How Do Treadmills Work? (Explained In Detail)
By Simon Gould
Treadmills have been around for hundreds of years. There used to be horse driven mills to drive agricultural equipment. There were even penal treadmills used as punishment for people convicted of crimes. These days they are exclusively used as exercise machines. Here I go through how they work for electric, manual and curved treadmills.
How an electric treadmill works
An electric treadmill is powered by the motor. That's why they are sometimes referred to as motorized. Like all motors their power can be measured. This is by horsepower and the amount it has is crucial when considering what treadmill you want to buy. They typically range in sizes from 1.5 to 4.0. 1.5 to 2.0 is usually designed for walking and 2.5 and upwards is for jogging and running.
We press the start button on the console and the belt begins to move. You then choose the speed and an incline if you want one. The motor has a circuit board which tells it how fast to go. The best types of motors to go for are ones that say CHP. This means Continuous Horse Power and most modern treadmills will have this kind.
When you step on the treadmill, you're stepping onto the deck. This often has special technology to cushion it and make your exercise easier on your joints. There are rollers front and back and the belt goes round these. Bigger rollers are best because the motor doesn't have to do so much work to power the belt. The frame is what holds the console, deck and motor together.
Look for a deck that is at least 18 inches wide and preferably 20. The motor should have a 10 year warranty or longer. There are electronics that help tell the motor what to do, and in the console to respond to any button you've pressed. Because an electric treadmill is motorized, they will often have built in workout routines you can access from the console.
These workout routines tell the motor what the speed and incline should be and this changes over time. If you choose a hill program the focus will be on the incline. The console should have a big and clear display giving you your workouts stats like speed and distance. Some treadmills have heart rate sensors but these aren't usually very accurate. Always go for a chest strap instead.
Electric treadmills have not really changed in over 50 years. The basic motor powering the belt controlled by the console is not new technology. There have been numerous additions though. Some will have internal speakers, you might get TV like screens displaying your workout information. There are Bluetooth connections and streaming classes recently. But the motor powering the belt remains the same.
How a manual treadmill works
Manual treadmills are sometimes called non-motorized. This is the big difference between electric treadmills, manual ones don't have a motor. For this reason they tend to be a lot cheaper. The power they use to turn the belt are generated by your own legs. You push the belt round with every stride. This can take some practice.
Manual treadmills tend to be smaller and more suitable for walking. With no motor, you don't have any workout programs and you control the speed by how fast you want to walk. No electricity is needed without a motor and they can be portable. The belt quickly comes to a stop when you stop, because it's self powered and this makes them safer.
Otherwise the components are very similar to electric treadmills. The incline not being motorized would need to be set manually before you begin exercising. Walking on a manual or flat belt treadmill is harder than a motorized one. This is because your motion moves the belt, not a motor. There are big limitations to what you can do.
How a curved treadmill works
Curved treadmills are different from those with a flat deck and belt. The deck is a curved shape as you can see in the picture above. It is this precise curvature that enables it to be powered by your legs, and not by a motor. Unlike flat manual treadmills, you can reach high speeds on a curved treadmill. They're very suited to speed training.
Sprints and other high intensity interval training are ideal. Speeds of up to 24 mph have been achieved. As an example the regular runner will run at around 7 mph. As with all new technology, curved treadmills come at a steep price. I've seen models range from $3,000 to $10,000. I wouldn't advise on purchasing one if you only want to use it for walking.
They take a bit of practice to get used to at first, but come with specific benefits. Studies show it's harder to run on a curved treadmill than a motorized one. Manufactures claim you burn up to 30% more calories. The surface is made up of "slats" because of the curve and are more cushioned than a regular treadmill. See if you can test one before you buy.
So the treadmill has looked roughly the same for over 50 years. With high quality components and a regular maintenance schedule, a treadmill can last up to 12 years. Motorized ones are the most common because you can do a variety of exercise on them. They also come with workout programs and many other features you don't find on manual and curved treadmills.
If you just want to walk, go for a manual treadmill. Consider a motorized one for walking and running, and think about the size of motor you need. Curved treadmills are a luxury and the expense that comes with them. A good walking flat belt manual treadmill is $300 and an electric or motorized one $999 or higher. I wouldn't pay any less.
Thinking of buying a treadmill? Here's my favorite, I always recommend it when asked*