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Treadmill Training: Why I Became a ‘Virtual Coach’ Convert

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A trail runner finds sage advice in a virtual-coaching program from iFit. It changed his view of what a session on a treadmill screen can do.

It’s 3 miles to the Beagle Channel. I’m running in Patagonia, near the tip of South America, a few steps behind a virtual trainer on a screen.

The machine hums under my feet. A treadmill, the Commercial 2950 model from NordicTrack, speeds up and then tilts, a dynamic simulacrum of the terrain ahead.

I came to this review with some skepticism. As a serious runner, I train mainly outdoors. However, treadmills have played a significant role in my fitness regimen for years. But a virtual coach training me from a screen? It seemed like too much.

My coach was Tommy Rivers Puzey. He’s a real person, an accomplished ultrarunner, and one of more than a dozen trainers available via the iFit program on my treadmill’s 22-inch screen. Throughout a recent 30-minute workout, Puzey earned my trust.

After testing iFit for weeks, I had several ah-ha moments during one particular session in the virtual forest with Puzey on the outskirts of a remote Patagonian town.

Editor’s note: GearJunkie originally published this article in November 2019. Due to the huge number of people training at home due to COVID-19, we refreshed this article on Feb. 8, 2021.

iFit Personal Training

Since iFit’s inception in 1999, the company has made it a goal to improve the experience of working out on an exercise machine.

Built-in screens and connectivity changed the paradigm for treadmill companies. iFit hopped into that with its lush visual scenes, onscreen workout classes, and, later, virtual coaches. These coaches focus on fitness during sessions that you can watch once or view as a series, building toward achievable goals.

It’s a library of content in constant evolution, with new sessions added every week. Over the years, the iFit project has included a partnership with Google Maps (which is ongoing), the formation of a massive studio space for filming in Utah, and video shoots around the world.

You can now jog through European capitals, run along tropical beaches in Hawaii and Thailand, and even trek up the flank of Mount Kilimanjaro. A multiday program lets iFit users virtually summit the 19,341-foot African peak.

NordicTrack X22i Incline Trainer Treadmill iFit

There are thousands of workouts in the library, and the company has produced on-location shoots from all seven continents and more than 50 countries. iFit touts itself as “more convenient than a gym, more affordable than a personal trainer.”

iFit: How Subscriptions Work

Pricing starts at $15 per month, and iFit works with a range of NordicTrack and other ICON exercise equipment. (If you have multiple devices, a single subscription works across a range of NordicTrack devices, including incline trainers, rowers, cycle machines, strength towers, and fitness mirrors).

I ran several sessions over summer 2019, and then in the fall I picked Puzey’s course in Patagonia. I wanted to relive a region I knew well after an expedition to Tierra del Fuego years ago.

The scenery was sublime, as expected, with misty forests and ocean views. But what surprised me was Puzey’s dialogue, which meandered from fitness tips to a historical tutorial on the area’s scourge of invasive beavers.

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iFit Virtual Training

They’d come from Canada as a failed experiment in habitat relocation. I knew those beavers too well from my time in Patagonia. One day, after more than a week in the wilds in 2010, we encountered a decimated forest stretching for miles. It was the result of seemingly innumerable beaver dams.

Puzey pointed at an affected area like that off the trail. The talk and the scenery on the screen were a positive distraction as I ran. Initially, that’s what I envisioned iFit would be: an alternative to staring at a TV or zoning out to a podcast as treadmill minutes and miles ticked away underfoot.

Graph view of the workout near the tip of South America

But Puzey proved me wrong — and it wasn’t just the beavers. From the start of the session, he gave legitimate tips on running technique. He talked about cell physiology and V02 max in an uncomplicated way. The conversation throughout the 31-minute run, which is titled “Gable Island, Argentina” in the iFit library, was stacked with invaluable information if you listened close.

For example, at one point near the beginning of the session, Puzey talks about upper body considerations and form. He notes a runner should avoid twisting the body or swinging the arms too much from side to side. Instead, runners should direct all motion (arms included) linearly ahead in the direction of their run.

NordicTrack iFit: Useful Advice for Virtual Runs

This sounds basic. But it took a long time for me to ever hear that advice as a beginner runner years ago. I changed my arm movement and focused on posture and gait. It was a significant step toward increasing my efficiency and speed, and I wish I’d known this sooner.

Another example from iFit: Right at the start of the Gable Island run, Puzey talks about the importance of warming up before a hard run. I was feeling impatient at the time and almost sped the treadmill pace ahead of the program’s prescribed speed.


Instead, I listened to Puzey, who explained the “why” behind taking a few minutes to warm up. It was a weird moment of mind-reading, as he seemed to rebuke my questioning as soon as it came to my head.

Warming up, he said, is useful because once you’re literally warmer and beginning to sweat, that’s a good indicator that on a cellular level your body is more ready for the rigors of exercise ahead. As a sprint-from-the-gate kind of guy, the information on why warming up matters now sticks as usable advice.

Review: NordicTrack Treadmill With iFit

Hills and twisting trails were a part of the virtual run. The iFit program worked seamlessly with the NordicTrack treadmill, speeding up, slowing, tilting on ascents, then declining as the ersatz path went downhill.

I’d moved a NordicTrack 2950 into my basement a few months ago for a test. It’s a solid machine and has found a place in my weekly regimen. Indeed, in 20 minutes flat, I can pace out 3 miles on a sprint day. Workouts via iFit range from beach jogs to mountain runs, where the NordicTrack inclines up to 15%, mapping the virtual hills.

The NordicTrack Commercial 2950 treadmill is a portal to the virtual-training world

To be sure, I run outside for many of my miles. I compete in trail races and do an ultra or marathon most years. But the treadmill is a part of my training regimen. In winter, I love to run on snow some days. Other times, the convenience of an indoor option is alluring when roads get icy around my neighborhood.

Based in Logan, Utah, ICON Health & Fitness Inc. is the world’s largest manufacturer and marketer of fitness equipment. It owns a suite of brands, including iFit and NordicTrack. Dubbed a commercial treadmill, the NordicTrack 2950 is a high-end machine with a price tag to match.

A metal-frame incline feature, reliable build and motor, a fold-up design, integrated fans, and a large, vibrant touchscreen that comes ready to run iFit justify its $2,999 price tag. A one-year iFit subscription is included.

Virtual Run, Real-World Results

Back in Patagonia, a camera followed tight behind Puzey the whole time, giving the trick of having a running partner just a couple steps ahead.

At the start, my screen revealed the 31:30 workout would include one-minute VO2max intervals “where you’ll run at an intensity level of 9.” I would burn 356 calories. The workout would tackle 2.77 miles and gain almost 300 feet.

Closer to the Beagle Channel, Puzey explained workout thresholds and intensity zones. He mentioned cellular mitochondria and their integral role in increasing holistic fitness as you train. You get a breakdown on V02 max.

NordicTrack X22i Incline Trainer Treadmill iFit

In a half-hour with iFit, I heard training advice and information that took years for me to learn in the real world through casual training. I’d paid coaches for blood-lactate tests and heart-rate regimens. People assessed my gait and form.

Though a session on a screen isn’t a stand-in for personal coaching in life, I was impressed by the quick depth Puzey presented on a sprint through the Patagonia forest.

The company noted it had an original goal of improving education and expertise through trainer-created workouts. IFit developed programs to hook runners with progressive sets of workouts to build engagement through motivation to finish circuits and reach goals over days or weeks.

Athletes can work out with a trainer at the iFit studio

As the company puts it, “The iFit expertise is automatically integrated in the workout; all the consumer has to do is follow along.” iFit likes the term “interactive connected fitness” to describe its technology. There are many other treadmills with touchscreens and graphics or streamed workouts. But iFit has interactive facets like auto-adjusting speed, incline, and decline.

Virtual iFit Workouts: Good for All Runners

In the end, I became an iFit adherent, but I didn’t love every program. Certainly, you need to find the coach and class type built for your interest and fitness level. But as a whole, it’s a program that can benefit beginners and serious runners alike.

Check out the virtual world of iFit if you’re training indoors this winter. The round-the-world iFit scenery can be amazing to virtually explore. Coaches like Puzey provide motivation and direction that can be invaluable in obtaining a fitness goal.

See details on the NordicTrack 2950 treadmill here.

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