At a keynote session during Leisure Industry Week 2012, David Stalker, CEO of ukactive, led a rallying call for the sector to capitalise on the nation’s enthusiasm for running: “If we do not engage with the outdoor running community, there’s a danger our treadmills will be swapped for paths and roads. However, if we can add value by supporting this community through the provision of safe, indoor training facilities and qualified experts offering performance-enhancing and injury prevention advice, then we are suddenly looking at a huge opportunity.”
Geoff Wightman, project manager for Run England, echoes this sentiment: “The running boom shows no sign of slowing up and 2012 was another strong year, with more than two million people in England running at least 30 minutes each week.
“Apart from it being a quick, simple and inexpensive form of exercise – which helps during recessionary times – there is no doubt that the more people of all ages, shapes and sizes who are seen running at different times of the day and night, the more comfortable it becomes for other newcomers to join in. There’s no social embarrassment associated with running these days. It also helps that we have more than 1,600 Run England groups in operation, proactively recruiting and welcoming newcomers.”
The growth in the size of the running community has spurred entrepreneur Kevin Hewitt to start Running Unlimited, developing a product designed to bring the outdoor running experience indoors. Hewitt explains: “There’s a huge opportunity for gym operators to embrace the growth of running, especially as over half of all gym members use treadmills. So we set the challenge: how can we help people love indoor running?
“After two and a half years of research and development, we launched the Zone dome, which has been described as ‘an IMAX for a treadmill’. We wanted to change the game for gym-goers by delivering a truly immersive experience that brought the outdoors in.
“Using the very latest technology, the 1.5-metre diameter dome screen immerses people in the world’s most inspirational destinations. Imagine passing elephants, giraffes and hyenas in Tanzania’s Serengeti, or running through the awesome structures of America’s Monument Valley, over the rolling grasslands of Mongolia’s Himalayan foothills or across Australia’s ‘Red Centre’ at Uluru (Ayers Rock). With Zone it feels like you’re actually there.
“Zone aims to allow members to benefit from all the positives associated with outdoor training without worrying about the weather, pollution or personal safety.”
Meanwhile, in 2011, Matrix Fitness entered into a partnership with Virtual Active to provide high quality video footage for the integrated screens on its CV equipment. Exercisers are virtually transported to some of the globe’s most spectacular destinations – all without leaving the comfort and safety of a gym. Users not only see amazing landscapes in video content displayed on the console, but they also feel gradual terrain changes under their feet and hear ambient sounds through their headphones. Users have reported running steadier and longer than they do on equipment without Virtual Active, as they become immersed in the experience. For the first time this year, Virtual Active software is integrated into T3xe and T1xe treadmills, making it a feasible financial option for any facility.
There has also been innovation in terms of treadmill design. David Barnickle, business development manager at Cranlea – the distributor for Woodway treadmills in the UK – explains: “Treadmills feature in almost every fitness club in the world, and for years people have been lined up in front of television screens walking, jogging or running on the everyday ‘conveyor belt’ treadmill. Over the last 18 months, UK clubs have shown an increased interest in trying to offer members something a little different – something that sets them above their competitors through improved member engagement.”
It’s this desire to offer something more aligned to the outdoor running experience that fuelled the development of Woodway’s Curve treadmill. This treadmill is completely self-powered, with no need for a motor. The user controls the speed by positioning their body along the curved running surface: as the user moves up the curve, the speed increases; to slow down, the user drops back towards the rear curve.
Following extensive research and development, Precor has also created a treadmill that emulates running outside and enables users to get maximum benefit from their workout without risk of injury. Miles Rimell, marketing director EMEA & APAC for Precor, explains: “Our patented Ground Effects® Impact Control System helps reduce fatigue, enables users to maintain an even speed and also provides cushioning where feet land and stability where they push off. This is enhanced by an Integrated Footplant Technology belt system, which adjusts velocity 100 times a second to match natural changes in foot speed. The overall result is that impact is absorbed and adjusted to natural fluctuations in stride, reducing the jarring impact that can stress joints and cause injuries.”
Meanwhile, based on research which showed that 95 per cent of users wanted access to online content while on CV equipment, Life Fitness has launched its new Discover™ SE and Discover SI tablet consoles. The new Swipe Technology™ touchscreens enable third party companies to develop applications that link to the Life Fitness treadmills – so consumers can track their runs in the gym as well as when running in the park.
As more cutting-edge equipment becomes available to runners, the question is: how can the sector monetise the trend in indoor running? New technology is helping to drive footfall, leverage member sales, boost equipment usage and improve retention – but PTs also have a crucial role to play.
Research from ukactive, IHRSA and The Leisure Database Company identified that only 5 per cent of gym members make use of personal trainers – yet around 50 per cent of members use treadmills. Through the provision of education, operators are presented with opportunities to grow their revenue by improving the indoor running experience.
Hewitt explains: “Maintaining motivation through entertainment is just a part of the story. In order to fully enjoy a running experience both indoors and out, and ensure that people remain injury-free, education is an important factor. Correct technique makes running more efficient and halves injury rates. There’s an opportunity to improve the instruction provided to members who currently use treadmills to train.”
Indeed, research from Harvard University found that 80 per cent of amateur runners are injured annually, and this is driven by incorrect technique. A growing number of companies within the sector therefore offer coaching for both novice and experienced runners who want to improve their technique and remain injury-free.
For example, Running Unlimited has partnered with Lee Saxby – one of the world’s top running experts – with the long-term intent of developing a national running curriculum. Its first step towards this is to provide expert guidance on running technique and training plans to fitness clubs’ PTs and fitness instructors, delivered by Saxby’s training clinic team. These two-day Running Specialist courses are REPs-accredited, delivering all-important CPD points.
Alternatively gyms could offer specialist classes, with the option of charging extra. Rob Beale, head of sports, health & fitness at David Lloyd Leisure, says: “We have certainly seen an interest in members wanting to be involved in running clubs. In response, we’ve been able to offer more specific training programmes. These range from trekking classes – which take place indoors on treadmills – through to outdoor running clubs and triathlon clubs.”
Teaching people to run
Operators might also learn from external running specialist companies such as Full Potential, which coaches and educates runners on technique. According to director Richard Coates, the company has seen a significant growth in first-time charity runners over the last 12 months: “Since re-launching our website, we’re taking a much higher number of bookings each day. We offer free training days for events such as the London Marathon and plan to increase these while expanding our reach around the country.
“We also provide private coaching and tailored training packages. For under £50, runners can receive a 14-week training plan, expert advice, support and regular updates for their target race at the end of the training programme.”
And for those members who can’t afford personal running coaching, step forward Star Trac Coach™ – virtual running coaching, accessed via the treadmill’s integrated screen, led by professional coach Kimberley Shah. Shah explains: “The treadmill has increasingly become a piece of equipment that members are using not just for a warm-up but as a key focus of their workouts. The main objectives of Star Trac Coach were to make it easy to use, and to provide motivation and education.”
To address the common practice of indoor runners simply hitting the ‘quick start’ button, the programme engages with users, focusing on technique and form and also allowing them to formulate a proper, personalised cardio workout. Shah continues: “While going at one pace for an entire workout can be beneficial, the body will adapt over time. Star Trac Coach offers variety in a motivating manner.”
Suppliers are certainly leading the way, offering equipment and entertainment options that enhance the indoor running experience. Operators now need to maximise this opportunity, engaging members and personal trainers alike to ensure the treadmill remains at the heart of people’s running habits.