GEAR

New machines aim to be a runner's hurt blocker

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The only thing more astounding than the number of runners nowadays — 541,000 finished a marathon last year, and 2 million ran a half-marathon — is the number of running injuries. The guesstimates never change: Every year, half of all runners get hurt enough that they must stop running — sometimes for a few days, sometimes forever.

Although running is a spectacular cardiovascular activity, the impact ultimately beats up your knees and hips and ankles. The risk of getting injured running is so high and so frustrating that it has led to an explosion of "soft" running methods in the last decade, such as the Pose Method, chi running and barefoot running. Likewise, injury reduction is the impetus for the rise of a new product category: the soft running machine, which lets you get a treadmill-like workout with little or no impact. These new products don't come cheap, but they work. For the hard core who want to cut the injuries, extend their running careers and get a real workout, going soft might be the way to go.

Running on springy sand

Sproing Trainer: A platform with a 6-inch adjustable cushion of high-density foam and air and a solid rear post holds your waist in place with a high-anchored retaining harness, causing you to lean forward as you run in place. A built-in air pump can adjust the running surface from very soft to soft.

Likes: A surprisingly satisfying workout — surprising because I thought this was a ridiculous idea before I tried it, but it definitely isn't. Running while leaning forward on what feels like springy sand, you naturally land on the ball of your foot and push off from the toes, forcing you into good (not heel-striking) form. The waist belt holds you in place and lets you run with a pronounced lean — so far forward that you could realistically fall without a belt holding you in place. Helping to keep you from getting bored is a digital control console that includes power in watts, distance traveled, time elapsed, average heart rate, average speed and calories burned. Attachments for stretch cords and straps allow for strength and jumping exercises.

Dislikes: At nearly 7 feet long and 5 feet high, it's bigger than a treadmill. It seems rather expensive for having no moving parts.

Price: $5,000; more with accessories. sproingfitness.com

Running on air

Octane Zero Runner: The non-motorized elliptical-looking apparatus with individual foot pads allows you to accurately replicate a real running motion with no impact. It has greater stride length/range of motion than an elliptical and less impact than a treadmill.

Likes: The most realistic running motion of any non-treadmill I've tried. While you can make a variety of movements, from an elliptical-like oval glide and an up-and-down stair step, the Zero lets you flow into a real running gait. That is due to a design that mimics the leg by placing pivot points at the knee and hips, and it includes a foot platform that can flex like an ankle. That allows you to flick your heel back and almost kick your own butt. Combined with the large potential stride length (I was hitting 50 inches at 6:48 miles, double the length of the best ellipticals), it feels very real. My heart rate, as expected, was a little less than on land by about 10 beats per minute, which actually encouraged me to go at a faster pace (which is displayed on the monitor along with elapsed time and stride length). Having a problematic right knee, the complete lack of impact was a dream for me. I could see runners using this to do a significant chunk (20% to 30%) of their training, thereby saving wear and tear on the joints without losing any conditioning. In that sense, it's like water running but more technique-specific. Plugless, self-powered, it is dead silent. It will be available in Busybody and other fitness stores Aug. 1.

Dislikes: There is a learning curve. It took me about 15 minutes to get into a natural hands-free running gait. Others may have to hold on to the pivoting handlebars, which can be used as part of an all-body elliptical-style workout. I think any serious runner could go hands-free by the end of a 30-minute session.

Price: $3,299. www.octanefitness.com

Running on a curve

Woodway EcoMill: This curve-shaped, electricity-free manual treadmill uses revolving, free-spinning rubberized slats on a track rather than a traditional tread belt on roller. To run faster, run up higher on the curve; to slow, drop back into the flatter section.

Likes: Great workout — unlike anything else. It's as challenging as you want it to be. No buttons to push — just move backward or forward on the slats. Woodway claims you'll burn 30% more calories than in a normal run, and I believe it. All the while, the shock transmitted by the rubber-coated aluminum slats is much less than in normal running and is lessened more by the uphill requirement. While it is nearly identical in looks to Woodway's motor-free Curve model, the EcoMill takes "environmentally friendly" one step further, as your movement of the tread slats powers an onboard generator system that produces energy for the display and can even be used to charge a phone or mp3 player through the USB charging port. The EcoMill can be synced with systems that can feed that self-created energy back into your home's electrical system, saving you money. Also, unlike a regular treadmill, the slat belt is maintenance free.

Dislikes: Other than the cost, nothing.

Price: $7,995. www.woodway.com

Running uphill, sort of

Bowflex Max Trainer: A new-style elliptical with arm stations provides a pseudo-uphill running motion.

Likes: It's a fine workout that I couldn't get enough of, even though the motion was not "real running" like the other three products in this review. Instead, it provides a satisfying ambulatory motion that is half-stepper and half-elliptical, giving you the feeling of running uphill when you go hands-free. When you use the two-position handlebars, you get a great upper-body workout. The programs are motivating; I especially liked a 14-minute interval training program with a bell that goes off as you reach certain calorie-burn thresholds. The machine has a small footprint, uses effective air fan resistance and includes a water bottle bay on the front. It is relatively inexpensive as elliptical machines go.

Dislikes: Only available for sale from the website. Personally, I like to have a store I can go back to if something goes wrong.

Price: $999 (M3) and $1,499 (M5, including more programs and heart rate monitor strap and readout). www.bowflexmaxtrainer.com

Wallack is the author of "Run for Life" and "Healthy Running Step by Step," co-written with Santa Monica physical therapist Robert Forster. roywallack@aol.com

health@latimes.com

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