Do anti-gravity running machines really work?
I feel like I'm running on the moon. On a treadmill designed for astronauts, my 48 kilogram body is 40 per cent lighter. Weighing just under 30 kilograms, my legs fly across the running machine as I stride out. Encased in a bubble-like chamber, my body weight dropping through controlled air pressure, am I running or actually flying? It's such a breeze running on the state-of-the-art AlterG anti-gravity treadmill that I could complete a half marathon - possibly - without breaking into a sweat.
Overlooking the yachts bobbing in Wellington's Chaffers Marina, in a private room in Healthfit Collective's gymnasium, the $80,000 treadmill is the first to be available to the New Zealand public, and the 96th installed in Australasia.
But is this treadmill now used by injured athletes across the United States, including Kiwi Olympic medallist Nick Willis, actually a gimmick? Costing $80 an hour, or $45 for half an hour, is the anti-gravity treadmill just a land-based, costly alternative to aqua jogging?
Not so, according to Wellington Sports and Exercise medicine specialist Dr Ruth Highet, who has already tried it out, and is recommending it to injured athletes who make up the bulk of her patients. The former marathon runner battles her own injuries, suffering from bad knees from years of long distance running. Highet, who became New Zealand's first female sports medicine specialist in 1993, has given up running in favour of cycling and gym-based activity. "When I tried out the AlterG, I was much more aware of the load going through each leg, and how my foot actually landed on each side. Just by reducing my body weight by 20 per cent, I had no knee pain."
Originally designed in a Californian garage to enhance exercise programmes for NASA's astronauts, the anti-gravity treadmill was adapted for training and rehabilitation programmes. According to AlterG, which has also created a bionic leg, the treadmill is increasingly a feature in NBA and NFL gyms, while it was used by contestants in the The Biggest Loser. At the extreme, it can reduce a person's bodyweight by 80 per cent at the push of a button. NBA superstar Kobe Bryant ran on it to retrain four months after an achilles tear.
Willis, a middle distance runner is currently training for the Rio Olympics, from his home base in Michigan. He has run on the AlterG while recovering from different injuries, including three surgeries. "On one occasion, I was extremely fit, and suffered a micro tear on my outside shin. I suddenly couldn't run on it." Running on the AlterG for 90 minutes a day at his local physio, his body weight was typically reduced by half. His shin slowly healed and strengthened over six weeks. Willis ran a four minute mile a fortnight after returning to normal training.
"Often I would return to proper running for only 10 to 20 minutes, and then finish my run on the AlterG, as a way of returning to normal running. Some injury-prone athletes train on it to prevent future injuries by doing a percentage of their training on the weight-reducing treadmill."
I normally pound Wellington pavements and running trails, clocking up 50 kilometres-plus a week. I've visited my physio regularly over the past few years for achilles injuries and tendonitis. The day after trialling the anti-gravity treadmill? Nothing hurts or aches, and I feel as though yesterday was in fact a rest day.
RUNNING DESPITE BROKEN BONES AND OBESITY
Patients rehabilitating from broken backs and smashed ankles have walked and run on the treadmill to return to health, according to AlterG's clinical reports. An obese woman who weighed 188 kilograms and was unable to exercise started on a walking programme on the treadmill, stepping out at 2.6 kilometres an hour, and eventually dropping weight. At Healthfit Collective, one client hadn't run for 15 years since a double hip replacement, striding out for the first time.
Healthfit Collective director Greig Rightford says: "If we made him run outside for 10 minutes, it would be straight to the physio. His hips would be cooked."
An ultra marathoner, he says: "You can run with fractured legs on this. If you're an athlete, that's huge."
Offered in partnership with a physio based at the clinic, the gym owners also imagine benefits for overweight and obese New Zealanders who haven't been able to run before. Gym director Theo Bostrovas says: "We've had a couple of overweight people on it who walk away with a big smile, because they feel this freedom."
What's the difference between the treadmill and aqua jogging, though, apart from the obvious cost? Rightford says running with some impact allows a controlled full gait. "Without the pain because you're so much lighter, it frees people up. If you're injured, you need some force to get strong."
"Every day, I see people who probably shouldn't run but they are out there trying. This would definitely help them so they could do proper interval training effectively, without damaging themselves, and that's the difference."