Shopping for a Treadmill? Here’s What You Need to Know! (Part 2 of 4)

 -Bryan Shutts

Missed Part I? You can find it here.

Welcome back to Part II in our four-part Buyer’s Guide to help you find the perfect treadmill for the home!

Now that we have talked about the frame and the motor, lets move on to the deck, belt and rollers.

Also, just to reiterate: The intention here is to be as comprehensive and as thorough as possible. There is no agenda here to sway you toward or away from one brand or manufacturer, and any personal opinions I express are not necessarily reflective of G&G Fitness Equipment or any of its brands or employees. Also, I am not being compensated in any way by any specific company or manufacturer to write this blog.

A solid frame and motor are a good start, but you’ve still got a long way to go. Treadmills are going to hold up equivalent to the cumulative quality of all components, and when you are making any type of compromise on one factor, just know that it will impact all other elements. Think of it this way: if you are at a rock concert, and everyone is playing perfectly in sync except for one member of the band, it is going to ruin the entire song, and everything will fall apart! All the parts must fit together to satisfy your expectations! (I play in a band, and I sell treadmills, so I know this to be true!) 

THE DECK

If you are shopping for a treadmill with the intent of using it multiple days per week for years and years to come, let me save you some time right now and advise you to purchase a treadmill that has a Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF) deck.

Medium-Density Fiberboard is engineered wood that is combined with a wax and resin binder. The particles are fused together.  Because of this, it is significantly denser than plywood or particle board, which are common materials used on lesser quality treadmills. A deck that is MDF is incredibly rigid and stiff, and over time, it will be much less susceptible to bowing when a user is logging miles.

Because MDF decks are nearly impervious to bowing, some are reversible. What this means, is that when the top-side’s surface has worn down over the years, you are able to remove the deck, flip it upside down, and virtually have a brand-new deck again. You can only do this with an MDF deck with a durable coated surface, because cheaper wood materials are sure to bend over time. And once that deck is bent, there’s no going back.

The surface of the deck (that is the topside or both the topside and bottom-side) is going to have some type of protective coating. This can be as simple (and as cheap) as painting the surface with a gloss black enamel. Conversely, premium treadmill manufacturers will use more expensive materials, such as phenolic resin, which is a synthetic polymer. Phenolic resin is the same material that is used to coat billiard balls, which is the reason why they can be violently cracked together over and over and still maintain their integrity and shape and not become warped. Bottom line: it is an extremely durable material. When a company coats the top and bottom of the deck with Phenolic Resin and the deck itself is MDF, it is reversible!

The way the deck is fixated to the frame plays an important factor not only into the quality of the treadmill itself, but also bio-mechanically; that is, how it will affect your knees, hips and back over long-term use. We will talk bio-mechanics very comprehensively in Part IV, but for now we are going to talk primarily on engineering aspects.

Bolt-on decks are the most common design. At the front and the rear of the deck, on each side, the deck is literally secured to the frame with a bolt:

(Did you notice the spot-welding? We talked about that in Part I, remember?)

Anyway, one of the primary reasons why this is the most common way to fixate the deck to the frame, is because it is cheap and efficient.

These designs tend to work decently, but there are some things to take into consideration. You need to be careful when you are shopping for a new treadmill and you see that the company advertises a reversible deck, but it’s bolted on and is not MDF. Here’s why:

Imagine you take a sheet of plywood and set it on top of two sawhorses. Here’s a crude illustration for your imagination:

 

 

Imagine that piece of plywood is your treadmill deck. Just like how the treadmill is bolted to the frame, the sawhorses are providing support at the front and the rear.

When a user runs on a treadmill with a bolted-on deck, they are applying pressure on the area(s) of the deck where there is the least amount of support. The human body is a powerful machine, and when you plant on your forefoot, you are driving upwards of seven times your body weight of force down through the deck. That’s a lot!

My contention is this: the deck is invariably important if you wish to have a reliable treadmill for years to come. Remember, the quality of your treadmill is the sum of all its components!

Let’s break this down . . .

We are going to use me as an example. I am a 220-pound male and I am 6’ 1.” We are going to assume my intentions are to jog on the treadmill at 6 MPH for four days per week consistently.

A 30-minute jog at 6 MPH is going to be approximately 4,500 steps, assuming 150 steps per minute. Multiply that number by 4  (times per week) and that’s 18,000. Now multiply 18,000 for all 52 weeks of the year and I have logged a total of 936,000 steps my first year. Fast forward to five years, and I have driven upwards to 1,540 pounds of force through my treadmill deck 4,680,000 times! The human body can be a jack-hammer!

Remember in Part I, when we said that things don’t simply break, they break down over time? A cheap deck that is sure to bend or bow is a prime example of this! All the cumulative energies that the treadmill deck is being subjected to will change the overall shape of the deck itself over time, detrimentally creating conditions in the treadmill that are not as reliable, but more importantly, not as comfortable for you. See the new, red line in our illustration that represents how the deck can bow:

 

You can’t reverse a deck once it is bowed. If you simply remove the deck, flip it upside down and reinstall it, it will still be bent (just convexed instead of concaved now) making the treadmill even more unusable than it was in the beginning. In addition, a bowed deck will snowball very quickly: the more it bows, the less it will be able to withstand a user’s g-forces. In addition, it can subsequently become more susceptible to cracking as well. Most importantly though, as you are training and improving your performance and cardiovascular system, your treadmill is gradually becoming less comfortable to run on! Your treadmill should never inhibit your progress, but the reality is that a cheap treadmill can absolutely hold you back from achieving your goals.

Alternatives to bolt-on decks exist, such as Precor’s Ground FX technology, which utilizes a hinge at the rear instead of being rigidly and tightly fixated with a bolt. This allows the deck to “breathe” a bit more and adapt to the way you run (combined with a sophisticated Impact Control System) instead of you having to adapt to the deck.

 

Notice the green line below that is indicative of the way a hinged deck will respond to a user’s planting and pushing in the front and rear of the deck:

Because the deck isn’t held hostage to the frame with bolts, it allows some flexibility to occur so that the energy of the user planting, shifting and pushing their weight won’t respond with a “diving board” type bounce-back effect. Even more importantly though, there are some extremely valid bio-mechanical arguments to be made for a hinged deck over a bolted-on deck, but we will thoroughly explore those points in Part IV. Still, I am a huge advocate that it is always better to speak with an expert fitness consultant face-to-face at a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom and have them show you all these things, as well as to have them let you see, feel, touch and experience these things in person.  I said this previously in my Elliptical blog, and I will say it again: fitness equipment should NEVER be purchased sight unseen!

THE BELT

The belt, commonly referred to as “the track,” is the component of the treadmill that the user is directly contacting their feet. The belt glides across the top side of the deck and is turned across the front and rear rollers. The type of belt and materials used can have a dramatic impact with not only when you are using the treadmill, but also your overall cost of ownership.

When you reference specification sheets, you are typically going to see a belt described such as these:

Single Ply: The treadmill belt is one solid, piece of rubber.

2-Ply: The top side of the belt is rubber (higher quality treadmills use PVC rubber) and the underside is cotton, polyester, urethane or mono-filament.

4-Ply (3-Ply): To provide more heat absorption and dispersion, as well as added “cushioning,” some treadmill manufactures will add additional layers. This can be an additional layer of rubber, or other materials. Once, years ago, a company used carpeted neoprene, which was quickly discontinued due to the belt disintegrating. Usually, if they advertise a 4-ply belt, they are counting the layer of glue as a layer. 3-ply belts do not count the layer of glue.

At G&G Fitness Equipment, you will see that most, if not all the treadmills on our showroom floors are going to be 2-ply belts. Our consultants will advise you that a 2-ply belt is the ultimate “sweet spot” because heavier belts, with additional layers, have a negative effect on the durability of the motor due to unnecessary work required to turn the additional weight of a belt that is 2-3 times as heavy. Not only that, but the amount of preventative maintenance required of the owner will drive up the cost of ownership! Due to the additional weight of a 3 or 4 ply treadmill belt, substantially more heat will accumulate, requiring the owner to lubricate the deck every 150 miles.

Another bonus of a 2-ply belt with a cotton underside is how quiet it can be. When the belt glides across the Phenolic Resin surface of the deck, it is virtually silent! If you are out shopping at the big-box department stores, turn on one of the treadmills and set it to a mid-to-high rate of speed, but don’t get on the treadmill. Just listen to the belt run across the deck. Compare that to a Precor, Life Fitness or Matrix treadmill on a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom.

Here’s a little more detective work you can do: next time you stop into a fitness center, whether it be a health club, hotel, rec center, etc., pay attention to the belts on their treadmills. What you will see are thinner, 2-ply, stronger belts that cause less stress on the motor and require little maintenance. Gyms want treadmills that won’t constantly break down or need service. You won’t see thicker belts.

Now regarding service and maintenance. Some treadmill belts are infused with a proprietary dry or wet silicone compound into the cotton underside of the belt that releases when a user is walking or running on the treadmill. This does two things: 1) It creates a nearly friction-less surface, which produces very little heat, and 2) it is self-lubricating. Some treadmill companies guarantee their belts to hold up and require zero lubrication for 20,000 miles, or 20 years. When you stop into a G&G Fitness Equipment showroom, ask your expert fitness consultant to show you which treadmills require no lubrication.

“Orthopedic Belts”

Some treadmill manufacturers use nomenclatures that sound fancy to attract the consumer to their product or brand.  Don’t be fooled. “Orthopedic belts” are typically just 4-ply belts with an over-emphasis on the thicker rubber topside, that is designed solely around adding additional cushion or support for the user. Look at it this way: if you want your car to ride smoother, with less shock, would you buy thicker tires?

 

 

Not likely. Your tires aren’t the components of your vehicle that absorb shock. Your shock dampers do that. And a premium treadmill is going to have an extremely sophisticated impact control system under the deck that does just that – absorbs shock – and protects your knees, hips and back!

In short: an “orthopedic” belt is going to provide about the same amount of shock absorption as a comfortable pair of running shoes that are correctly fitted to your feet. We are going to actually talk about real bio-mechanical technologies in Part IV, so get ready.

THE ROLLERS

Fact: The roller is the most common broken part on treadmills. Remember that things don’t simply break, they break down over time. A high-quality roller with stamped and sealed bearings performs better when the treadmill is used regularly, and to stop using the treadmill entirely is one of the quickest ways to increase your overall cost of ownership.

The importance of the roller can’t be understated. Even the highest quality motor won’t move the belt if the rollers aren’t turning! You want a robust roller with substantial size and weight: size because, the larger diameter the roller is, the more grip it will have on the belt. This will assist in increasing the overall lifespan of the entire drive system and keep tension on the belt which requires less maintenance from the owner. You want a heavy roller, because the heavier it is, the more inertia it will have, which lightens the demand on the motor.

A high-quality treadmill is going to use a roller that is lathed from one solid piece of steel. In contrast to the big box department stores that sell treadmills with hollowed out rollers that are compressed down into a roller shaft, a single piece of steel won’t strip over time.

Most treadmill rollers are going to rely on the quality of the ball bearings, and how much friction can occur when the rollers are spinning. The highest quality bearings will be friction-less. Most treadmill manufacturers won’t emphasize the recognized ABEC rating system primarily because differences are only felt around every 350 MPH. More importantly, your fitness consultant will show you which companies precision-fit their bearings into the rollers. This is typically a better assessment of feel for a runner.

The rollers also have a secondary job, and that is keeping the belt centered. For the most part, there are two common ways of doing this on the treadmills at a G&G Fitness Equipment store.

The first method is having the roller rest on a rod that is adjusted laterally by the owner by two large screws. When the belt begins to shift one way or another, the owner will take a hex key and using quarter turns at a time, the roller will gradually tilt diagonally until the belt becomes centered again, and then the owner will reverse the process and return the roller to its original position. This is only required by the owner when the belt has shifted and is not required to be performed on a routine schedule. By design, a roller with a larger diameter will require less belt adjustments over the course of ownership.

The second method is rather than lathing a long piece of steel with a single consistent diameter, the roller is crowned and will flare out on the ends. Given that the forces of the belt being pulled naturally will gravitate toward the center and combined with the crowned rollers that automatically push the belt back to its center, adjusting the belt is far less common on a treadmill with crowned rollers.

  

A COUPLE MORE TIDBITS

  • Guide Pins: Some treadmill manufacturers use guide pins on the underside of the treadmill. The purpose of a guide pin is always to keep the belt centered and prevent the belt from shifting all the way to the left or right and making contact with the extensions of the frame, such as the footrails. You need to be cognizant of guide pins, because guide pins cause friction on the belt. After all, the belt is constantly rubbing up against them on its ends. If you see a belt start to fray, check to see if guide pins are the culprit.


  • Rust-resistant paint: The ends of the rear roller are a high sweat area, as sweat can fall and be picked up by the roller and stick to it. Premium treadmill manufacturers are going to use rust-resistant paint on the ends of the roller to protect it from corrosion. Notice that the treadmill in the above photo is not painted on its ends, compared to this treadmill which is painted:

 

Stay tuned for Part III where we will discuss the Lower Board and Incline Motor. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to chat with us using the button at the bottom of the screen, or send me an email to bshutts@livefit.com.

Thanks for reading.

About Bryan

Bryan has been with G&G since 2008. Along with experience as a personal trainer, Bryan has a BS in Education and is licensed to teach. He is an adjunct instructor for Wright State University. He has also taught grades 7-12... more about Bryan

 

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