As much as I love running, I can’t muster the will to do it anymore without some sort of digital distraction. I’m the worst stereotype of a millennial, unable to keep my eyes off a screen for more than a few moments or walk to the corner store without headphones. I vaguely remember the dark days of running—pre-iPhone, pre-iPod—when you either had to duct tape an unwieldy Sony Walkman to your hip or get by with the chirping sounds of Mother Nature. I much prefer the present.
My thing for screens has turned my love of running into a love of treadmills, which have kept me pointed at ESPN when I had nothing else to stare at but mileage readouts or a blinking avatar pacing a digital track. Most “real” runners will tell you they dread these isolating, noisy machines, but they’ve been out on the trails too long. The latest treadmills let you engage with trainers, stream Netflix, take live classes and jog simulated courses you’d otherwise never have the pleasure to run.
“Is it a distraction? Absolutely. But it’s a great distraction,” said Steve Uria, owner of New York fitness center Switch Playground. In classes, Mr. Uria uses DJs, lights, even smoke to enhance students’ experience and take their minds off the pain. “For me to get on a treadmill and stare at a wall: No.”
On the screens of the latest NordicTrack treadmills, Mr. Uria and his nine-or-so abs are a featured distraction. You can call him up (or pick from about 30 other trainers) to serve as your virtual running buddy at locations around the world. In my recent test of the technology, Mr. Uria “took” me for a tour along the water near his home of Cape Town, South Africa. As we transitioned from a jog to a sprint, the treadmill automatically sped up. As we headed uphill, its incline rose to match the grade—up to 40%.
The experience was surprisingly immersive on a 22-inch HD screen, and the running deck felt great underfoot, partly because NordicTrack has moved the motor back so you’re not landing directly on top of it with each step. But, after a while, the way the camera providing my view abruptly panned from the road to Mr. Uria to ships along the dock was a bit much for my stomach. I’ll stick with Netflix.
The latest Life Fitness treadmills—found at big gym and hotel chains—also feature virtual trainers, and vast entertainment options. But the brand’s new focus is connectivity. You can log in with your phone or fitness tracker (and soon, just your face) to the brand’s treadmills to find your chosen content and experiences and log running data. Life Fitness has also partnered with RunSocial, an app that lets you race friends across the gym or the country in real-time, adding bragging rights to your daily workouts.
Woodway treadmills cater to minimalist runners—the popular Curve model doesn’t even have a motor. Its pricey selling point? An advanced slatted running surface designed with a softer feel. “It’s like running on a cloud,” said Barry’s Bootcamp instructor Lindsey Clayton. “It bounces with you, so when you’re slamming down on it, the force of your body and foot hitting the surface isn’t as intense.”
But even Woodway’s advanced 4Front model is getting a needed tech upgrade for 2018. A new 21-inch touchscreen and smart software enhancements help you determine out your ideal speeds and, based on goals you input, create and adjust running plans to help you get fit without overthinking it. For stat geeks, its Stride Lab feature logs the gait, symmetry and cadence of your running motion.
Peloton is also jogging into the crowded market later this year with its Tread, featuring a slat-belt running deck similar to Woodway’s and an in-your-face 32-inch HD touchscreen raised high enough even for 6-foot-4 runners like me. You won’t be able access cable-news punditry on it, but as with Peloton’s popular spin bikes, the screen gives you the ability to “join” live classes and interact with top trainers. I ducked into an on-demand class with “master instructor” Rebecca Kennedy, who had my legs burning after only a few minutes. Peloton also has the flexibility to constantly tune its software and experiences.
Those real runners can have the streets. I’m going to go jog the Grand Canyon and catch up on some “New Girl.”
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NordicTrack X22i Incline Trainer
You can run with a virtual trainer on its 22-inch touchscreen or use Google Maps to draw your own course to follow. But this machine’s key feature is its maximum 40% incline—three times the standard—and its hot buttons that help you quickly increase speed with a single push. $2,699, nordictrack.com
Life Fitness Platinum Club Series
A supplier for many hotels and gyms, Life Fitness is fueling a push toward connectivity with its Discover SE3 consoles so that your stats, programs, and streaming content are available everywhere. Next up the brand will explore immersive VR running experiences. Starting at $6,999, lifefitness.com
There are fewer entertainment options here, but pro athletes are more impressed with how it feels underfoot. Instead of looping a single belt, Woodway glides 60 individual slats designed with shock-absorbing qualities over its ball-bearing system. These treadmills are used at all U.S. Olympic Training Centers. $10,650, woodway.com
With the success of Peloton’s spin bike, a treadmill was the obvious next step. Due out later this year, the machine will launch with a massive 32-inch HD touchscreen, 10 live classes each day (with many more on-demand), and two unique knobs near your hips for easily turning up the incline and speed. $3,995, onepeloton.com
For running geeks who want easy access to their data, GymKit lets you “tap in” to connect new treadmills with your Apple Watch. Just flash your wrist at the machine’s NFC reader to sync fitness metrics like heart rate, speed and calories burned so that the stats on the machine match what’s on your wrist (and vice versa). apple.com
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