. It is one of the most popular home treadmills because of this feature.
GroundFX & Integrated Footplant Technology (Precor)
While Life Fitness and Matrix improved on a traditional design, using more appropriate elastomers that naturally cushion a user’s joints, Precor went an entirely different direction.
Now I am not going to tell you that one company is better than the other. I am just going to relay some of my training I have been provided, and you can make up your own mind. In fact, I personally think every treadmill line on a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom has individual strengths above all the others. What matters most is what is best for you. Fitness consultants try to take the information you provide and address your needs and concerns. Different clients have different priorities, but the bottom line is this: there is always going to be the “best choice” regarding what is best for you, and we are here to help you figure it out.
Also, it should be noted (and I will be the first to admit) that I am more educated with Precor equipment than any other brand, simply because Precor invited me to tour their factories in Seattle and participate in their intensive Immersion Training. None of the other manufacturers have invited me to tour their facilities, so I am unable to be a primary source for you in that regard. With Precor, I can. I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt and not confuse this with any personal biases I may have.
Make no mistake: Lifesprings and the Ultimate Deck System are a significant improvement over the older, antiquated design. They are light years ahead. Still, there are two primary things that Precor has taken steps to do differently and improve upon:
- Hollow, oval springs will typically differ from user-to-user. A 250-pound heel-striker is going to produce and require more compression than a 130-pound midfoot runner.
- These oval elastomers are still evenly spread out in the treadmill’s strike zone, with empty space in between.
Now what these two points also mean is that every step a user takes will be different, and that each user must adapt to the treadmill. Remember . . . a treadmill will be most comfortable when it is consistent. If you and I go out for a run on a bike path, the ground is going to feel the same for both of us A) because the bike path isn’t moving, and B) the bike path isn’t constricting under our feet. The springs on a treadmill will feel different for us, however, because you and I are going to compress them differently.
So Precor’s objective is to make a treadmill that provides consistency; where every step feels the same, and every user has the same experience. Precor treadmills are designed around the treadmill adapting to the user, as opposed to the user adapting to the treadmill. They accomplish this in two ways: GroundFX and Integrated Footplant Technology (IFT), two systems that are unique to Precor treadmills.
Precor’s impact control system isn’t much like any of the others that we have explored in this buyer’s guide. Precor’s shock absorber is an 18-inch, hollow tube that is shaped like an arch, and it runs along the strike zone of the deck.
For starters, let’s just look at it in comparison:
Let’s run down the basic points as to why they do this:
IT HAS A UNIQUE SHAPE: It is shaped like an arch, for progressive impact absorption – to give each user just the right amount they need. Arches compress downward and outward, as opposed to only inward like other shock absorbers.
- Thus, it also provides lateral stability, which also promotes variable impact absorption that is “personalized” for each individual user.
- Because of this, every user gets approximately 38.6% absorption, regardless of height and weight difference!
- Thus, it also provides lateral stability, which also promotes variable impact absorption that is “personalized” for each individual user.
IT IS LONG: Unlike smaller elastomers that are evenly spaced out, the absorber on a Precor is an 18-inch long tube that runs along the strike zone of the deck.
- This way, no matter where you plant your foot, it will always be on the absorber, subsequently giving every footfall identical cushioning.
- Thus, this helps solves the problem of the user’s foot falling in different places with each step, and having an experience where every step they take is different.
- This way, no matter where you plant your foot, it will always be on the absorber, subsequently giving every footfall identical cushioning.
- BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: Remember in Part II when we talked about decks that are bolted to the frame? Precor’s patented GroundFX cushioning system also includes a hinge at the back, so you won’t get that “diving board” effect. (If you need a refresher, read about decks in Part II here).
- Because of the hinge at the back, it has a strong push-off. You don’t want a treadmill that has a soft push off. This is crucial, because when your foot sinks down as it pushes off, it requires more energy and increases your RPE and accelerates your fatigue.
In short, GroundFX is designed around optimal compression at the front and firmness at the rear to achieve the “sweet spot” in the balance between firmness and absorption. It also is adaptive to each user, as opposed to each user having to adapt to the treadmill.
INTEGRATED FOOTPLANT TECHNOLOGY
FACT: When you walk or run, your speed is constantly changing with every step you take.
On most treadmills, when you plant your foot, shift your weight, and push off, you are interrupting the process of the motor turning the belt at a pre-determined and specific speed. Treadmills with DC motors that use PWM motor controllers (see Part I) account for this by sending a series of ON/OFF pulses to compensate for this.
While this is great for the life of your motor and treadmill, it isn’t so great for your knees. The reason is because this shear stress.
Think about this. When you run on a treadmill, you aren’t running in place (contrary to popular belief). You are moving forward, and the belt is pulling you back, so you can stay in place. Running in place is easy . . . you can stand up right now and hop back and forth on each leg and kick your heels up to your glutes. But people don’t invest in home treadmills because they have a desire to run in place, they want to run.
Therein lies the problem with shear stress. When you take a step and shift your weight to one side, the treadmill belt pulls you back before you can naturally push off. This isn’t a concern with running outdoors, because the ground isn’t moving. But during this process on a treadmill, some things commonly occur. Your tibia may kick back. Your femur may kick forward. Your ACL may stretch.
It may sound confusing, but it’s quite simple. On most treadmills, the belt will naturally “hiccup” under your load, simply because it is an unanticipated, perpendicular force. PWM motor controllers compensate for this by increasing the voltage to the motor to maintain a consistent speed of the belt. The side effect is that every time you take a step, the belt is speeding up immediately after that interruption.
There are other factors as well, such as having to adjust your stride to compensate for the belt moving in the opposite direction underneath you. When your planted foot is pulled back behind you, you must compensate. You do this by diving forward in front of your body. Consequently, you might not get your natural heel-lift that you are used to getting when you run outside, because you must come down and plant your foot again immediately before the belt pulls you off the back of the treadmill.
Next time you see someone running down the street, watch their stride. Are they diving out in front of their person? Are they not lifting their heels up? It is possible that they may be conditioned to running on a treadmill. Regardless, I think the shear stress of the belt pulling you back might make you more susceptible to shin splints more than impact would.
You can think of it as a game of “Would You Rather?” Ready? Here we go!
Would you rather:
- stomp your foot on a carpeted rug 100 times -or-
- stand on the rug and have someone jerk the rug out from underneath your feet 100 times?
What’s all this mean? It’s simple really. When you are shopping for a treadmill, you should be cognizant that there are two types of shock absorption: vertical and horizontal.
This is where Integrated Footplant Technology (IFT) comes in.
IFT recognizes each footfall and speed change and makes minute belt-speed alterations to compensate upwards of 710 times per second. What this means is the belt will appropriately and gradually decelerate in response to foot strike, and then re-accelerate properly with each push-off. There is a harmony there between the runner and the treadmill, to create a smooth and natural fluidity with their stride, which doesn’t pull. It’s quite the antithesis to most treadmills that speed up to compensate with each footfall, and you can see it work with your own eyes.
Congratulations! You now know what to look for in a treadmill! I hope this Buyer’s Guide has been informative and will help you find the perfect treadmill for your home. I also hope that the information was presented fairly, and you can formulate your own opinions on what treadmills align with your needs the best. Most importantly, I hope that I have earned your trust!
If I have indeed earned your trust, then I have a reward for you for reading this four-part Buyer’s Guide.
NOW IT IS YOUR TURN!
Now it is your turn to find out what treadmill is best for you. My advice is to always speak with an expert fitness consultant face to face, but this brief quiz will absolutely give you a good idea of what treadmill is right for you. The questions that you will answer are some of the most common questions that G&G fitness consultants ask daily. Your results will be specifically tailored to the answers you provide, so answer honestly!
Once again, thanks for reading!
Prefer a video? Check out these treadmill lessons on the G&G YouTube Channel:
For more information on maintenance and service of your treadmill, elliptical, or other home fitness equipment, we recommend: 5 Tips to stop Treadmill Static, Do You Really Need to Clean Your Fitness Equipment, The Ultimate Elliptical Buyers Guide, The Ultimate Treadmill Buyers Guide.
Bryan has been with G&G since 2008. Along with experience as a personal trainer, Bryan has a BS in Education and is licensed to teach. He is an adjunct instructor for Wright State University. He has also taught grades 7-12... more about Bryan