A treadmill can represent a fantastic investment in yourself as an individual. They say that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind and it’s certainly true that a sense of fitness can lead to a more confident, positive mental state.
For a variety of reasons, we speak to many people who love the idea of using a treadmill, but who hate the thought of entering a commercial gym environment. The reality for many is that gyms can be daunting, expensive and inconvenient. Exercising from home may represent a better approach.
If you’re thinking about using a home treadmill, then you may already have started to examine the various treadmills that are on the market. You may also have noticed that they vary hugely, particularly when it comes to pricing. At the lower end of the scale, you can pick up a budget home treadmill for under £100. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll see running machines advertised for more than £1,000.
So how much should you be paying for a treadmill? What’s the difference, in terms of functionality, between a basic model and something at the top end? That’s what this comprehensive buying guide is all about. We’ll discuss the key features that you see mentioned in product descriptions, consider the nature of specifications and examine which elements really matter to you. Without further ado, let’s make a start.
Size is one of the first considerations for many, with good cause. In the first instance, you’ll want to think about the space that you have available in your own home and where you will be using the treadmill. But thoughts about product size inevitably drift on to function too and it’s necessary to think about how you will be using the treadmill.
Now, before we go any further, please forgive us if we step into something of a tangent: you may have noticed, a few paragraphs ago, that we made mention of both treadmills and running machines in the same sentence. What’s the difference?
In many cases, the two terms tend to be seen as being interchangeable. When people talk about running machines, they generally mean the same thing as treadmills. But there is an important aspect here that’s worth mentioning. Not all treadmills are suitable for running. We’ll let that sink in because it may not previously have been obvious.
Some people like to use a treadmill for a more basic workout, simply using them as a means to walk at home. This may also be what you have in mind. If you’re intending, however, to go running on your treadmill, then you’ll need to look much more closely at the specifications. This all begins when looking at the size of the machine.
For those looking to simply walk on a treadmill, a device with a standard belt width of 20” will do the job. Runners can just about manage with that size of belt too, but it’s much easier with a belt width of 22” for the latter group. A slightly wider belt feels less cramped and creates quite a bit more flexibility. So the width of the belt makes a difference to the way in which it is used.
How about the length of the belt? Does that have an impact too? The answer here is that it certainly does: in essence, you’ll need a longer belt if you’re planning to run and possibly longer still, if you have a longer stride. The guidance that we would offer here is that a standard 50” belt should be spacious enough for most walkers. For runners, a minimum belt length of 55” is recommended. Over 6’ tall and looking to run on the treadmill? In that case, you should be looking for a machine that includes a belt at least 60” in length.
That’s the belt length covered, which obviously has a clear impact on the overall size of the machine, but don’t forget that you shouldn’t be struggling to squeeze a treadmill into an existing space. It’s particularly important that you leave some spare space both to the rear and to the sides of the treadmill.
At the sides of the machine, the ideal clearance would be a minimum of 3’ (that’s either side of your device). At the rear, you would ideally allow for 8’.
Now, when you read the above information on sizing, you may be concerned that you simply don’t have enough room. In reality, many of us don’t quite have the space to allow for ideal positioning, which means that we make a few compromises, but the above does give a starting point for identifying a great setup.
Treadmill power options
You may already have noticed that there’s a wide range of power options available and that the way that these are presented can be rather confusing. Let’s begin by examining the most commonly used units of measurement in this area, before going on to look at what may meet your needs:
Quite a number of retailers will tell you the equivalent horsepower output of a particular treadmill. This is a reasonably easy to understand measurement (if somewhat abstract, you might feel) in that a treadmill producing 1 horsepower is generating the same amount of power as one horse.
So that should allow you to quickly compare the power output levels of different treadmills, right? Well, kind of. Although plenty of retailers and manufacturers do present this information, it’s often sub-divided into two measures, with this sub-division being important for the buyer:
This measure records the maximum level of horsepower that a treadmill can reach and is likely to indicate how hard the machine can make you work in short bursts.
This separate measurement gives you the sustained power output that can be expected from the motor. It will be a lower figure than the peak horsepower stated but, for most users, it will also be the most important number here. This is the one that you should concentrate on when carrying out comparisons.
That gives you an overview of horsepower and the two distinct measures (peak and continuous), but you’ll notice that some retailers and brands specify the output levels using a different unit of measure:
Sometimes they refer to the output in watts, which requires you to do a calculation in order to carry out comparisons. The calculation here is, fortunately, relatively simple:
1 horsepower = 750 watts
Getting the right power for you
As you might expect, more robust machines will generally have higher horsepower outputs, reflecting a more powerful motor that should last a bit longer.
If you’re planning to use your treadmill for any length of time, then you should be looking for a machine with a continuous output equivalent to 1.5 horsepower (just over 1,000 watts). The same is true if you weigh somewhere in the region of 10 stone or more.
By buying an exercise machine that is powerful enough for your needs, you can help to ensure that it will be possible to use it for many years to come, maximising its life and helping you to improve your overall fitness levels.
Maximum user weights
In the last section, we made reference to the importance of opting for a treadmill with a larger motor if you weigh more than 10 stone. When you come to look at individual models, you’ll notice that they usually have a maximum user weight advertised. You’ll also notice that they pretty much all indicate that they are suitable for individuals weighing more than 10 stone.
Yet you’ve read our advice and seen that we’re suggesting opting for more powerful machines. Why should this be so?
The maximum user weight limit is often a good guide as to how robust and likely to last a treadmill is. If you think about commercial gym environments, you can quickly see that treadmills installed in any local gym need to be designed to take a broad range of weights and that they also need to be designed to last: they will often take quite a punishment. Commercial operations will generally make use of machines that have a maximum user weight that is more than 28 stone. You probably won’t need something at that level for home use, but a machine allowing for a maximum weight in the region of 25 stone (around 160kg) should ensure a robust, long lasting experience.
It also goes without saying, by the way, that you should certainly ensure that the machine is capable of dealing with your own weight. Time to be honest at this point, when considering your own weight and thus your requirements.
We’ve talked about power output levels and maximum weight limits, both of which offer an indication as to the build quality of a machine. They help to paint part of the picture when it comes to assessing whether a particular treadmill is robust enough for your needs. But there’s more to examine in this area.
One of the common items included within a list of specifications (but one which you may not have paid too much notice of) is the construction of the frame. Essentially, the options here tend to consist of two materials: steel and aluminium.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each of these. We’ll begin with steel, which is essentially a heavier material. This means that they are tough, making them less easily damaged. They also create a different feel when you are using the treadmill: you’ll find that they feel quite bouncy underfoot.
How do aluminium frames compare? Well, like steel frames, they do still offer plenty of strength. But aluminium is more of a lightweight material and the feel when you use the treadmill is quite different: you’ll discover that they feel less bouncy.
So what should you go for? You should opt for steel if:
- You need a really durable machine that isn’t easily damaged
- You want a springy feel beneath your feet when the device is in use
You may prefer aluminium if:
- You intend on moving your treadmill and could do with something lighter
- You want an underfoot feeling that is a little less bouncy and feels like it’s providing more resistance
As we can see from the above summary, the build of the machine has an impact upon how it feels when you run or walk upon it. But the “feel” of your exercise regime is not simply about comfort: it can also have an impact upon your health.
Running on a treadmill can have quite an impact on your body. Each time your feet hit the deck, you can feel the motion reverberating through your body. Without some form of shock absorption in place, this could lead to injuries and even longer-term damage. This is why modern treadmills include in-built shock absorption systems. As is so often the case, there’s a range of options available here:
Technically known as “Variable Durometer Elastomer Cushions” (which is a bit of a mouthful), we’ll simply stick to calling them cushioned systems here, for ease of reference. A cushioned system is usually found on high-end treadmills, helping to dissipate the impact of your contact with the machine. These systems can reduce impact levels by up to 40%.
A spring system is more typically found on budget models. In effect, this system works as you might expect: as you land on the springs, they compress. They then expand, however, which can push the impact back up through your body.
In the world of shock absorption, you really do get what you can pay for: if you’re going to be a heavy user of your treadmill, then you should opt for a cushioned system. Indeed, even if you aren’t going to be using your machine quite so regularly, the cushioned system represents a good investment to protect your body. If you can stretch your budget, then you should certainly push for the best shock absorption system that you can afford.
Most users are able to walk or run on a treadmill without ever encountering any issues. But there are occasions when things go wrong. As you might imagine, if you’re running at full speed and take a tumble, then there is considerable scope for an injury to be caused. This is a particularly worrying thought if you’re planning to use the treadmill without anyone else in the home. You don’t want to have a nasty fall without having support available, with a treadmill that won’t stop!
This is why modern treadmills have a range of safety features in place. It’s often the case that, the higher the specification the machine, the more comprehensive the safety features. Let’s step through the most common ones:
This is the absolute minimum requirement, we would suggest. The safety key is attached to the treadmill console at one end and to your clothes at the other end, usually via a clip.
The mechanism that’s in place here is very simple: if you slip, then the key is pulled out of the console, which immediately causes the treadmill motor to cut-out. You can think of it pretty much as you would understand the way in which a car works: the treadmill motor only operates when the key is within the ignition.
Slow start mechanism
You may have a treadmill that operates at a top speed of 15mph. So you select the top speed and the program begins. Can you imagine what would happen if it immediately started moving at top speed? It’s very likely that you would stumble, struggling to get into that rhythm immediately. No matter how good you are at running, it would be understandable if you encountered difficulties.
So you should ensure that your chosen treadmill has a slow start setting. This means that, when you kick-off a program, it will start slowly and then gradually build up to full speed. That will help you to avoid injuries and make the most of your exercise routine.
The side (hand) rails
Treadmills generally give you some sort of rail to hold on to. You’ll see that some are larger than others and your main considerations here will be:
- You’ll want the hand rails to be large enough to ensure that you can hold on and feel secure when using the machine, but
- You don’t want the hand rail to get in the way when you are trying to exercise. If you have long arms, then think about whether they will make contact with the hand rail as you run. Will this interfere with your approach to exercising?
The automated programs that are handled by the machine are often seen as being a key selling point. They certainly have a significant impact upon the associated costs. It can be tempting, of course, to opt for a machine that has wonderful, advanced features. But will you really use all of those features? If not, you could find that you’ll spend a lot of money on a machine that simply has more options than are really required.
One feature that you often see mentioned (and which is generally managed by the treadmill’s in-built computer) is the incline. The incline function enables you to feel like you are running uphill, which makes the workout that bit more difficult.
We love incline functions. Yes, they can enable a tougher workout, but they offer more on top of that: they allow you to have more flexibility within your workout. You can, for example, vary between running on the flat and facing the trickier challenge of going uphill. Many exercise programs involve switching between the two and even integrating different levels of incline.
So an incline function adds real value, but how challenging do you want your exercise regime to be. The most basic treadmills will often have a 10% incline level as a maximum, which may be sufficient for basic use. But high specification, commercial machines enable maximum inclines of around 40%, which really does allow for a more extreme challenge. Incline functionality may well be a must-have and it would certainly expand your fitness and exercise capabilities, but you’ll pay extra for the greatest inclines with full, automated integration. Bear that in mind when making your purchase and think about whether you will use the full capabilities of the machine.
Range of routines
Do you find that you get bored easily when working out? If you’re planning to use your treadmill regularly and want to ensure that you’re always eager to hop on for a session, then you’ll want to be sure that you have maximum variety available to you.
This is where automated programs can come into their own. The most advanced machines will often give you dozens of pre-programmed workout routines. Investing a little more on a great machine that offers that flexibility may well transform your approach. If it helps you to exercise more often and for longer, assisting with improving your motivation levels, then it may well be money that is well spent.
But the automated programs may represent only a small part of your options in this area. Technology has moved so quickly in recent years and connectivity options have improved to such an extent that custom exercise programs are now an integral part of the approach for many. Since this is such a fast-moving area, we won’t cover all options here, but it is worth pausing to examine a few popular choices at the time of writing:
Heart rate data monitors
One of the most popular options and an area where development has been particularly fast paced. At the most basic, a heart rate monitor can be used to check your heart rate by stopping the machine for a few seconds, while you gauge what’s happening by taking a reading.
That’s better that not having any sort of measurement in place, but it doesn’t compare to the more advanced heart rate monitor options that are now available. The very best machines allow you to take heart rate readings dynamically and then to automatically alter your exercise program on the fly.
So you might set a target heart rate range and then have the treadmill automatically adjust the difficulty of the workout to ensure that you stay within that range. If your heart rate is dropping, then the machine can automatically step things up, making you work that bit harder.
On the flip side, the treadmill may detect (via the heart rate monitor) that you are reaching the top end of the range and that you are struggling as a result. In this case, it can decrease the difficulty level and make things easier, helping you to stay within the target range. Perhaps best of all, you can even get wireless heart rate monitors that will interact with your chosen treadmill.
There are a number of apps available (including Passport) that enable the use of interactive videos. As you change the pace of nature of your workout, visual triggers will also automatically change, helping you to really engage in your session, adding that all important variety.
The beauty of iFit is that it enables workout programs to be downloaded, ensuring that you have fully customised workouts in place. These can be fully interactive too, including video elements.
The programs that are pre-installed on your treadmill are useful and will form the foundation for your exercise regime, but we can see that they needn’t represent the limits of what you can do. There is scope to add custom routines from a variety of sources, meaning that connectivity may be an important consideration for you.
In the section above, we talk about a very specific form of connectivity: the ability to hook up with iFit (or similar apps) can transform your approach to exercising. The simple act of being able to connect to a heart rate monitor can also have a transformative impact, but connectivity doesn’t stop there.
Many people like to listen to music while they run or walk. Indeed, without that sort of entertainment, there’s a risk that the exercise routine can begin to seem rather dull. Do you fall into this category too? If so, you’ll want to look at the audio options, some of which aren’t necessarily obvious without looking more closely at the specifications of the treadmill that you have in mind.
For example, will you want a running machine that includes built-in speakers? This is achievable and you’ll find treadmills that enable Bluetooth connections. Alternatively, you may be intending to use your home WiFi connection to play music. But maybe you want to go further and create an entire audio visual environment, together with a dynamic exercise program that reacts to live data on your current heart rate. All of that can be achieved too and the possibilities are almost endless.
We’re very much into the realm of buying practicalities here and we would all hope that there are no problems with our shiny new purchases. But what does happen when things go wrong?
Your first port of call will be the warranty, which means that it’s well worth your while to understand this element at the very outset. Most manufacturers will offer a 12-month warranty as standard, but some manufacturers and retailers will offer an extended warranty. If you’re lucky, then there might be a 2-year warranty as standard. Otherwise, you may be asked to pay for an extended level of warranty.
Are extended warranty schemes worth it? This is a question that probably goes beyond the realms of exercise machines. An extended warranty, in common with insurance products, offers peace of mind. If your treadmill breaks down and you’re able to get it fixed under warranty, then you’ll probably feel that it was good value to have that warranty in place.
On the other hand, you might pay for extended warranty and then never use it. In this case, the very same warranty looks like an incredibly poor deal!
For your own purposes, it will make sense to consider the cost (which is often quoted as a low monthly, or even weekly payment) and try to assess the likely risks associated with not paying that amount. In order to do so, it’s also important that you understand precisely what is covered. A good example here is accidental damage, which is usually excluded from the initial manufacturer’s warranty but is sometimes included within an extended warranty, although not always. It’s very much a case of reading the small print.
Also remember to check whether the warranty includes the costs associated with maintenance during the warranty period. Although maintenance costs are generally pretty low, they can add up over time.
Other purchasing considerations
Since we provide reviews, we’d obviously recommend that you thoroughly research a piece of equipment prior to making a purchase. Your research should not, however, be limited to that specific machine. Don’t forget to consider the retailers, whether online or offline, that you are intending to use. Particular questions that you will want to know the answers to will include:
- What’s the delivery timeframe?
- How is it delivered?
- Is assembly required?
- What happens in the case of a problem?
- What’s the returns policy?
- What are the experiences of other consumers with that particular retailer?
The purchase of a treadmill can represent a significant investment. By opting for such a machine, you can put yourself on the road to better health and fitness levels. The act of purchasing is not, however, without its problems.
Most retailers will present you with a considerable amount of technical information relating to your proposed purchase. That’s great, although it can feel overwhelming. The aim of this buying guide has been to take you through a range of features and options, helping you to understand what really matters to you.
We hope that, as a result of spending the time reading this guide, you are better informed. Bookmark the guide and return to it whenever you need during the course of your buying journey.