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Complete Treadmill Buying Guide
If you’re going to end up using a treadmill the same way many would-be exercisers do – as an annex to your closet, where you hang shirts and toss dirty laundry – it doesn’t really matter what type of treadmill you purchase.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to use your new treadmill for its intended purpose – getting into shape and losing weight – you’ll be making a major purchase which should be taken seriously.
The goal of this treadmill buying guide is to help you navigate the treacherous waters of that purchase. “Why are they so treacherous?” we hear you ask. There are two reasons. First, treadmills are more expensive, on average, than any other type of exercise equipment. Second, there are more models to choose from than in any other category of fitness equipment. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilities when you step into a store or begin searching online – unless you’re armed with knowledge and a game plan.
This treadmill buying guide will provide both. We’ll walk you through the process by helping you understand the machines and features you should be considering, based on your needs, budget and available space, and how to approach the shopping experience. We’ll also explain the important elements of treadmill design and operation so you can intelligently look at a machine’s specifications and advertising, and understand what’s important and what’s just marketing fluff.
Take a deep breath – here we go.
What Do You Need In a Treadmill?
When you buy a car, you don’t just choose the biggest, best or fanciest vehicle you can find. A Jaguar won’t fit a big family, a Hummer (do they still make those?) may not fit in your garage, and you probably can’t afford either.
Treadmills aren’t as expensive as cars. Most are still pretty pricey, though, and very few of us have an unlimited budget and unlimited space for a treadmill. So the first step is to think about why you’re buying one, where it will go, and how much you can afford to spend.
- Purpose: Are you buying a treadmill for walking, running, or a combination of both? And do you envision pushing your body by tackling steep inclines and challenging courses, or are you picturing nice, leisurely walks or jogs? Answering these questions can help you narrow down your choices quickly. You’ll need a machine with a longer track and a more powerful motor if you plan on running, but you’ll be able to settle for simpler, cheaper models if you don’t need your treadmill to provide varied workout programs or incline functions.
- Location: The average treadmill is three feet wide and seven feet long, which is obviously an important consideration for many who live in apartments or smaller houses. You can find smaller ones, and many treadmills can be folded up (with varying amounts of effort – some models have power assist for that chore, and others can be stowed easily) to be put away when not in use, so things aren’t hopeless if you’re working with a limited amount of space. But it’s crucial to measure the area you have available for a treadmill (and don’t forget you’ll need room to maneuver around it as well) before you start shopping and fall in love with a machine your home won’t be able to accommodate.
- Budget: If you plan on slapping your American Express Black Card on the counter to pay for your new treadmill, budget is the least of your worries. For those who live in the real world, though, it may be the most important consideration of all. We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the $250 treadmills you see advertised online are usually not worth the price; they’re apt to break down easily, either mechanically or electronically. You can find decent machines under $1000 if you’re planning to use them primarily for walking (remember, we suggested that you first think about how you’re planning to use your treadmill?), but expect to pay more if you want a sturdy and reliable full-featured machine for running – often, a lot more. Now, here’s the good news: list prices aren’t always worth the paper they’re printed on, or the screen they’re displayed on. Manufacturers often discount their treadmills, both at stores and at their online sites, so careful shopping and in-person bargaining can lead to some pretty nice bargains.
What Features Do You Need?
We’ll soon look at the mechanical aspects of treadmills you should carefully examine. However, these machines are marketed, in large part, by the features they provide. So an effective way to narrow down the “list of contenders” is to decide what features you’d find essential in a treadmill, which ones would be nice but not necessary, and which you can do without. Here are the ones you’ll see most often.
- Incline: One of the most common functions of treadmills is the ability to raise or lower the track that you walk or run on. Varying the incline of the track forces you to work harder and burn more calories; it also varies the pressure on your body’s joints (easing the physical toll) and works out more of your muscles. As a side benefit, it also lessens boredom. Most treadmills provide an incline function, but the maximum degree of incline can range from 10% all the way up to 40% on special “incline trainers,” and that will have an effect on price. For those who only want to walk on a level track, treadmills which don’t incline aren’t numerous, but they can be found and will be less expensive.
- Workout Programs: Unless you’re purchasing a low-end treadmill, you’ll find a certain number of preset workout programs will be built into your machine. There may be just a few programs or there may be many; some, in conjunction with a screen on the control panel, may even simulate actual runner’s routes complete with famous landmarks. These programs vary the incline and speed of the track to simulate different real-life running (or walking) experiences. A number of treadmills also allow you to create your own programs and save them for repeat use; some include “fitness test” programs. As you’d expect, the more options and variety, the higher the price.
- Compatibility with Outside Apps: Many treadmills allow you to import workout programs (complete with video displays) from outside apps, download workout details for storage and later analysis, or even change the speed of the music you’re listening to so it mimics the speed of your workout. The most popular app is iFit, which works with major treadmill brands like ProForm and NordicTrack and can interface with Google Maps, to let you draw a route on Maps and then watch it on the screen as you run. App compatibility will often cost you more.
- Heart Rate Monitor: There’s a range of possibilities for the most common body-function monitors associated with treadmills. Some inexpensive models don’t have a monitor at all, some will track heart rate via the treadmill’s hand grips, and some have wireless monitors which attach to your body. There are even some which will adjust your workout program to keep your heart rate in a specific target range.
- Bells and Whistles: All of these fall directly into the category of “personal preference.” From cupholders to built-in speakers for your iPod, from fans (to cool you down) to web browsers (to keep you entertained), there’s a wide range of accessories you can find on treadmills – and of course, which indirectly add to the price of the machines.
What Mechanical and Physical Specifications Should You Consider?
We’ve all shopped online for products and seen huge lists of specifications at the bottom of the page. Most of us have either scrolled right past the information, or have quickly been overwhelmed by jargon we don’t understand and specs which may not be particularly important.
Here are the important facts and figures to look at.
- Motor: The more you ask your treadmill to do, the more powerful its motor should be. The key measurement is CHP (which stands for continuous horsepower), and you’ll see treadmill motors ranging from 1.0 CHP to 5.0 CHP. Naturally, you pay extra for more power. A general guideline is that as long as the rest of the components (like the cooling system for the motor) are of good quality, average-sized people will need a treadmill with a 2.0 CHP motor, and larger ones will need one that’s 2.5 or 3.0 CHP. Anything above 3.0 CHP is usually overkill.
- Track Length and Width: The treadmill’s track should be at least 55 inches long, and 60 inches is a better length if you plan to be running. You’ll commonly find tracks between 20-23 inches wide; the wider ones are easier to run on, particularly for larger users. On the subject of the track, a cushioned track that isn’t too “spongy” will make your workout more comfortable, allowing you to run for a longer period of time while not being too harsh on your joints. Some treadmills will let you adjust the cushioning for the amount of impact you’d like to feel, and others automatically adjust the belt speed to maintain consistent impact levels.
- Speed: Since we’ve mentioned speed, we’ll go there next. A normal walking speed is 2-4 miles per hour, and a normal running speed will be 5+ miles per hour. Inexpensive treadmills may top out at 8 mph but most standard models will have a maximum speed of 10 mph, which is fine for just about everyone. If you’re training for sprints, there are a few treadmills which will go as fast as 12 mph. It’s more realistic and beneficial, though, to add incline at lesser speeds (as discussed earlier) than to train at fast speeds on a straight track.
- Belt Durability: Since you’re running continuously on the track, the durability of the belt is one of the components of a treadmill which needs to be considered. It’s best to stay away from single-ply belts; look for two- or four-ply belts which are normally standard on more expensive models, but harder to find on budget treadmills. Two other aspects of the belt mechanism which play into durability: larger rollers (on the order of 2.5 inches in diameter) will lessen the strain on the belt and motor, and maintenance-free belts which have been infused with a lubricant like silicone will run forever without your having to remember to lubricate them regularly.
- Weight Capacity: This is pretty straightforward, but treadmills will all have a maximum weight they can support, so be sure to check for it (and add a little wiggle room).
- Console: All treadmills have an electronic control console, which not only has the on/off/speed/incline controls, but also a display of some sort. This is another “personal preference” category, but most good treadmills will have an easy-to-read LCD display which shows important workout statistics and details of the program you’ve selected (if any). Speed, distance and incline will always be shown, and you can decide from there what else is important to you.
- Other Things to Look For: Auto-stop (the treadmill stops automatically if you fall off the track while wearing a safety key) is an important safety feature many people appreciate, and the belt should speed up and slow down in increments instead of all at once. You should also look for warranty information, with a minimum of 25 years (or lifetime) on frame and motor, 1-3 years for parts and one year for labor being good benchmarks.
How Should You Shop For A Treadmill?
The first step (now that you’ve read this treadmill buying guide, of course) is to do your research. Read online or published reviews, check manufacturers’ websites, and narrow down your choices based on your needs, preferences and budget.
You could even read the Groom+Styles review of the top 5 best treadmills (I know we had one just in case).
At that point, if possible, it’s also a good idea to give the treadmill you’re considering a “test drive.” After all, it’s difficult to tell how versatile or comfortable the equipment will be until you climb on and try it out. If in-person testing isn’t possible, don’t be fooled by glowing reviews posted on manufacturers’ sites; many only post positive feedback. Look for consensus in the honest feedback provided by people who’ve purchased and used the treadmills you’re interested in.
Finally, don’t purchase more of a treadmill than you need. The Super-Duper-Oh-My-Goodness 9000 may have every feature and add-on you could imagine, but do you really need all of them? Let your budget and your brain be your guides.
Oh, and finally once the shiny new toy has arrived don’t forget to read the teams article on the Top 12 Mistakes to Avoid While Using a Treadmill.