One piece of equipment that can be useful and convenient for a runner is a home treadmill. But with dozens of choices, it can be hard to choose the right one. In my opinion it is best to talk to someone who specializes in exercise equipment. These experts, however, are not usually found at a large retail store (such as a “big box” sports store). Your best bet is to talk to local specialty shop. Since I run a local specialty shop, my advice might be perceived as biased, but I do know fitness equipment. If you want to consider all the options and find what suits your needs, an all-in-one shop like ours is where you should start your search. What I mean by an all-in-one shop is a place that sells new, used, and refurbished commercial fitness equipment along with service and delivery.
Here's a quick little questionnaire to help you figure out which treadmill will suite your needs:
Settling on a Budget
What if you don’t know what to spend? Let’s clear that up. Consumer Reports suggests you spend at least $1000, but most of the top-rated treadmills are $1500 and up. Precor is usually at the top of the list and in my experience they make a good product with good customer support. It is important to know that manufacturers of fitness equipment make them in tier levels. 1. Residential, which is usually the cheapest and can be found in any big box store. 2. Vertical market/light commercial, typically used in hotels/apartments, is more expensive but more durable. 3. Commercial, what you would find in a YMCA or Gold’s Gym, is the most expensive and it is usually a shock to find out how expensive. The increase in price gets you an increase in durability, stability, function and the amount it can be used continuously. The easiest way to explain it is to think of Ford Trucks. You have basically three options, Ranger, F150, and Super Duty F250/350 and with each choice you get an increased degree of function and capability. The truck model analogy brings up a fourth choice: used or refurbished commercial fitness equipment. Like cars and trucks, used can be a good choice because you get a low mileage unit with all the features for as much as half of what you would pay for it new.
So what unit or tier should you invest your money in?
If you go out and buy a $500 treadmill from one of the big box stores then you are basically buying a throwaway unit. Typically these places do not cover the warranty on the product; the manufacturer does. The manufacturer then subs out the warranty work to a third-party contractor. Residential service can be challenging to schedule so sometimes you can wait a month or more before you get service. Once the warranty expires, then labor and travel rates apply which can be anywhere from $100 to $150 and that is just for the diagnostic fee. If the service tech cannot repair the unit in the first visit, which often happens, then you will be billed a return-visit fee plus the cost of parts. This will eclipse the cost of the treadmill to replace one part.
The next option is a vertical market or light commercial unit which will usually cost anywhere from $1500 all the way up to $4000 for a high end one. These units have better quality and stability and are designed to be used several hours a day by multiple users. They come with decent warranties and are usually worth repairing at least one time out of warranty for the lower cost units. To find these units you typically have to go to a specialty store like ours.
There you will come in contact with new commercial equipment which can range in price from $4000 all the way up to $15,000 for the most expensive. Commercial units are designed to be used continuously 8-plus hours a day by every kind of user imaginable. Once a person tries a commercial unit, it is hard to use lesser products. This is where the dilemma comes in. The commercial feels the best but the price point of the light commercial is what most people are willing to spend. Enter the used/refurbished option.
Buying Used or Refurbished
You can have the quality and durability of a commercial treadmill for around the cost of a light commercial treadmill. These units are more expensive to repair but extended warranties are usually available. Treadmills that cost $7000-plus retail can be had for $2500 to $3000 refurbished. If purchased from a good shop, then service is easier and less expensive because the used unit can be repaired with used or rebuilt parts, dropping the cost of service in half. So in a nutshell, a little more investment will get you a high-quality treadmill.
If you invest your money in a commercial treadmill, new or used, what does that get you in features compared to the other tier models? Treadmills all have some standard features. In all diagnostic records that I have seen stored on treadmill memory, most users use the quick start/manual option 90% of the time while only 10% actually use a program. I mention this so people will not get wrapped up in the program listing. All commercial treadmills come with user programs, a 12 to 14 mph max speed, elevation to 15%, contact and telemetry heart rate, and a varying degree of screen data. iPod connectivity comes standard now on some but not all. Personal video screens are not standard and is an awesome feature but it is also very expensive to repair outside of warranty. The cost of wall-mounted TVs has come down so much that this is the option I recommend for entertainment. In my opinion, a simple commercial treadmill with the basics is the best option. Features are great but can lead to a lot of service frustration.
I have brought up service several times in this article. Service technicians are some of the most under-respected individuals in the fitness industry. They keep millions of the machines going every year so member/customers do not miss their workouts on their favorite treadmill. They know more about the equipment then the manufacturer in some cases and will give you an unbiased opinion about which ones are the best. They are a good reference if you want to know details about a particular brand or model. They also deal with the manufacturers on a daily basis so they know which ones have the best customer service. (Why am I so high on service technicians? I started my company as one.)
So when do I need one? First, always get your owner’s manual when you purchase a new treadmill. It will have a preventive maintenance schedule in it on how to care for you treadmill weekly, monthly, bi-annually, and annually. It will also usually have a list of error codes that your treadmill may prompt when something is malfunctioning. These error codes can lead you to a simple solution for repair or signal you to get more professional help. My dad use to tell me to pick a dealer not a car so you get the total package. The same applies with fitness equipment, especially commercial. Reputable stores will have full-time service technicians and a stock of parts for the products they carry or easy access to them. In most cases, they will have options for lower repair costs with rebuilt or used parts. If you are close then you also have the option of bringing your treadmill to them to have it repaired so you won’t have a travel charge. Some shops offer moving and logistics services in case you ever want your treadmill moved. So choose a reputable shop and you will be pleased with the outcome.
We have been in business for 10 years in service and sales but we started as a service company. We have done work for just about every major commercial fitness equipment manufacturer. We are doing service work for at least 15 manufacturers right now and these are the ones that I feel have good product and good customer service: Cybex, Matrix, Precor, Schwinn, Stairmaster, and Freemotion. They all have strengths and weaknesses but for the most part these are good companies.
I hope that this article has been helpful. Give me a call if you need to know more.
Founding Partner of Dane Fitness. Cyclist, Former Ironman Competitor. Dad and Husband. Scientist. Philanthropis
Dane learned fitness center operations by working for the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, which appointed him Wellness Director for two centers. He left the Y and started Dane Fitness in 2003. He knows every aspect of the industry from wellness to manufacturing. He stays on top of the latest in wellness and the fitness industry through constant contact with industry experts, manufacturers, and relentless research.