The fanciest and most expensive alternative to running outdoors — the computer-controlled, electric-powered treadmill — isn't the only indoor training option for runners. As long as you don't mind sacrificing a few fancy features, manual treadmills offer cheaper roads to fitness.
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Provide the entertainment yourself via laptop, tablet, smartphone or stereo system and challenge your running muscles in a way you can't with powered machines. Manual treadmills build cardiovascular endurance and efficiently burn calories, all in the privacy of your home.
But they're not for people looking to zone out and phone in their workouts. Instead of power-assisted running, motorless treadmills require hard work and constant focus.
"On a manual treadmill, the runner determines the speed/pace in which they run at, whereas on an electric treadmill, the pace is set for you (example: 6.0 on a treadmill is a 10 minute mile pace)," says Meg Takacs, running coach and creator of the Run With Meg app.
So is a manual treadmill worth it? That's up to you and how often you'll use it. Here are a few other things to consider.
First, What Is a Manual Treadmill?
A manual treadmill is a motorless treadmill. Unlike most treadmills, the manual treadmill is powered not by electricity but by your own effort to move the belt while walking or running. Your pace and motion control the speed.
So how does a manual treadmill work? Usually, they have an inclined or curved belt (vs. straight) to make it easier and more natural to get the belt going. But you can't rely on a motor to keep the belt going, you'll need a bit of extra effort to get things going and make sure you keep you legs moving.
Though these models don't have as many bells and whistles as an electric treadmill, they do offer an array of benefits. Non-electric treadmills can be more convenient, as they are easier to store and don't require an electric outlet.
The 6 Main Benefits of Manual Treadmills
1. Less Expensive At-Home Workout
A manual treadmill is an inexpensive way to exercise indoors. Electric treadmills are very expensive and may require yearly maintenance, whereas the manual can be purchased for under $100.
With a manual treadmill, you can avoid weather-related circumstances that may interfere with your workout. You can run, power walk, walk, lunge and side skip on a non-motorized treadmill, just as if you were on an automatic treadmill.
2. Responds to Your Pace
With a non-electric treadmill, you can't set your own speed, but you can build your own speed by walking or running on the belt. You can start by walking, followed by a power walk, followed by a jog, then end in a sprint.
"With manual treadmills, there are no plugs attached to them (electricity) so the pace is controlled by the runner's power and cadence, which is super beneficial if you want to run correctly, or change your form/mechanics after an injury from running incorrectly," Takacs says.
It's important to remember that there isn't an emergency button to stop the moving belt, as with most electric treadmills. If you need to get off suddenly, grab hold of the handles and jump so both feet land on the platforms around the moving belt. The belt will slow down on its own.
3. No Electricity Required
Manual treadmills are usually lightweight, easy to store and don't require an electric outlet. Since it doesn't need electricity, a non-electric treadmill can be set up pretty much anywhere in your house or home gym. It can even be brought on a porch or patio if you want to exercise in the fresh air.
Some models also fold up so they can fit in a closet or under a bed. Other models have wheels on the front, allowing you to roll the treadmill from room to room without any hassle.
4. Promote Proper Form
"Manual treadmills promote correct technique more than electric because in order to pull the ground to produce your stride cycle, you have to be landing exactly under your hips, using the correct muscles in your gait," Takacs says.
"This is why you see curved treadmills," she says. "They force you to shorten your stride cycle so you increase your cadence, landing with a mid-foot strike, instead of reaching your leg to produce your cadence, which results in more of a heel to toe strike."
5. Ideal for HIIT Intervals
While you can set your own pace on a non-motorized treadmill, this type of cardio equipment is great for practicing short bursts of speed.
"Manual treadmills are great for quick intervals (400 meters or less) and are exceptionally effective in training quick sprinting bouts," Takacs says. That's because the belt allows you to run as fast as you can without having to match a machine's speed and also slows down naturally as your sprint interval comes to an end.
6. Can Burn More Calories
Calories are burned based on the effort you put into a workout. So the answer to "Which workout burns the most calories?" is "Whichever one you can work the hardest at." But there's a little extra effort required in running on a motorless treadmill.
"Manual treadmills require you to use more energy and recruit more muscles to produce your stride cycle," Takacs says. "This yields a greater increase in power, which can be beneficial for sprinters, distance runners, or those who want to maximize calorie burn, as well as post-caloric burn, in their workouts."
Basically, the more muscles you recruit to produce your stride cycle, the more energy you expend, and the more calories you burn, she says.
Manual Treadmill Disadvantages
But running on a manual treadmill might not be for everyone.
"If you are training for a race, you want to do most, if not all, your endurance running outside to work on natural form and mechanics," Takacs says.
Additionally, if you're working to maintain a consistent pace, need a moving belt to motivate you to keep going or prefer to mix in some incline work, you may want to stick with an electric treadmill.
How to Run on a Manual Treadmill
- Choose appropriate clothing. Wear shorts or comfortable long pants when running on a non-motorized treadmill. Treadmill running places unusually repetitive stress on the feet and requires good running shoes.
- Prepare distractions. Most runners prefer electronic entertainment to help treadmill miles fly by. Place the treadmill in front of a television and catch up on your favorite show or put together a playlist of your favorite motivating songs.
- If applicable, set the incline according to the manufacturer's guidelines. Since manual treadmills depend on the user for power, the belt of the machine must be set to the user's weight.
- Step onto the treadmill and hold onto the handles (just at first).
- "In order to push into the treadmill (stance phase), pull through your feet using your hamstrings to get into your next stride (stride phase), and then recycle your load (swing phase), you have to have correct foot placement, posture, and timely cadence," Takacs says.
- Change speeds gradually when accelerating or coming to a stop.
- Use the handles of the machine only when starting and stopping. Resting on the handrails robs users of the machine's real benefits. Once the manual treadmill reaches running speed, release the handles and keep going.
Use the treadmill with caution as it's possible to lose balance and fall from the moving belt. Treadmill running isn't the same as running across real-world terrain. Treadmills provide a good workout but don't offer the full range of movement and random stresses of road running. Include the important differences on your own by alternating steady runs with sprints.
Consult the owner's manual for maintenance tips, and follow the maintenance schedule exactly. Powered machines deal with the extra friction of faded lubrication by working harder themselves, but manual machines place the load on the user. Proper lubrication guarantees a controllable workout.