Treadmills have transformed from utilitarian hamster wheels to feature-filled, ergonomic fitness machines. Some let you check your email, plan a marathon, and claim a celebrity trainer as your personal running coach. But the best treadmill will cater to your specific fitness needs, whether it's a simple machine that just lets you jog indoors or one that boasts a full-fledged entertainment console.
Best Treadmill for Walkers
The ProForm 505 CST repackages basic treadmill functionality in a modern, ergonomic design that kept us feeling secure even when we amped up intensity. Its simple controls make it easy to jump on and hit your stride, and its clean console design gives you something good to look at while you do.
We immediately loved the hexagonal console and smooth lines, and found that its design features were intuitive to use. Our favorite part? Horizontally placed incline and speed controls. The typical console design organizes those controls vertically, forcing you to reach farther and farther up to hit higher numbers, but ProForm rethinks this arrangement. And if you are moving at a steady pace and have no need for the controls, feel free to drift farther back on the belt and stretch your legs. This treadmill offered a surprisingly long running deck despite its overall small footprint.
Beneath the console upgrades, the 505 CST has preloaded workouts almost identical to any other model: Mountain (blocky hill climb), Calories (two-peaked hill climb), Intensity (heavily variegated hill climb), and Speed (interval training). It might not be breaking any new ground with its pre-programmed workouts, but you do have the option to branch out with iFit. It's worth noting that some functions are inaccessible sans app.
Connectability brings the 505 CST up to technological speed, but the onboard tech is surprisingly old-school. Visuals are limited to a highly pixelated blue oval representing a track, with a blipping light representing your progress around it. It's not much, but it's better than nothing, which is what we got with the NordicTrack T 6.5 S. The progress cues of the 505 CST weren't fancy, but they gave us an ongoing sense of accomplishment during our walks.
The biggest drawback to this treadmill was the noise. A noticeable belt sound is pretty standard for treadmills of any price. The belt hisses as it rotates; the motor emits a heavy sigh when you ask it to incline; and there’s a general rumble that grows louder with every mph you add. We didn’t test a single treadmill that didn’t talk back. Still, the 505 CST has a more insistent whine than the other two walking models.
Overall, though, smart improvements add up to a truly superior machine. The 505 CST is an excellent treadmill for the price, and looks and feels like it cost several hundred more. We recommend it for walkers, but it’s sturdy and powerful enough for moderate jogging.
Best Treadmill for Runners
Yet another sleek machine from ProForm. Stately dimensions and a sophisticated console make this one easy on the eyes and, even better, easy on the user, with ample room to move and conveniently placed controls. Our testers loved the spacious belt, which hit our length requirement at 60 inches and exceeded our width requirement at 22 inches. One tester noted that since running is pretty linear, the extra width doesn’t necessarily impact your strides — it’s more psychological: You see and sense the available space around you and feel freer. It takes some of the treadmill out of "treadmill running."
Speed and incline controls are set horizontally on the console, just like on our other ProForm top pick. And this model improves on that already-great design by providing arrow buttons on an arched bar at rib-level. Cup your fingers behind the bar and you can easily toggle controls with your thumb. For making adjustments mid-stride, this kind of convenient placement is a game-changer. Both the Nautilus T616 and the NordicTrack C 990 had buttons that were unresponsive and difficult to reach.
That said, both of those machines offered perks that the ProForm Pro 2000 didn’t. While all three can be souped up with spendy, add-on touchscreens, the NordicTrack comes with a 7-inch one standard, and that made a big difference for easily accessing workout programs and a wealth of personalization options. But despite the NordicTrack’s touchscreen, its other controls were hard to reach and slow to respond. Meanwhile, the Nautilus was the quietest and most cushioned of them all — important benefits when running at high speed. But it lagged behind the competition in user-friendliness with a cluttered console, unintuitive controls (you have to push Enter after you push a new speed), and aggravatingly loud alerts.
The superior accessibility of the Pro 2000’s controls made our workouts feel effortless — or at least made it easy to get a hard workout. Its speedy response to incline and speed adjustments, plus the ability to keep your legs guessing with both incline and decline options, meant we never had a boring run. You can also keep your runs interesting by tapping into the machine's iFit potential, though you do have to shell out for a subscription — around $10 per month. Extra expenses for compatible apps are a good thing to keep in mind with most new treadmills. The number of workouts they advertise generally include ones only available through an app. Think of it as a Netflix or Hulu subscription — only good for you.
Best Treadmill for Training
The Horizon T9 is a serious running machine: sturdy and high-functioning, with training features that lend themselves more to a seasoned athlete than a running noobie. Its 10-inch touchscreen console is pretty small compared to the NordicTrack C 2950's TV-sized screen, but it comes packed with tons of workouts, customization, and targeted fitness tracking.
The T9's touchscreen console replaces the majority of controls, leaving just two arrow toggles for speed and incline, plus the classic Stop and Start buttons. The screen is positioned at a low chest-height for most users. We found it fairly easy to make adjustments mid-stride — though, like most touchscreens, you may find yourself tapping repeatedly before some commands respond. Maybe that's more the result of sweaty fingers than anything else, but it’s an area for improvement for most treadmill manufacturers.
You can access a plethora of workout programs and training info via the touchscreen, without needing to sync up any other device or download an app. With 44 pre-programmed workouts, it has the highest number of any treadmill we looked at. But we found that a lot of the treadmill’s features assume its user has a good working knowledge of fitness training. One of the most unique allows you to customize an entire workout, setting speeds and inclines for different time increments, to build your perfect workout. A neat tool for sure, but primarily useful to someone who likes to micromanage their exercise.
In fact, the T9 carries a few features clearly designed for the serious runner: During every workout, the machine tracks a ton of metrics (average heart rate, speed, time, etc.), recording that info in distinct time chunks. (This is made possible by the included chest-strap heart-rate monitor, which allows you to keep an eye on your vitals without pausing your workout to grip the handrails.) Runners get an in-depth look at how they perform during a sprint versus a long, steady jog, or at how quickly their heart rate drops during cool-down. Unfortunately, the T9 doesn’t summarize any of that information. You can only look at the data in portions according to how fast you ran — so if you vary your speed during a workout, there’s no way to know your overall stats for a complete session unless you crunch the numbers yourself. If you’re this serious about your fitness, there’s a good chance you already have a tracking device. Still, we found the lack of summary results inconvenient. Again, the T9 is not a beginner’s treadmill. But for a runner that is keen on details, we didn’t experience anything more thorough.
And for pure running comfort, the Horizon stood out even more. The T9 claims to have strategically placed cushioning, and our testers could feel the difference. Even when running at max speeds (12 mph), the belt provides stability and shock absorption. And the deck was long enough for runners to safely drift while adjusting to faster speeds. One tester drifted a bit too far back, tugging the emergency-stop key taut and accidentally pulling it out of the console. The belt pulled to a swift stop. It was bit of a surprise for the runner, but we were pleased with the treadmill’s speedy response.
And there’s one feature you don’t have to be a running pro to appreciate: Virtual Active Programming. Transform a routine jog into a scenic trail run, gliding through lush forests and along the coastline. One tester found the nature sounds to be sudden and alarming, and you may come across a few startled tourists, but virtual runs proved entertaining enough to take our minds off the clock.
Best Entertainment Features
In terms of cool features and sheer stats, the NordicTrack C 2950 is a standout. It comes with an eye-catching touchscreen and the most immersive running programs of any machine we tested. If you find yourself in need of workout motivation, NordicTrack made this treadmill just for you. And there's plenty of power behind those good looks — this commercial treadmill has more CHP than anything we tested, in addition to the largest belt dimensions.
If you’re looking for a state-of-the-art treadmill, one that offers both max power and gym-quality training features, you’re looking for a commercial machine — usually designated by a “C” in the name. Commercial treadmills are the kind that show up in fitness clubs — they’re bigger, heavier, and higher tech, made to withstand near-constant use.
True to commercial standards, the NordicTrack C 2950 is incredibly spacious: We couldn’t believe the room available to us in every direction while running. And, balancing out that freedom, the C 2950’s handrails are slightly longer than average, meaning that our testers felt secure without feeling boxed-in. Those dimensions carry over into the console, which is dominated by a 22-inch HD touchscreen — the largest that NordicTrack has ever made. It’s roughly the size of a cookie baking sheet. While you use the screen to access programs, the treadmill still includes a couple of essential controls in the typical button format: speed, incline, fan, volume, start, and stop.
The screen is also flanked by vertical rows of speed and incline options, but users weren’t crazy about this placement during testing, as it makes mid-stride adjustments harder. But they did love a lot of the console’s other features, like the convenient heart-rate monitor handles, powerful fan, and plethora of outlets: USB, full-size HDMI, and MP3 input (allowing you to play your music through the speakers). That said, we were disappointed in the lack of audio output: When we turned on one of the C 2950’s fitness programs, our only choice was to play the audio through the speakers — no headphones for us.
The C 2950 also has plenty of features inside the console: After an initial download, you have access to a scrollable library of personal trainers who can lead you through combined strength training/cardio workouts and scenic runs, plus all the typical sprint and mountain climb running programs. Most of the training programs last 20-40 minutes. Our testers found these programs surprisingly motivating. In one runner's words: “The fitness programming was life-changing! Having someone control my workout and motivate me along the way was super helpful.” But the scenic runs were surprisingly disappointing. The image jumps about 20 feet every few seconds using Google Street View, moving incrementally farther down the street as the camera relocates in a slowly pixelating blink. We much preferred the Horizon Elite T9’s smooth progress.
Despite its motor power (4.25 CHP) and heft (it was the hardest to move at 337 lbs.), one tester still found that it shook under the impact of running (around 6 mph), not to mention sprinting (12 mph). What felt like little-to-no cushioning also led to some discomfort at those higher speeds, as well as super-loud footfalls. After the smooth stability of the T9, our dedicated runners felt the C 2950 was a letdown.
When we first delved into the world of luxury treadmills, we thought we were looking at a pretty homogenous bunch of machines. Touchscreens, high inclines (and declines), trail running visuals — these are common perks when you get above $1,500. But then we brought three top models in for hands-on testing and noticed some striking differences. In short, we realized treadmills that are nearly equal according to their stats can be suited for totally different kinds of users. Both of our top machines excel at what they do best. Are you a pure runner and pretty DIY when it comes to workouts? The Horizon Elite T9 is for you. But if you're just getting started with running, and love the sound of personal trainers cheering you on against the background of Grecian islands, you'll probably love the NordicTrack C 2950.
Did You Know?
There’s more than one way to treadmill
There are quite a few alternative treadmills on the market and, depending on your exercise preferences, one of them may be just what you’re looking for. Climbing and incline treadmills both provide effective workouts that change up muscle loading and engagement. Climbing or hybrid treadmills, like the Bowflex TreadClimber, provide an elliptical-like, low-impact cardio workout. Incline treadmills, like the True Fitness Alpine Runner, can simulate a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. And while standing desks do wonders to improve the sedentary 9-to-5 lifestyle, you can kick your workday wellness up a notch with a treadmill desk.
Road running and treadmill running are not created equal
While the general mechanics of running are the same no matter where you do it, treadmills lack surface changes and environmental conditions. Running on a solid, flat, unchanging surface will never mimic the dynamism of road running.
That said, there is no clear winner. According to chiropractor Seana Katz, from Katz Chiropractic in Boulder, Colorado, treadmills “may be less beneficial in terms of proprioception and balance, compared to trail or road running.” But treadmills may also be slightly gentler on the joints because their belts are designed for optimal shock absorption and load dispersion.
“Running on a treadmill may have the advantage of absorbing some of the shock/loading to the joints, but it’s still impact exercise. Biomechanical abnormalities will, just like when you run outside, become apparent quickly with impact and repetitive motion. Low back, hips, knees, and feet will get almost just as much loading.” - Seana Katz, Chiropractor at Katz Chiropractic in Boulder, Colorado.