Sunday, February 9, 2014

How to Choose a Treadmill, by Shannon McGinn

Sole F85
I run almost as many miles on my treadmill as some run all year round. I still run more outside than I do inside. I tally close to 3500 miles per year. I train up to 14 hours per week. When not able to get outside, I get my workouts done in my basement. I need a quality machine that can take a beating. 

Last month, I learned the hard way that treadmill belts are supposed to be lubricated regularly. Despite my neglect, it took seven (7) years for me to break the belt on my machine. I am very hard on things, so it says a lot that it took me this long to break it.

Not sure if it was fixable, I starting researching a potential replacement. Treadmills offer many features. There are only a few factors I look for when selecting a treadmill. Primarily, I am concerned with the motor, the deck, the frame, the range of speed and incline, and the warranties. 

(1) The most important and most complex factor is the motor. Treadmill motors are measured in horsepower (HP), but not all reported HP measurements are alike.  Some manufacturers report the Peak Duty HP while others report the Continuous Duty HP of the motor.  When a manufacturer wants to make its treadmill motor appear more powerful than it really is, it will report the Peak Duty HP.  

Peak Duty HP is simply the highest HP the motor could potentially reach. Continuous Duty is the HP is the HP that the motor can hold continuously throughout the duration of regular use.  A higher quality treadmill will identify the Continuous Duty HP of the motor. A walker may be able to get away with a 2.5 HP motor or less, but anyone serious about running should not settle for less than a 3.0 Continuous Duty HP motor.

In some cases, with less powerful motors, you may find information about a Duty Cycle.  A Duty Cycle is how long the motor can work, e.g. 30 minutes, or 60 minutes, before it risks overheating.  A Continuous Duty motor should not overheat during regular use as long as the HP of the motor is sufficient to power the machine as the Continuous Duty motors should be manufactured to cool themselves.  A weaker motor may only be able to tolerate a limited amount of time before it needs a break to cool down. If you are not likely to run longer than the duty cycle of a weaker motor, then you may be able to get away with a less expensive, less powerful treadmill. But if you have the potential to run longer than the motor can tolerate, then it makes little sense to purchase a cheaper, weaker machine.

(2) A second important factor is the deck. I look at strength and also the size.  Decks have been known to crack. To feel safe, I want a deck with the ability to withstand a heavy runner and with little history of splitting underneath me. Manufacturers will list the weight their decks can tolerate. I recommend reading reviews to determine if decks hold up under the weight of regular use. 

If you are a taller, larger person and/or if you plan to run fast and need to open your stride, you will also need a deck that is long and wide enough to accommodate your stride length and the width of your body comfortably.  A smaller machine may take up less room, but it makes little sense if you cannot comfortably train on it.  Go to a Sporting Goods Store. Run on a few machines and see which deck length meets your needs and the needs of those in your household. You don't need to purchase the machines you run on, but it will help you determine what size deck makes the most sense. 

(3) A third factor is the frame. Less expensive, less powerful treadmills are made for walkers and offer weaker frames that can wobble or break under the pressure of even moderate paced running. I want a frame that is sturdy and stable when I am running my fastest. I have seen videos of frames crumbling under the stress of hard running.  Again, I suggest reading reviews to determine the strength of the frame and look for any reported issues.  

(4) A fourth factor is range of speed. I rarely run much faster that 6 minute pace on a treadmill. Many machines should offer speeds up to 12 mph. If you are a much faster runner and/or do very fast speed work on the treadmill, you may need a machine that goes up to 15 mph.  

I don’t recommend runners do their fastest speed work on the treadmill due to safety.  If you need to stop suddenly due to a twinge or strain, you simply can not just stop. If the machine malfunctions under the strain of your pace, you could possibly get hurt. The machine also takes time to start up and slow down at its own pace, which can be frustrating or interfere with the pace goals of your workout. I prefer to keep my fastest interval work outside and use treadmills for tempo and progression runs instead, where there is no need to start and stop as speed builds.  Accordingly, I find a machine that offers up to 12 mph good enough for me and I wont pay more for the extra 15 mph of speed. If you are faster than me, then you may decide you need a machine that can peak at 15mph.

(5) A fifth factor is range of incline (or decline). This is the feature I use the least, but I do use it.  I prefer to run hills outside so that I can get the decline work done as well. Unless my race is a point to point uphill run, like one of my favorites - the La Luz Trail Run, running only up hill is prep for half the challenges of a hilly race.  In some cases, I just dont have hills I need around me.  As a result, when training for the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler, I did create a hill simulator workout because I could not find any hills near me that replicated the extreme length of the uphills I would face on that course. I also use a Boston Marathon Hill Simulator workout to train myself and the runners I coach, but these hill workouts supplement running hills outside. I find that I don’t have much use for running inclines over 12%, so I wont pay more for a machine just so that I can get steeper uphills. Your needs may be different. 

We need down hill running to run hills well. There are machines that now offer a decline feature. I don’t own one. I have not used one. But my understanding is that the decline will max out at about 3% decline and the speed is also limited, making it hard to replicate the type of paces or descents we may experience when flying down a decline in real life. As a result, I just don’t see the point in paying extra money for a feature that I don’t find useful to me.  Others may have more positive things to say about the decline machine. 

(6) THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.  The deal breaker factor for me will be the warranties. If you are going to invest a lot of money in a quality machine you will likely need to spend, at the minimum, between $1000-$2000.  With that type of investment, you want to look for the best warranties possible. I would walk away from a purchase of a machine with weak warranties. Weak warranties are a sign that the quality of the product is poor. I look for Lifetime Warranties on the most important components, like motor, deck and frame. 

Keep in mind that most warranties do NOT transfer between owners. Therefore purchasing a used treadmill from a gym, Craigslist, or a friend may sound like a sweet deal. But if you spend $500-$1000 for a used machine, that already has an unknown amount of wear and tear on it, you may be starting your treadmill search all over again or investing just as much as you would in repairs had you purchased a brand new machine that has warranty coverage when that sweet deal breaks.  

There are many features that I find less important but others may not.  Some runners care about the display features and need to have media connections. I set my treadmill up in my basement in front of a TV so I don’t care about the media connections.  I also don’t concern myself with fans.  Any fan included on a treadmill will be too weak to be functional.  If I need a fan, I set one up next to my machine.  I also don’t care much about whether it folds up for easy storage.  Once my treadmill is set up, I have never folded it. If I did fold it, it would end up folded up in the center of the room, since I do not place the front of the machine directly against the wall. My machine has wheels, but I have no desire to roll it around twice a day, so I just leave it open and ready to go. However, many quality machines are folding treadmills, so I would not turn one down because it folds, it just seems to be a superfluous feature. 

I am glad I was able to fix my treadmill belt and it now runs better than right before it broke. Apparently, I should have been lubricating the belt every 180 hours or every 3 months, which ever came first. This time I will be more careful, since this repair was not covered by the warranties on my machine.  It was a $140 dollar fix and worth it in my opinion. 

If I had to select a new treadmill right now, I would again select the same machine I purchased seven years ago and continue to use today.  For me, this is the Sole F85. It costs about $1800 online. I believe the company may still offer military discounts, but you need to ask for them.

The newest version boasts a 4.0 Continuous Duty Horse Power motor which is one of the most powerful continuous duty motor I could find. The deck is larger than average and I feel comfortable in that space.  It is not the most cushioned deck available, but I like having a firmer surface and prefer a bit more impact when training. I feel it makes transitioning to outdoors less of a shock to my system. The frame is solid and sturdy. It can handle runners up to 400 lbs. The belt is two ply and when mine broke, only the bottom ply split, leaving the upper belt intact and there was no danger to me when this happened.  And finally, it offers Lifetime Warranties for the motor, the deck, and the frame. This means when you purchase a Sole, it could very well end up being your treadmill for life. I have had mine for 7 years now and it only needed one repair just last month. 

My complaints about the newest F85, first, include the bad design decisions made with the display. First the preset buttons for speed go 2,3,4,5,6,9... skipping 7 and 8 where I spend most of my time (of course  you can scroll manually through all mphs). 

The new version also eliminated the hundredth's place when measuring distance. If you like to run quarter mile repeats on your machine, you won't know when you reach .25 miles accurately, unless the displace shows an image of a track. You may need to run .2 or .3 mile reps instead. These issues could be deal breakers for others, but they would not be for me. 

I hope this helps you decided what you should be looking for when purchasing a treadmill.  If you like this article, you can find more articles like this one, periodically posted here on my blog, Creating Momentum!

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