Treadmills: a history

This weekend American ultrarunner Zach Bitter will attempt to break the 100 mile treadmill world record. This is a short primer on the history of the treadmill.

Running on the spot has a long and gruesome history. Anthropologists believe that as much as 3,000 years ago ancient civilisations would lubricate animal hides with blood, allowing people to run in place. There is disagreement as to whether this activity was sporting in nature, with some experts asserting that it was “likely of ritual significance”. Regardless, it is likely, based on biomechanical analysis of exhumed skeletal remains, that these early runners averaged a pace of around 9 minutes per mile, or 15 hours for 100 miles.

Similar apparatus was used in the first confirmed instances of stationary running as a competitive endeavour at the colosseum in Rome around 200AD. To keep the crowd entertained between fights, slaves would run on the hides of animals killed in the previous bout. Whoever remained upright for longest, their rivals seccumbing either to exhaustion or clumsiness, won their freedom. The rest were fed to the lions.

After this boom in popularity, stationary running went nowhere for several hundred years. These mortal races could hold a crowd’s attention for a short time, but as a sporting spectacle they left much to be desired; the outcome was of interest but the event itself was remarkably dull.

The roots of the treadmill as we know it today are found in the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci. Looking for a means to power his new helicopter, da Vinci experimented with various designs reminiscent of modern incline treadmills, the weight of the runner driving the belt which in turn powered the mechanism. Unfortunately, the engineering knowledge of the time was unable to reconcile the impact forces of running with a suspended platform and the treadmills all ultimately folded, tragically killing a number of young apprentices.


Back on terra firma, it was, as ever, money which led to greater technological progress. Engineers in the Netherlands soon saw the potential of adapting da Vinci’s work to aid in the milling of flour. This commercial application also gave us the device’s english name. (Although Dutch used a similar term for many years, it has now been superceded by the more contemporarily accurate loopband.)

Perhaps inevitably, competitivity ensued. Dutch children would vie to see who could meet a baker’s daily needs in the shortest possible time. The best of these was Rennen van Broot, who could produce enough flower to make bread for a village of 50 before starting school. Unfortunately, scholars disagree on the appropriate loaves to miles conversion, so it is difficult to ascertain how his accomplishments measure up to his modern counterparts.

It took another 300 years for the treadmill to cross the Atlantic but, once it got there, it was a massive success. This was thanks in large part to the patronage of Abraham Lincoln. An avid fan of the newly developed incandescent lightbulb, the president married these two novel technologies to illuminate his private chambers in the White House after dark. Young slaves ran hour after hour to allow Lincoln to read before bed. Although not formally competitive, it is clear that performance on the treadmill was seen as a means for slaves to curry favour with their owners. On many a night these young men, most barely into their teens, would step off the treadmill exhausted after Lincoln insisted on rereading Tam O’Shanter into the small hours of the morning.

A subsequent boom in popularity of the treadmill as a means of exercise was led by the wives of wealthy plantation owners, who used the novel contraption to stroll in the comfort of their front porch, thereby avoiding exposure to the sun or people of lower classes. The first powered treadmills followed soon after, with the patent for the first training machine being granted in 1913.

A second zenith for the treadmill came at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet and U.S. navies got their strongest runners to race each other on treadmills placed in the bows of their largest ships.  Although better for the world at large than nuclear war, the runners suffered greatly. The nausea that modern ultra runners complain of is as nothing compared with that suffered by these poor souls on days when a westerly swell swept from the North Atlantic into the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, the runners themselves had little control over the distance or pace of their runs, their superiors believing that the relative weakness and strength of the runners was symbolic of the power struggle between the two nations.

The claims made by both sides for the distances and times achieved are viewed with scepticism by ultrarunning statisticians. Not only was there great incentive for exaggeration, it has also been suggested that the runners were subject to certain ‘pharmaceutical enhancements’. These suspicions were all but confirmed when in a 1982 interview with Time magazine Hubert Gottfried, the most celebrated of the U.S. Navy runners, referred with a nod and a wink to what went on below decks.

Questions of sporting legitimacy aside, treadmill manufacturers were quick to pounce on this free global advertising. Great claims were made about the treadmill as a source of national pride and their utility as a means of keeping fit in a fallout shelter were heavily emphasised, the latter remarkably foreshadowing the reasons for the treadmill’s current popularity.

Alas, the bubble had to burst eventually and treadmills became the windsurfers of their day, gathering dust in thousands of garages across the country. This decline was expedited by the banning of public exhibitions of treadmill running in the late 60s and early 1970s following the death of flamboyant beat generation ultrarunner Gizzard Flarvle.

In a controversial attempt to promote a new brand of electric treadmill, Flarvle, a renowned showman, was staging an attempt on the American 1000 furlong record on the Curiosities stage at the Newport Festival in 1965. Sometime shortly after halfway, ahead of record pace, Flarvle stooped to pick up a water bottle mid-stride and both beard and pony tail were caught in the mechanism of the treadmill. His support crew, reflexes blunted by incendiary means of organic relaxation, were slow to react and he was throttled live on stage.


Flarvle’s warm-up act, a folk singer.

(In one of those funny quirks of sports administration, remnants of the resulting regulations remain in effect. Bitter will have to make sure that his coiffure is within the rules or risk any record he sets being unverifiable.)

Treadmill running never fully recovered from this setback. Although it has always maintained a core group of devoted followers, they have largely been regarded by the broader running world as, at best, an esoteric sub-culture and, more often, a bunch of perverts.

Even now, as runners around the world are confined to their homes, most prefer to run laps of their gardens, sofas and balconies than to step on the loopband. Will Bitter’s run mark the resurgence of this once much loved device? Only time will tell.

Some Actual Facts

The 100 mile treadmill world record is 12:32, set by Dave Proctor. The women’s record is held by Edit Bérces who split 14:15 during a 24 hour run in 2004. The non treadmill records are 11:19 and 12:42, Zach Bitter and Camille Herron respectively.

Unfortunately, rollerblading is too euro centric to bother with silly things like miles, so it’s 100k or 24 hours or nothing. I wonder. . .

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