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An Outdoor Runner’s Guide to Buying a Treadmill

While there are millions of options, it really only comes down to these two things

As an outdoor-running purist, the thought of buying a whole-ass treadmill has never entered my mind. However, thanks to the pandemic and a particularly dick-freezing Chicago winter, I’ve realized it might not be a bad idea to have a backup plan. After all, the habit of running is half the battle, and I’d rather run in place than fumble through at-home YouTube workouts

But where do you even start when shopping for a treadmill? There appear to be a million brands, all wildly varying in price, and each marketing itself as the best treadmill in the land. Surely there must be a few key factors to consider when buying a treadmill, right? 

According to Paul Ronto, a multi-marathon runner and expert in running gear, you really only need to consider two things when in the market for a treadmill: 1) shock absorption; and 2) top speed. 

For instance, chief among the bells and whistles treadmill companies use to raise their prices and differentiate themselves is how they track your run. “But almost all treadmills these days will accurately track time and distance in a few different ways,” Ronto tells me. “All the other data isn’t very crucial, especially if you have a heart-rate monitor or smart watch.”

That said, if budget isn’t an issue and you plan on doing extended treadmill runs, it might not hurt to have one that tracks your virtual run through the mountains rather than tiny red dots in a circle.   

But again, whether you’re using the treadmill for long-distance runs or for high intensity interval training, the main things to still consider are shock absorption and top speed. “The more you push yourself, the more important impact absorption becomes,” Ronto explains. Treadmills on the cheaper and smaller side will typically have less shock absorption, which leads to a rattling, unsteady running environment that poses a real risk for injury

Different treadmills might market different fancy-sounding shock-absorbing technologies, but the simplest marker of good shock absorption is how many layers — usually called “ply” — of running tread there are. Just like toilet paper, you’ll want to avoid single ply, no matter how cheap. With just one piece of rubber that spins around with no reinforcement and plenty of friction, the single ply treadmill will wear out quickly and provide no shock absorption

As for top speed, Ronto tells me, “Especially if you plan to use the treadmill for strides, you want something that can handle 15- to 30-second sprints at your all-out pace.” While many treadmills can reach 10 to 12 mph, it’s the treadmill’s horsepower that determines whether it’s capable of handling your higher paces. The recommendation here is to buy a treadmill with a minimum 1.5 continuous-duty horsepower (CHP) motor, and to look to a 2.5 or 3 CHP motor depending on your weight, or how often and intense your workouts will be. 

Of course, the better the shock absorption and the higher the horsepower, the more expensive the treadmill. “Treadmills aren’t cheap; good ones can be over 5K,” Ronto says. “That’s a lot of miles needed to cover those costs.” 

So like most other running gear, the decision ultimately comes down to your individual workout plan and budget. With that in mind, Ronto offers a final treadmill-buying tip: “Buy one from a gym. They usually buy the best ones and keep them maintained, then off-load them every few years.” 

Now that’s a runaway deal.