Before you hop on a treadmill, you have a few decisions to make. Do you want to run at a quick pace or go on an easy walk? Climb up a hill or hit the flat road? Stay at a steady jog or clock some intervals? Let’s add another one to your list: Should you use a traditional or manual treadmill?
You may not be familiar with a manual treadmill, also known as a non-motorized treadmill, as an option for your runs or walks, but it’s one you should consider. Here’s what you need to know about what manual treadmills can do—and whether they’re right for you.
What Is a Manual Treadmill?
A manual treadmill is powered by you and you alone. Typically, these simple machines don’t have any buttons or plugs. However, hybrid models, such as the Peloton Tread+, offer you the best of both worlds. These hybrid models include all of the bells and whistles of a motorized treadmill, while also having a “manual” feature that lets you self-power the machine. For example, the Tread+ has Free Mode, which turns off the belt’s motor and allows you to use it as a manual treadmill. “With a manual treadmill, you are the power source,” says Selena Samuela, a Peloton instructor. “The belt is completely reliant on you to move it.” Translation: If you stop running, the manual treadmill will also stop.
The other big difference with manual treadmills is the incline. With a motorized treadmill, you can easily change the incline, depending on what you want from your workout. However, due to the design, most manual treadmills don’t enable you to adjust the incline. Depending on which non-motorized treadmill you have access to, it will either have a flat belt or a curved belt.
Why Use a Manual Treadmill? The Advantages of Non-Motorized Treadmills
Manual treadmills offer a range of physical benefits and workout perks. Here, we break them down for you.
They Can Maximize Your Cardiovascular Efforts
Whether you’re a casual jogger or an elite athlete, running can boost your cardiovascular endurance. And running on a manual treadmill (compared to a motorized one) appears to accelerate that process, according to a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Physiology. In the study, researchers found an increase in oxygen consumption and cardiometabolic stress among participants when they ran on a curved, non-motorized treadmill, compared to when they ran on the road and a motorized treadmill. It makes sense. “Simply put, you're working harder just to get the thing moving, so you can get into higher heart rate or intensity zones at slower speeds,” Selena says. That hard work may translate into a great expenditure of oxygen or energy.
In a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology, researchers noted that athletes’ cardiovascular endurance could benefit from incorporating non-motorized treadmills into their routines by “allowing them to train closer to their maximum, promoting maximal overall performance.” However, they suggest that this is better for short distances, rather than longer training runs, when your running economy (the amount of oxygen needed at a particular speed) is more important.
They Help You Prepare for Races
A run on a non-motorized treadmill may be as close as you can get to an outdoor, overground run. “Your legs set the pace on a non-motorized treadmill, allowing you to set your internal pacing,” says Hillary Yoder, PhD, an assistant professor of kinesiology at New Mexico State University. “[This] more closely mimics what has to be done in a race.”
She adds that non-motorized treadmills also allow for quicker changes in speed, which can be beneficial if you’re interested in interval training.
They Amp Up HIIT Workouts
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) alternates between high- and low-intensity efforts. Athletes often use manual treadmills for the intense portions of these workouts. “I personally love a manual treadmill or Free Mode for HIIT sections in a run, Tread Bootcamp, or at the end of an interval run to get those shorter gnarly bursts,” Selena says. “You’ll finish the run feeling accomplished and like a beast. Having to move the belt yourself offers an extra layer of resistance and challenges you cardiovascularly a lot faster than a motorized treadmill.”
They May Improve Your Gait and Stride
In a 2018 study published in Sports, running on a curved non-motorized treadmill shortened the stride of runners. “A shorter stride length means that the heel is located more underneath the center of mass, which reduces the amount of hip and knee flexion required,” the researchers noted. Shorter strides also promote symmetry and balance, which could make a runner more efficient—and potentially less prone to injury.
They Move with You
On a manual treadmill, if you stop, the machine stops. On motorized treadmills, you have to wait for the motor on the treadmill to slow down before you can do the same, which can be frustrating during an intense run. “If you've taken yourself into a true max effort, sometimes you feel like you can't hold on or wait for the motorized tread to slow,” Selena says. “As a result, people may straddle or hop off the tread, which can be dangerous.”
When to Use a Motorized Treadmill
Regardless of all of the benefits of a manual treadmill, you may still prefer a motorized option (making the Tread+ the best of both worlds)—and that’s perfectly OK. After all, they help you get the job done. “On motorized treadmills, the user selects a pace or paces if they have selected a program,” Yoder says. “The user does not have to think about setting the pace beyond selecting it on the treadmill.”
And these runs are anything but boring. They can provide variety to your workout, as well as engage different muscles—including your brain if you’re in an indoor running rut. Yoder says she likes having the ability to change the incline on a motorized treadmill, which can give you a high-intensity workout without changing the speed.
Since studies suggest that non-motorized treadmills tend to be better suited for shorter runs, hopping on a traditional treadmill can help you go the distance. You also may opt to flip on the motor when you’re in the mood for an easy workout, such as a recovery run or walk.
So, Which Should You Choose?
It really depends on your fitness goals and personal preference, but there’s definitely room for both in your workout regimen. The manual treadmill can help you expend more energy and give you that high-intensity burst that’s an integral component of interval training, while a motorized treadmill can help build your running economy or provide a much-needed recovery. If you’d like the option of working out both ways, the Tread+ could be the best option for you.
In the end, the most important thing is to keep running or walking in a way that you enjoy and is easily accessible, Yoder says.