High-tech machine puts runners on the fast track


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A new piece of equipment has shown up in the training room at the Iowa Recreation Building, and odds are it’s something most have never experienced before.

The Alter-G machine looks more like a traditional treadmill than anything, but looks can be deceiving.

The $75,000 hardware uses anti-gravitational technology to allow athletes to run at a certain percentage of their body weight — between 20 and 60 percent, at 1 percent increments. This lets Hawkeyes battling lower-body injuries to train and go through rehab for their sport, even if they are too battered to compete.

The Alter-G works by letting air into a pressure-controlled chamber, a technique called "unweighting" that softly levitates the users based on how much of their body weight they wish to run on.

A 150-pound runner with a sprained ankle, for example, can still run and continue with endurance training with minimal or no pain on the Alter-G. If that athlete decides to run at 50 percent of his weight, he will feel as though he weighs only 75 pounds, putting less stress and pressure on the injury.

One doesn’t need any formal training to use the Alter-G. Before getting started, an athlete puts on a tutu-like skirt that zips onto the apparatus when it’s deflated. Once the machine is turned on and the correct amount of weight is specified, the apparatus will inflate itself and create an airtight anti-gravity chamber from the waist down.

The machine is overseen by Terry Noonan, the head of athletics training at Iowa, and it is located in the athletics training room in the Recreation Building next to Kinnick Stadium.

Noonan, who is in his first year at Iowa, said the reception from athletes has been excellent so far.

"It allows runners to train without the stress they would experience from running outside," he said. "They still get the same cardiovascular training on the treadmill, but with the air support, I can take their weight off. The outcome is [athletes] get better and are able to compete without going through that stress where they’re more susceptible to injury."

Athletes seem to agree with Noonan, and the ones who have used it haven’t offered any negative feedback.

Junior cross-country runner Nick Holmes, who has battled a myriad of running-related injuries since stepping onto campus as a freshman, was the first person to use the machine at Iowa, and he said the effect it has had on his recovery process is immeasurable.

"I could tell within the first couple days it helped me," the Peoria, Ill., native said. "It helped my form and saved the pounding on my legs. We are so lucky to have it. People don’t realize how great it is — it’s really the best thing [runners] could ask for."

Holmes continues to use the machine about once a week.

The Alter-G isn’t limited to just track and cross-country runners — all Hawkeye athletes have access to the machine. An athlete doesn’t necessarily have to be battling an injury to use it, either, Noonan said. Many people run on the sophisticated treadmill as a preventive measure.

"I’ve got people I know that are susceptible to injury who are training on it," Noonan said. "This machine is helping probably two or three runners on our team be able to compete."

The Alter-G is also backed by Iowa coaches. Head men’s cross-country and track and field coach Larry Wieczorek said the contraption not only helps his current athletes get back into full form quicker, it helps make Iowa City an attractive destination for recruits.

"It allows one to do more volume of training," Wieczorek said. "And since it has less impact, it lets people run 20 to 30 more miles a week than one normally could if he was banged up… It also shows the commitment the University of Iowa has to cross-country. It’s an asset in the recruiting process, and shows we’re keeping up with the latest technology."

That technology isn’t cheap, and the machine’s steep price tag could drive away potential buyers — Noonan said the one in his office is the only one in the state. The university was able to get the machine at a reduced price because of an Iowa alum connection at the California-based company that produces the equipment. The details of the transaction weren’t disclosed.

Sophomore sprinter and middle-distance runner Adrianne Alexia, who uses the Alter-G while recovering from a stress fracture in her ankle, said the machine is worth every penny.

"It allows me to keep up cardio and allows me to still run without putting me on stop," she said. "I have been using it for a few weekends now. It’s a little early to tell, but I notice I’m fully able to do workouts without any pain.

"It’s a really great tool, and it’s basically going to save my running career."