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How to Choose a Treadmill

Run more and build speed and endurance with at-home training.

Runners of all kinds find that treadmills help their training. Maybe you live in a place with poor running options out the front door, or long periods of bad weather make indoor running key to staying fit. If you live in a flat area, a treadmill with an incline can help you prepare for hilly races; some models automatically adjust to a course you enter. Owning a treadmill can also save money on a gym membership. Whatever the reason, if a treadmill helps you stick to a training schedule, it’s a great investment. Here’s how to buy the right one. 

Treadmill Styles

Motorised

Standard treadmills use a motor to run the belt at varying speeds (they have various horsepower options, more on that below). The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you have space for one. These treadmills are typically 77 inches long by 35 inches wide but keep in mind, you’ll need two feet on each side of the treadmill and six feet behind for safety. You’ll also be at least 15 inches off the ground, so check low ceilings. In general, these are the best choice for long miles and extended use, but they can be expensive.

Manual

This treadmill style is human-powered, meaning it does not have a motor. Each footstrike propels the belt, which requires additional effort from the runner, providing a higher intensity workout. The human-powered design makes for a more natural running experience. Manual treadmills don’t require electricity, so they don’t have to be near an outlet. They’re also quieter, and they’re more compact than motorised models. 

Hybrid

Some treadmills have both options: using a motor or running in manual mode. They’re a good choice if multiple people with different preferences will be using the treadmill. Walkers often prefer manual treadmills.  

Foldable Treadmill

If space and storage are a concern, consider a folding treadmill, which can be moved and stored more easily. They come in both motorised and manual models. Foldable treadmills are typically shorter in length, so check the belt length to make sure it’s long enough for your stride. Folding models have fewer features but are typically more affordable. But the hinge and overall lighter construction make them less sturdy than a standard treadmill. Tip: Try folding it and moving it before buying, to make sure it’s as easy as you need.

Photo: Rusty

Treadmill Features

Motor

Most treadmills are motorized and come in a range of continuous horsepower (CHP), which dictates how fast the belt can go. The required horsepower depends on the user. Walkers generally need a minimum of 2.0 CHP, and runners will want 3.0 CHP or higher. Check both CHP and max speed.

Belt Size

Treadmills for running are generally longer than walking treadmills. You should be able to run at a normal gait. Generally, the belt for walking treadmills should be at least 50 inches long. Running treadmills should be 55 inches or longer for runners over 6 feet tall. Standard treadmill belts are 20 inches wide with 22-inch wide options. The right size belt is critical for comfortable and safe running, so try it before buying.

Incline

Treadmills with an adjustable incline allow you to simulate hills and a more natural running experience. Maximum angle ranges from 10 to 20 percent. Even if you don’t need a steep grade; running with a slight rise from 1 to 3 percent is recommended to simulate natural running terrain and reduce the impact on the joints.

Decline

Some full-featured treadmills have a decline option, usually up to 3%. Running downhill helps mix up your running routine, and can help prepare for actual race terrain, but remember that it’s harder on your joints.

Speed

Motorized treadmill speed rates typically top out at 10 to 12 miles per hour, which is more than enough for average runners. A 6 mph setting equates to a 10-minute mile.

Handrail Height

The handrails on a standard treadmill are not meant to be held while exercising. They help users safely get on and off. Most treadmills should have adjustments to set the handrail height to your preference. Some foldable and minimalist treadmills forgo handrails entirely for space savings.

Cushion

The amount of cushion you want is a personal preference. The best way to determine is to run on the machine and do the “comfort” test. What feels best to you is the correct answer. Users who plan to use their treadmill for frequent, high-mileage running typically want more cushion to reduce impact.

Programming

Many treadmills come with workout programs like interval and hill workouts, and higher-end machines have a multimedia screen and advanced programming options like visuals of trails or routes through various cities and parks (some allow you to input custom routes). Some treadmill brands offer live streaming exercise classes, which require a monthly subscription.

Heart Rate

Integrated heart rate monitoring can help with hitting training programs zones.

Connection Ports

Many standard treadmills come with connection ports for phones, USB cables, and headphones.

Safety Components

Most motorized treadmills are equipped with a red emergency stop button. Some treadmills also have a safety pin and clip that can be pulled to cut power.

Setup Support

Treadmills can be challenging to install; look for delivery and setup options if you want to avoid the hassle.

Questions to Ask Yourself in the Store

A treadmill is a big purchase, so it’s best to try it out first if possible. Try running at an easy pace and then increasing the speed. Experiment with the features and controls. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I running naturally?
  • Am I comfortable running on the treadmill?
  • Can I run a range of paces?
  • Will the treadmill fit in my home with ample space for safety?
  • Are the features engaging and easy to use?
  • Can you imagine running for long periods of time?
  • Does it feel sturdy and stable? 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.