Steven Devor, front, discusses the new automated treadmill with doctoral student rich Lafountain

Automatic treadmill varies speed according to users pace

A treadmill that automatically changes speed to match the pace of the runner will give joggers a more natural running experience, according to its designers.

The system uses sonar to accurately pinpoint the runner’s position on the treadmill and then adjust the speed as they pick up pace and moves toward the front of the running belt or slow down and moves toward the back to ensure they are always positioned in the centre of the belt.

The prototype system is able to react so quickly that co-developer and elite runner Cory Scheadler can break into a fast sprint while on the device and still not hit the front.

"So many people call it the 'dreadmill.' 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," said associate professor of kinesiology at The Ohio State University Steven T. Devor, one of the treadmill’s developers.

Devor and Scheadler, Devor’s former graduate student and now an assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University, revealed the automated treadmill in a study published online in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise.

Their setup was constructed using off-the-shelf products, including an inexpensive sonar range finder to measure how far along the running belt the runner is, a microcontroller and a computer, which was linked to the electronics in the treadmill.

The university has patented the treadmill's novel features and are now looking for a fitness equipment manufacturer to make the investment necessary to turn it into a product ready for use at fitness clubs.

As well as having commercial value, the researchers' recent paper also found that the automated treadmill did a better job than standard treadmills at providing an accurate measure of an athlete's aerobic capacity.

Most elite athletes and increasing numbers of regular exercisers have had their aerobic capacity measured through maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) tests that determine the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use.

The tests involve the subject pushing themselves to exhaustion in a treadmill test whilst wearing a mask that measures their oxygen use. In a trial of 13 experienced endurance runners using both a standard treadmill and the automated treadmill the researchers found that the athletes improved their VO2 max scores by four to seven per cent using the automated treadmill.

VO2 max scores are vital when developing heart-rate training zones that guide exercisers in using the right amount of effort when they are in training, so the ability to give more accurate readings could significantly improve a runner's training.

"If you have a more accurate VO2 max score, your heart-rate zones are more accurate and your training will be more effective," Devor said.

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