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How I learned to love treadmill running

Commentary: A treadmill always felt a hamster wheel -- a lot of work, but not very fun. It took iFIT's guided workouts to change my mind.

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These shoes weren't made for walking.

Kent German/CNET

I never thought I'd be a treadmill runner. Why expend all that energy and never go anywhere? No, I thought, it was better to be out in the fresh air, feeling the sun on my face and enjoying the beauty of the Bay Area.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and, like it did to so many things, it upended workout routines. My usual spots along the San Francisco Bay and around Oakland's Lake Merritt felt too crowded, especially to run without a mask. I'd pass far fewer people on the streets in my immediate neighborhood, but it's too hilly for everyday running. 

To keep my legs moving, I had to rethink the thing I'd long avoided. And after trying a friend's NordicTrack machine a few times, I realized a treadmill didn't have to resemble a mindless hamster wheel. Thanks to iFIT's guided running videos, it could be both challenging and interesting -- I could get the exercise I needed to jolt me out of my pandemic fog and virtually travel from Athens to Australia at a time when most borders were securely shut. The more I discovered the technology involved, like my treadmill's speed adjusting to match that of the onscreen trainer, the more engrossed I got. So, I asked iFIT how its videos were made. The answer involves traditional research, GPS and a lot of running with a camera.

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The videos are expertly-shot videos, like this one in the Swiss Alps, give you the full scenic experience of your destination.

iFIT

Keeping you motivated

Founded in 2000, iFIT is a fitness platform that has created more than 17,000 guided workouts, including over 7,000 that were shot outdoors. It streams its guided workouts to screens on treadmills, elliptical machines, bikes, rowers, cable equipment and fitness mirrors from NordicTrack, FreeMotion and Pro-Form (all four of the brands are owned by Logan, Utah-based ICON Health and Fitness). A few years ago, iFIT dabbled in hardware with a line of fitness wearables, but those have been discontinued after the company decided to focus on content. 

Mark Watterson, iFIT's chief experience officer, says the point of the interactive workouts is to avoid a "dreadmill" experience. It's much more appealing to follow trainer and ultramarathoner Lucy Bartholomew as she runs around Sydney Harbour (who knows when I'll be able to visit there again?) than it is to watch TV or stare at the wall. 

"The need for interactivity is key, " Watterson told me. "It's one thing to put a TV on the front of a treadmill, but then what I'm seeing has no connection to what my body is doing."

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You follow your trainer on your treadmill's display. 

NordicTrack

My husband and I settled on a NordicTrack 2450, the same model our friend owns. We browsed other options briefly, but chose the 2450 because we already knew we liked it. At $2,290 it's one of more expensive iFIT-compatible treadmills, but NordicTrack's entry-level models start at $1,099. We weren't alone in making the investment either -- according to the research firm the NPD Group, treadmill sales rose 135 percent from March to October of last year. 

To view iFIT's content you also need a subscription -- an individual plan is $180 per year and a family plan is $39 per month or $396 per year, cheaper than many gyms (I dropped my gym membership in October) and comparable to a Peloton subscription. (Peloton voluntarily recalled two of its treadmills earlier this month after a child had died in an accident involving the machine.) Each treadmill purchase includes a family subscription for a year and all plans let you view workouts on iFIT's Android and iOS app. A solid internet connection at home for an uninterrupted session is another must. If your workout is interrupted by a buffering video, it's not fun.

Assembling the treadmill was simpler than building most Ikea furniture and far easier than hauling the heaviest parts inside (due to the pandemic, the delivery crew would only leave the treadmill in pieces in our yard). But once it was set up (a process that took two hours), it was easy to get absorbed in the huge variety of workouts for both beginner and experienced runners. Runs have been filmed on all seven continents and places remote as Easter Island. My colleague Sarah Mitroff described the experience well in her review of the best treadmills for 2021. "Never have I become so engrossed in my cardio workout until using iFIT. I almost completely forgot that I was jogging on a treadmill."

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I run on the NordicTrack 2450, but iFit's videos are compatible with a wide variety of workout machines.

NordicTrack

In the seven months I've been running in place, I've returned to many of my favorite places on the planet as I run three days and miles per week. I ran through the streets of Athens recognizing cafes I've visited and relived the spectacular views from the cliff top monasteries of Meteora. I've run on Oregon's Cannon Beach and through Australia's Royal National Park. The videos are expertly shot and surprisingly realistic, giving a feeling that you're really there. You're not just staring at the trainer's back, either; you get to experience the scenery on the route and drones are occasionally used to show a bird's eye view of just where you are in the world.

I've also traveled to places I have yet to visit, but long to see in person. Trainer and endurance athlete Tommy Rivers Puzey led me through Switzerland's Bernese Alps, a place so staggeringly beautiful onscreen I almost tripped over myself. iFIT also has walking and hiking workouts, like exploring the streets of London or joining British Olympic rower Alex Gregory to trek through England's verdant Lake District

Each workout starts with a map of the course and a brief introduction from your trainer on how the run will proceed. Then you follow them as they run, enjoying the same scenery they're seeing and feeling the geography of the course. As your trainer runs faster or slower, the speed of the treadmill adjusts automatically. And as they encounter hills, your machine's incline moves up and down to match (you can override both settings if you wish). All the while they're cheering you on, playing tour guide and giving short lessons in physiology. Some of the spiel I tune out, but I've also learned a bit about cattle herding in Switzerland and the flora of Tasmania, Australia. 

"We want it to be really engaging for both mind and body," says Colleen Logan, vice president of Marketing for ICON Health and Fitness. "We want our trainers to be themselves."

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I've traveled the world on my treadmill without leaving my house.

CNET

Making a video

Engaging they are, but how do the workout videos come together? That's what I wanted to find out. According to iFIT, a run starts with choosing a general location and researching locally to plan the route and the sights along the way. Many of the workouts take you through obvious tourist spots, like a run along the River Seine in Paris. iFIT says it seeks advice for the routes from local trainers who may lead the run. Approval for shoots is always obtained from local officials.

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You also can view workouts on iFIT's mobile app. The Parthenon Running series, which takes you on 18 runs through Greece, was especially cool.

Screenshots by Kent German/CNET

"Analytics play a key part in how we create our content and we look at our user trends," Watterson says. "Creating a workout that gets a customer through a series by progressing to the next program is also key." 

Researchers also include historical and cultural facts to give the runs a more immersive feel. On a run through Tokyo's Shinjuku district, for example, I briefly ducked into a brightly lit and deafeningly loud pachinko parlour (while I was still running) to see how popular the game is in Japan. Even through the 14-inch screen on my treadmill, I could feel how packed and frenetic the room was. The spiels aren't scripted, but the trainers are given a briefing book on each location. 

"Our production team does so much research, Logan says. "You can't run with a teleprompter so each trainer reads [the briefing book], incorporates it into their run and shares their perspective."

The size of a production crew depends on the run, but at minimum includes a camera operator and sound operator. When a drone is used to show an overview of the course, then a pilot is called in. Watterson wouldn't reveal the exact camera used, but judging from the shadows I can see on a few runs, it looks to be some sort of a GoPro on a stabilizer. Though some runs are shot from a car following the trainer, most are filmed by a person running behind them. Filming while running is impressive enough, but keeping the pace while doing it is on another level. As Watterson put it, sometimes the camera person "is the better athlete" than even the trainer.

But what about those treadmill inline adjustments? That's not quite as complicated as I originally thought. Once the run is plotted and filmed, iFIT's post production crew use GPS to analyze a course's topography and make the corresponding adjustments on the machine. From start to finish the entire process for filming a run takes from three months to a year.

"Every single workout that goes out is tested and validated by our full staff of trainers, not just the actual talent," Watterson says. "We want what's displayed on your treadmill to be in line with the experience that you're having."

Google Maps is another tool for both iFIT and its subscribers. The company's researchers use it to plot workouts and subscribers draw their own courses and then see the route using Google's Street View. I used the feature to relive my commute between my former home in the Bermondsey area of London and the CNET office in Shoreditch. The end result is choppy -- like when exploring with Street View on a computer, the images pass by like a flipbook -- but it's still fun and nostalgic. 

Pandemic production

The pandemic, of course, disrupted iFIT's usual production process. Lockdowns meant that crews couldn't film in the usual manner and international travel was largely impossible. iFIT adapted by sending production packages to trainers' homes and sending them on local shoots within driving distance while ensuring social distances measures. 

Though most runs depict a pre-pandemic era, I could see some people wearing masks on a run in Portland, Maine. So, it's clear the show has gone on. And even in 2020, Logan says COVID didn't keep the company from always trying different things, like a walking tour of haunted places in New England during Halloween.

"We want people to think of working out not as something that they have to do, but something that they want to do," she says. "As any great trainer or coach will tell you, you've got to have a mix." 

There's no doubt the treadmill had given me that mix during a year when the world changed. Armed with a full COVID vaccination, I'll return to outdoor running and real travel again this summer. But the convenience of an in-home machine and the variety of guided workouts that come with it will keep me running in place for a long time.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.