When I told my husband that the first treadmill studio on the West Coast was opening near our house in Marin County, Calif., he was skeptical. “They know we have amazing running outside, right?”
It might be exactly this attitude that has stopped treadmill studios, poised in the last few years to become the next SoulCycle, from expanding much beyond New York City. In the Big Apple, a lack of bountiful out-the-door running options—how many times can you loop around Central Park?—combined with snowy winters and a culture of top-notch group exercises classes has made it the ideal spot for treadmill studios to attract a growing number of runners. But in California, an abundance of warm weather and picturesque backdrops has quelled much of the demand for group running indoors.
Plus, says Laura Schmitt, co-founder of the new Thoroughbred Treadmill Studio in Mill Valley, Calif., a few miles north San Francisco, it’s an expensive business to front the overhead for, and it can be hard to find landlords willing to rent out space for a few dozen runners on treadmills to pound away in. “It took us a year-and-a-half to open,” she says.
While there are a handful of popular circuit classes that utilize treadmills for portions of the workout, like Orange Theory Fitness, Thoroughbred claims to be the first running-specific treadmill studio of its kind in the western U.S. What does that mean? Think: spin class, but running.
The studio is housed in a small stand-alone building near the local high school and not far from the start of the famous Dipsea Trail. I visited on opening day—so the massage room, weights room, and future pop-up area for visiting vendors were not yet finished—but most of the amenities were polished and gleaming. There are showers, lockers, extra hair ties if you forgot your own, and towels already draped across your reserved treadmill.
In the treadmill room, itself, the windows have been covered by curtains, so you need not feel self-conscious about your running—a danger, presumably, when running outside. Likewise, cloths had been placed over the display on all the treadmills, so that, while you can see your numbers, those running next to you or behind you can’t. The goal, said Schmitt, is to create “a safe environment.”
Thoroughbred has 20 Woodway treadmills in four rows, with the instructor’s machine located on an elevated platform flanked by speakers, making it possible to offer both form suggestions and encouragement in time with the music. While I don’t attend many group exercise classes, my understanding is that if you’re concerned about the long-term health of your hearing, then group classes are probably not a great option for you, generally speaking. But if you’re looking for something fun and motivating, then the pumping of the planned playlist in sync with a detailed workout fits the bill.
I attended Schmitt’s first public workout, but there are about a half-dozen instructors (all local speedy runners) teaching a variety of 45-minute classes throughout the week. Both Schmitt’s son, Jake, and her daughter, Caitlin, are among the instructors. In fact, it’s Jake, a former All-American collegiate runner and two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, who is the other co-founder of the studio.
Laura was her kids’ coach when they were at Redwood High School, and she and Jake now both coach there. She has long relied on the treadmill to get in certain workouts for her athletes. It’s possible to do hill repeats, for example, without the pounding descents wrecking your legs. Or, you can hone in on specific speeds without worrying about the vagaries of weather and road conditions. Many elite runners use the treadmill as a training tool for exactly these reasons.
But elite runners typically have very specific workouts in their training programs. The group treadmill classes, then, actually attract more of a range of people, from those who just want to get in a solid workout before work to those who are scared or nervous about running outside. (A caveat here: I, personally, am scared of bears and rapists, not running—though you could end up meeting both on a run, I suppose. So this framework doesn’t really resonate with me. But the numbers suggest that I am wrong, and that actually many people are nervous about running outside by themselves. Certainly, in the class I took, half of the group walked parts of the workout and some tried running for the first time ever, which I gathered was because they really felt comfortable, motivated, and safe for the first time.)
Our workout was hard and straight-forward, but never boring. After a warmup, we did some hill sprints, medium and shorter tempo efforts, and longer uphill running. During the long hill climb, Schmitt told us to imagine we were running with Adele, whose song was playing, up a popular local trail. “Adele’s slowing down,” she said, “but you’re not. You’re dropping Adele.” And, in my head, I totally dropped Adele. We followed that with a few more sprints and a last long hard effort, and then wrapped it all up with some active stretching. All-in-all, it’s more fun than running on the treadmill by yourself and, depending on how self-motivated you are, probably harder too.
For some people, of course, it’s not as much fun as running outside—but those people are always going to be skeptical. Plus, my husband was wrong about SoulCycle catching on too.