Take the weight off

Professional athletes are queuing up alongside 70-year-old grandfathers recovering from strokes to book a slot on the anti-gravity treadmill

Caroline Lyons in the AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill, at the Muscle Clinic in Clontarf, Dublin 3, with its clinic director, Pat Byrne. Byrne wanted to make the machine accessible to so-called ‘normal’ people rather than just the sporting elite. Photograph: Alan Betson

Caroline Lyons in the AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill, at the Muscle Clinic in Clontarf, Dublin 3, with its clinic director, Pat Byrne. Byrne wanted to make the machine accessible to so-called ‘normal’ people rather than just the sporting elite. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Back in 2008, word spread in US athletic circles that Nike was using new Nasa technology to train its sponsored athletes like Mo Farrah.

The “AlterG” treadmill was originally intended to be flown to the International Space Station. It was designed to mimic the effects of gravity in space so that astronauts could do weight-bearing exercise to avoid the loss of bone density – a hazard of the job.

Back on planet earth, this €38,000 piece of equipment is being used for the opposite purpose – to give a weightless workout.

Pat Byrne, owner of the Muscle Clinic in Clontarf, Dublin, which offers one-on-one rehabilitation training, brought what was then the first AlterG treadmill to Ireland 15 months ago.

The 59-year-old physiotherapist, with the posture and pep of a much younger man, learned of the machine from a friend who was on a sports scholarship in America. He immediately grasped its potential and wanted to make the machine accessible to so-called “normal” people rather than just the sporting elite.

It is unusual to find democratic technology coming from the likes of Nasa, but professional athletes are queuing up alongside 70-year-old grandfathers recovering from strokes to book a slot on the anti-gravity treadmill.

Its record in rehabilitation is impressive – speeding recovery after hip-replacements, treating obesity and easing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, osteoporosis and MS.

The AlterG is housed in a private room in the Muscle Clinic, which Byrne is planning to extend with the help of the crowd funding initiative Linked Finance.

To use it, you wear a pair of snug shorts that zip to a waist-high, tent-like structure surrounding the treadmill. Your lower body is now enclosed in an airtight chamber that begins to fill with air.


Running on pillows
The treadmill can reduce body weight in 1 per cent increments all the way down to 20 per cent. It feels like running on pillows. Or the very pleasant, very long-forgotten sensation of being eight stone again.

Caroline Lyons (65) was left debilitated and in bad pain after a full knee replacement.

“I couldn’t get up the stairs and was beginning to be afraid of driving so it was making me very immobile. I met a friend I hadn’t seen in about six months and she said, ‘For God’s sake, go to the doctor, you are walking like an old woman.’”

By coincidence, her GP had recently had a knee replacement and was training on the AlterG. He proudly dropped into conversation that he was running again for the first time since 1966.

Duly convinced, she began training twice a week and noticed a difference within a fortnight. After six months she was pain free.

“It helped because I could walk for a long time without feeling any pressure on the knee. I think I would have ended up house bound without it.”

Long-distance runner Caitriona Jennings trained on the AlterG to recover from a foot injury that saw her hobble, visibly upset, over the finish line at the marathon in the London Olympics in 2012.

American athlete Brian Hill, who is on a one-year sports scholarship in Trinity College Dublin, is also a user.

An 800m runner training for the 2016 Olympics, he had used the AlterG at Harvard (where he studied his undergraduate), whenever he got “banged up”, as he puts it.

He says it maintains his fitness while protecting healing tissue from the rough and tumble of regular training.

He got a knee injury while in Dublin and heard there was an AlterG in the city.

“I was hurt and we couldn’t figure out what it was for the longest time,” says Hill. “The AlterG allowed me to go for seven- and eight-mile runs with no pain when I couldn’t run more than 10 minutes on the ground at 100 per cent body weight.”


Weight loss
There are several clients on the books who use the treadmill for weight loss. Being able to remove up to 80 per cent of a person’s body weight not only eases pressure on their joints, it is a brilliant motivator, according to Byrne.

“If somebody is trying to lose 25 per cent of their body weight, as a 20-stone person would be, people can physically feel how they would be without the weight and it really gives them encouragement.”

Jean Treacy was an enthusiastic marathon runner until she had her thyroid removed 10 years ago. The operation paralysed her vocal chords and left it difficult for her to breathe properly.

“There was a whole lifestyle change for me when I had the operation. I couldn’t catch my breath so I had to give up running and ended up putting on a lot of weight,” she says.

After seeing the AlterG featured on RTÉ’s Nationwide in January this year, she began training twice a week at 60 per cent body weight and gradually learned to control her breathing.

“I am running about seven or eight miles every session now and have lost weight.” It has helped her achieve her dream of getting back to running.

“I am much more confident now with my breathing and am out running on my own in the park.”