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Sonar-equipped treadmill changes speed based on how you run

Researchers at Ohio State University believe they have the cure for the common "dreadmill." It's a treadmill that uses sonar to make running feel more natural.

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Steven Devor explains the automated treadmill to doctoral student Rich LaFountain. The sonar component of the system can be seen against the back wall. Jo McCulty, Courtesy of Ohio State University

I'm not exactly a gym rat, but I do sometimes take a trot on a treadmill at my gym. One of my least favorite parts of that activity is getting the speed just right. Sometimes I hit the up button so many times that once the contraption gets up to speed, I'm running out of sheer fear that I'm going to rocket off the back. Other times, I ramp it down so much that I'm walking slower than a just-fed zombie.

A new treadmill design out of The Ohio State University aims to solve this problem.

Researchers there attached a sonar device to the rear of the treadmill where it is aimed at an exerciser's back. They then linked it into the machine's speed control. When the sonar senses that your footfalls are getting closer to the front of the treadmill's belt (farther away from the sensor), it automatically speeds up the pace. When you fall a bit back on the belt while running, the sonar senses that as well and slows the belt down.

The idea is that instead of constantly fiddling with buttons and knobs on the treadmill, all you need to focus on is running at whatever speed you choose, speeding up and slowing down as you will -- just like running outdoors.

"So many people call it the 'dreadmill,'" said Steven T. Devor in a statement. "It is boring and monotonous. An automated treadmill makes the experience much more natural and you can just run without thinking of what pace you want to set." Devor is the associate professor of kinesiology at The Ohio State University who developed the treadmill with with Cory Scheadler, a former Ohio State grad student who's now an assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University.

In addition to making running feel more natural, the researchers also found that their machine could improve athletic performance.

In a study they conducted with 13 experienced runners, the researchers found a four-to-seven percent increase in the athletes' VO2 max scores. VO2 max is a measurement of how much oxygen an athlete can use, and is a key figure when assessing fitness

The results of that study, along with a description of the automated treadmill were revealed recently in an issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Devor says that the prototype of his new machine is nearly ready for commercial release and the university has applied for patents on the unique features of the modified treadmill.

So it looks like embarrassing falls off the back of the treadmill when you can't keep pace might soon be a thing of the past.