This week, before I get in to the nuts and bolts of the treadmills and the ellipticals I work on, I'm going to start with a quick guide to how to choose a treadmill -- well, how to choose a residential / home grade treadmill. Choosing a commercial treadmill tends to be a bit easier -- go Star Trac, Matrix, Landice or Life Fitness and, in spite of their great ellipticals, avoid Precor treadmills. Precor is a great company, they just don't quite have treadmills down as well as the other companies. With the commercial treadmills it's kind of like choosing between a BMW, a Mercedes and a Lexus. It's all about bells and whistles more than performance...they're all great machines and we'll talk about them another time.
Home treadmills are a tough sea to navigate for most buyers -- there are so many different brands and they all look alike to outsiders. Luckily, over the past 20 or so years, I've had to repair just about every treadmill ever made. In other words, my pain will be your salvation!
My first piece of advice is: avoid anything and everything from Icon Health and Fitness. They're the manufacturer of the units you'll find at places like Sears -- nothing against Sears, but the treadmills they sell tend to be on the lower end of the quality scale. Their treadmills seem to have specs that are too good to be true for their cost and, truth be told, they are. The old proverb, "you get what you pay for" comes in to play with them. Small motors with high RPMs to give them a perceived higher horsepower (most of their motors should really be rated at under 1.5 HP regardless of what they tell you -- a motor the size of a soda can should not be powering a full sized treadmill!), lots of plastic pieces, tiny rollers, and generally unstable machines are par for the course for the Icon brands like Proform, Weslo, Healthrider and Image. Just stay away from them! There are better treadmills even at the more affordable prices that Icon tempts the unlearned consumer with.
On with translating the arcane lore that is treadmill purchasing for the lay person.
Let's start with the motor. The first thing you want to do is make sure the motor is rated with "Continuous Duty." Any sales person or manufacturer who gives you a "Peak" rating is trying to sell you a bag of magic beans. Peak is best described as the maximum a motor will perform at before it breaks down. What's more imporant is: how the heck is that motor going to perform when you're actually using it? Another thing a shady salesperson might mention is that a common home circuit (120v/15amps) will only let you run about 2.5 HP and any motor larger than that is a waste of money. Technically that is true (about the amps vs. HP, not the waste of money), but the larger motors will tend to last longer as they are not running at the higher RPMs of a smaller motor. And, if nothing else, the larger the motor, the smoother the "ride." A bigger motor will allow you to run or walk on it without slipping.
The next thing to look at is the size of a treadmill's rollers. The bigger the rollers, the longer your belt will last and the better the running experience.
Next, and this is my favorite thing -- especially when recommending cardio equipment to my in-laws -- the warranty. Like anything else, the better the warranty the more piece of mind you will have. The 5 year parts warranty on Spirit treadmills, for example, is one of the best in the business. For me, the more faith a manufacturer has in its own product (i.e. the warranty), the more faith I have in that product. Of course, doing repairs I absolutely love the lower end warranties as it means more paying work for me!
What's next? The weight and stability of the machine. There is nothing worse than getting on a treadmill and having it move back and forth, or shake, or, even worse, creak as you run on it. The heavier the unit the longer it will last. If you're used to running on a treadmill at your local gym and then get on most home units, you'll immediately notice the difference. You don't want to be running around on something that feels like it is going to fall apart now do you? Don't answer, that was a rhetorical treadmill question.
The tread and the deck are where most problems for treadmills happen. When the friction from your running builds up between the deck and the tread, the badness begins. Stick with the 4-ply belts/treads that help to reduce the amount of friction, and look at units with reversable, phenolic wax coated decks. Reversable decks let you flip over your running surface to use the opposite side when the original wears down. It's like having a free second deck if you wear out the first one.
Programs. Don't be fooled by this. Most people only wind up using 3-4 programs. If the treadmill has 20, that's cool, but you'll rarely use them. If you do heart rate training, then heart rate control is great. If not, it's just an extra you'll never use...like the clock you've never set on your VCR.
Speed and Incline are worth talking about. Most treadmills can go up to about 10 miles per hour and a 10 degree incline. Don't let speed or incline become a deciding factor unless you're doing a lot of high speed or high incline training. Obviously, electronically controlled speed and incline are the way to go. If those feature are manual just move on.
Finally, test out the shock absorbtion. You want to make sure you aren't running on a hard surface. This is a "feel" thing more than a "scientific" one. If the deck is bouncy, move on. If the deck feels like running on concrete, move on. If the deck moves from side to side, move on. You want to find a deck that feels good, with just enough give and little to no lateral motion.
Beyond that fans, speakers, cup holders, magazine racks and even television sets on the treadmill's console are all just icing on the cake. It's better to get a good treadmill without a fan or TV and spend $50 to buy your own than to get a crappy, fully loaded treadmill which will eventually just become an expensive coat rack for dirty clothes.
Now, I know I alread typed "finally" but there is one last piece to consider: PRICE. You can only get what you can get but don't be fooled into buying a lemon. There are decent (and some downright Great) treadmills at just about every price point. I'll go over some of the best, at least in my experience, treadmills in the under $1000 range in the next week.
Don't despair, there is a good treadmill out there you can actually afford!