News & Updates

Low-Tech Alternative to AlterG on Market

By Michelle Hamilton

Minnesota physical therapist has invented a treadmill device that reduces a runner’s body weight by 20 to 30 pounds, decreasing the impact on the body and enabling faster workouts.

LightSpeed is a low-tech simulation of the AlterG treadmill, used by a wide range of athletes, from Alberto Salazar’s squad  in Oregon to NFL players. The purported benefits of these reduced-body-weight systems include less injury risk (because of a lower amount of repetitive stress), speedier recovery from injury, and faster times. LightSpeed’s price—$1,800 to the AlterG’s minimum of $25,000—should make it available to a wider audience than that of the AlterG.

Unlike the AlterG, which uses a high-tech air pressure-controlled chamber to lift runners, LightSpeed looks like a relic of the 1970s (remember the shaker?). A metal frame fits around a treadmill, and bike shorts are attached by Velcro to bungee cords clipped to the frame. The shorts act like a harness, suspending the runner over the treadmill. Adjusting the frame height lets you control how much weight is eased off your stride.

“It’s amazing,” says Karla Winterfeld, 27, a runner and middle school teacher in Duluth, Minnesota. Winterfeld began running on the LightSpeed about a year ago while rehabbing a pelvic injury. She’d gone to see the device’s creator, physical therapist Malcolm Macaulay, while he was testing the current model at his clinic.

Now healed and training for half marathons, Winterfeld runs on the LightSpeed once a week. “It helps my form, my speed, and I worry less about injuries, so it’s really made a difference for me in all aspects,” she says.

Macaulay, who’s been a physical therapist for 28 years, likes giving his injured athletes the chance to run. “Runners are the worst. They don’t want to stop running, so it helps them get their fix,” he says.

LightSpeed is preferable to pool running and the elliptical because you retain the benefits of running’s impact, says Macaulay. That is, because there’s some pounding, you’re still strengthening the ligaments, tendons, and muscles specific to running, but you’re controlling the dosage.

LightSpeed (and AlterG, for that matter) can also be used as a training tool by healthy runners. Because you can run faster on the treadmills (the lighter you are, the faster your pace), you can practice quicker leg turnover. (Runner’s World columnist Peter Sagal has written about his experience with this feature of the AlterG.) The faster pace also recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers and stimulates improvements in neuromuscular pathways, meaning that your central nervous system can better communicate with working muscles. These improvements can be attained off the treadmills, of course, with serious sprint workouts and short, all-out hill repeats, but working on turnover on the treadmills should reduce muscle soreness because less impact limits tissue breakdown.

Angel Hohenstein, a 34-year-old triathlete and a former patient of Macaulay’s, hops on LightSpeed for 60 to 90 minutes at the Duluth YMCA. Like Winterfeld, she initially used the treadmill as a rehab tool, but it’s become a means of building volume and working on speed for an upcoming Ironman. “I’m injury prone, so it was a way to get in miles with less risk,” she says.

At Hohenstein’s recommendation, the Y purchased the system just under a year ago when it was still in trials. The center now boasts two, and fitness director Tara Gallagher has seen rising interest thanks to new posters and demo clinics.

Gallagher believes LightSpeed adds value to the facility, and not just for veteran runners. “It really helps new runners get past the growing pains,” she says. The reduced weight makes running more comfortable so members stick with it. And it’s fun, she says, like floating on air or being on a trampoline.

For some chronically injured runners, the device pockets just enough body weight that they can run. An older member got on the machine and after a few easy strides was beaming; he hadn’t run without pain in 30 years. (Hygiene note: Runners purchase their own pair of shorts.)

As a gym manager, Gallagher appreciates the fact that LightSpeed isn’t exclusive to one treadmill. She can move it to different models as needed, and members who don’t want to use it can still run on that treadmill; they simply don’t clip in.

Macaulay hopes that LightSpeed will become standard equipment at gyms, universities, hospitals and other fitness and rehab facilities. Two physical therapy clinics, including Star Physical Therapy in Franklin, Tennessee, are testing LightSpeed to positive reviews.

Star physical therapist Dave Kempfert says its rehab applications are many, particularly for patients with total hip and knee replacements and those transitioning from aqua to land therapy. A surprising benefit: “It’s helped one women, a soccer player, overcome a mental barrier,” he says. “She thinks, ‘Oh, this is just my pace, I can’t go any faster.’ But hitting a faster pace on the LightSpeed has boosted her confidence that she can do it on land.”

Ultrarunner Scott Jurek tried it and liked it, says Macaulay. He suspects, though, that he won’t use it much. “Some runners say, ‘Why go on a treadmill when I can be on the roads or trails?’ ” Macaulay counters by explaining that runners can see results with just two short sessions a week. After a pause he adds, chuckling, “I don’t think I’m reaching them.”

Original article appeared in Runners World NewsWire August 16, 2012.