Everything you need to know before buying a treadmill, according to experts
How to make the most of your at-home hamster wheel.
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Over the past few months, getting in shape at home has taken many forms. Workout apps, small pieces of exercise equipment like resistance bands and yoga mats, and fitness-focused YouTube videos all saw their own kind of renaissance as people shifted their exercise efforts from the gym to their basements and backyards. But as home workouts grow from a temporary necessity into something that feels like a component of the foreseeable future, a bigger, more permanent fixture may be in order.
For many people, this next step could be a treadmill. If you’re thinking of adding a treadmill to your fitness room, here’s what you need to know about shopping for one of your own.
How much is a treadmill?
Treadmills come in a wide price range. Some top-selling options on Amazon are just shy of $200, while a new Peloton tread will set you back at least $2,495. You don’t have to buy the most expensive treadmill out there to get something worth walking or running on. But like most large-scale home devices, if you can, it’s worth spending the high end of your budget rather than the low end. Treadmills are an investment, which could cause some sticker shock upon initial purchase—both experts we interviewed cited $1,000 as the starting price point for lasting quality. In general, more expensive treadmills should outlast and feel better to run on than cheaper ones.
“Like anything else, you get what you pay for,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and fitness coach who has consulted for the fitness company Star Trac. “If you spend a little more money for a treadmill that’s better made, it’s just going to last a lot longer and you’re not going to need to buy a new one anytime soon.”
What are the different types of treadmills?
If you’re looking at a high-end treadmill, chances are good that it’s an electric treadmill—that is, you plug it in and the belt runs on its own via a motor. But you can also get a manual treadmill, which does not use electricity and is powered by the person walking or running on it. Some of these treadmills are much less expensive than electric models—one popular option on Amazon, the Sunny Health T1407M, is only $175—and take up less space. But they also require more effort to get and keep moving and can feel less stable than motorized treadmills. The belt sizes are also smaller (the Sunny Health model has a belt size of just 13 inches by 42 inches) so you may feel cramped and unable to take a full stride. On the other end of the spectrum, the manual Assault Air Runner, with its curved, heavy-duty belt, costs about $3,700—though it’s probably best for the hardest core athletes.
How does a treadmill work?
When shopping for a treadmill, it’s important to know about the (many) terms that will pop up in your hunt, and your preferences on them. Here are a few keywords to know about before you commit to your treadmill search.
- Deck: The deck is the platform upon which the belt rotates. It should have some buoyancy to provide cushioning and shock absorption to make it easier on the joints.
- Belt: The belt is the part of the treadmill you actually run on. At minimum, look for a surface that’s 18 inches wide and 48 inches long—any smaller than that, and you won’t be able to comfortably stride on it. Most treadmills have continuous surface belts made of rubber and a mixture of some other materials such as cotton that are layered in plys—look for something between two-ply and four-ply. Some treadmills, like the high-end Woodway, use thicker rubber slats that look something like a tank’s tread—these are more expensive but more durable.
- Motor and horsepower: Horsepower is a unit of measurement for the output of motors, and it's often a bold-faced claim of treadmill makers. But you want to read more carefully and pay attention to a treadmill’s continuous duty horsepower (CHP)—the rate at which the motor can operate for a prolonged period of time—as opposed to peak horsepower, which refers to the potential power of the motor. The peak horsepower will be a higher number, but not one that it can sustain for longer periods. The minimum CHP you should consider is 1.9 for walking and up to 3.0 for running.
- Rollers: Treadmills have two rollers, placed at the front and back of the deck, that help the belt loop around the deck. These range in size from about 1.5 inches to 3.5 inches in diameter. In general, bigger rollers are better. This is because small rollers can create more wear and tear on the belt, causing a need for more maintenance, while larger rollers help the belt run with less friction—which helps with your comfort when you’re running, too.
- The console: A.k.a, the control screen on a treadmill, which should be easy to reach and easy to use. Decide ahead of time if you want a touchscreen or tactile buttons. Many high-end treadmills have touchscreens, but treadmills with hybrid and physical buttons are also available and can provide you with more tangible feedback when you're changing settings mid-workout.
- Connected fitness programming: The treadmill may also offer a connected fitness program that streams video workouts to follow, like Peloton or NordicTrack's iFit. Some brands require you to subscribe to their program for a certain amount of time with the purchase, and offer little in the way of programming without it. Some give you a discounted rate on a treadmill if you sign up for the program. And some tie in a free subscription to the program for a limited time with your purchase that you may opt to pay more to continue.
- Weight limit: Every treadmill has a weight limit, usually between 350 and 400 pounds. Related: A wider deck (say, 22 inches as opposed to the more common 18) may be more comfortable for folks who carry more weight.
How much room does a treadmill take up?
You also need to take into account the physical size of the treadmill and the space you have available. You may not want to go to a store to look at the treadmills in person right now—and, even if you do go to the store, a big appliance tends to look a lot smaller in a showroom than it will in your rec room. Measure out the space you have and cross-reference it with the specs of the treadmill models you’re thinking about.
Make sure it won’t just fit, either. You should have about 6.5 feet behind the treadmill and 1.5 feet of unencumbered space by the sides of the treadmill, according to ASTM International, a standard-setting organization, so you don’t bounce against a wall or other pieces of equipment in case you fall off.
You must also consider headroom, particularly if the model you’re looking at has a steep incline or any potential user is tall. Most treadmills recommend having at least 12 inches of head clearance for safety—but you can't forget height of the treadmill deck and the height it can reach at max incline, plus the height of the tallest runner in your household. Luckily, most treadmills will list the ceiling height requirement in the specs. For tidier storage, you may want a treadmill that folds up, such as the ProForm Carbon T10 or the Sole F63—just remember that the space you need around and above it remain the same for when it’s in use.
What kind of treadmill workout will you do?
People use treadmills for different reasons. Some use them solely for walking, while some use them to pound out consecutive six-minute miles while training for that marathon PR. Most prospective treadmill buyers will probably fall somewhere in the middle. Treadmill use can also evolve over time, so someone who buys one for walking may eventually take up jogging. Also worth considering: Who else in your household might use the treadmill and for what purpose. If you’re not sure which way to go, opt for a treadmill that works for running and walking—it’s easier to walk on a running treadmill than run on a walking treadmill.
The other facet to take into account is your level of motivation and what keeps you going. Some people are more than happy to stride along or speed through the miles listening to music or hanging with their own thoughts. Others see “dreadmill” when they regard this equipment and require more inspiration, by way of programs that adjust speed and incline to make it more interesting or the streaming workouts offered by connected fitness programming. Thinking about what makes you tick can help keep you going in the long run (pun intended) even after the initial shine of your brand-new toy wears off.
What should you look for in a treadmill for walking?
If you’re sure you’ll just be using your treadmill for walks, there are certain things to evaluate. High speed, deck absorption, and belt size aren’t as important for walkers as they are for runners. But you may want to pay attention to the treadmill’s motor size and horsepower, which can have an impact on the comfort level of your walks.
The motor's continuous horsepower (CHP) may be more important for walkers than runners. "When you're running, there are moments in time when you're off the belt. But walking, for the most part, your body and the soles of your feet are [always] in contact," says Colleen Logan, VP of marketing at Icon Fitness, the parent company of NordicTrack. This can create more resistance on the belt, which can drag on the motor and potentially slow it down or wear it out more quickly. Walking workouts may also last longer than running ones, which is another reason to look for a decently powerful motor. "When you're working for an hour on the treadmill, that's a lot of continuous strain on the motor," says Logan.
While high speeds aren’t a concern for walkers, the incline potential of a treadmill may be. After all, there’s only so fast you can set a treadmill and still walk on it (generally, that’s around 4.0 miles per hour), so increasing the angle of the belt is the only way to add more challenge to a walking treadmill workout. Look for a treadmill with solid rollers and incline bases to make it easier. Treadmill inclines can range from -3 percent to up to about 40 percent, though the upper end for most models is around 14 percent. That's probably plenty of height for most people, but if you want more (say, if you're a hiker when you're not stuck indoors), you should look for it.
What should you look for in a treadmill for running?
If you're planning on using the treadmill for running, your first consideration should be belt size. You'll be happiest with a longer, wider belt, as your stride is longer when you run than when you walk, so your legs need more room than you think. You may also be moving from side to side without noticing. "Some people naturally sway a little bit [when they run], especially beginner runners, and when you have more room, it's a lot more comfortable," says Logan. The belt should be at least 18 inches wide and 48 to 54 inches long, though taller runners may want to look for something that's about 22 inches wide and 60 inches long.
The deck should also have sufficient cushioning to absorb shocks from the impact that can come with running. “The price point [of a treadmill] has a lot to do with how the deck is constructed and whether the deck absorbs energy,” says McCall. When you’re looking at treadmills, check to see that the deck has some built-in cushioning capabilities. The belt itself can also be an element of this—if it’s paper-thin, it could wear out fast, but a thicker belt of up to four-ply can add a lot of comfort to your runs. More serious runners with money to spend may also turn an eye to those rubber-slatted models, which offer more rebound and give with each footfall.
Finally, as running is a speed-oriented hobby, the treadmill should also be able to reach at least 10 miles per hour (or a six-minute mile pace). Some runners may prefer treadmills that reach 12 miles per hour (or up to five-minute miles), which are good for speed bursts and intervals, even for runners who can’t sustain that pace for too long.
What is the best treadmill warranty?
Another thing to think about is the warranty that comes with your treadmill. A warranty is a written guarantee from the manufacturer to the consumer that they will repair or replace an item if it breaks down within a certain timeframe. Treadmill warranties vary by brand, but in most cases they cover four variables: the frame (the build of the treadmill), the treadmill parts (including the walking belt, electronic wiring, and rollers), the motor (the part that makes the treadmill run), and the labor (having someone come to your house to work on your equipment).
In general, a higher-priced treadmill will have a better warranty. Brands including NordicTrack, 3G Cardio, and Sole Fitness offer lifetime warranties for most models on the frame and motor, between 5 and 10 years on the parts, and 1 or 2 years on labor. Bowflex offers 15 years on the frame and motor, 5 years on parts and electronics, and 2 years on labor. Still, don’t assume a hefty price tag equates with a great warranty. Peloton, for example, only offers a five-year warranty on the frame and a one-year warranty on the treadmill components, touchscreen, and labor.
Many of these brands, including Bowflex and NordicTrack, offer long-term protection programs you can buy into when you purchase your machine. The plans vary by the machine and brand, but most add a few more years where you can take advantage of complimentary parts or labor work. It’s certainly not necessary—well-constructed machines have long warranties because they are built to last—but it may be worth buying into, if only for peace of mind that you’ll be able to use your treadmill as long as possible.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.