On a rainy day, if you live somewhere flat, or if you’re looking for a change of scenery, walking or running on the treadmill can deliver a solid workout — especially if you play with incline.
Hill work on the treadmill allows you to strengthen different muscles and increase your heart rate to burn more calories, says Amanda Nurse, a run coach based in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Walking or running on incline is a great way to get a hard workout in if you are short on time.”
Here, four tips for conquering hills on the treadmill and the right way to use incline.
Of course, the treadmill should never replace your outdoor walks or runs. “It’s never going to give you the same training benefit that running outside over real terrain, in real weather conditions will,” notes Janet Hamilton, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a run coach and owner of Running Strong Coaching in Atlanta, Georgia.
But when your workout moves indoors, simulate a hilly running environment the right way with these four tips.
“To walk or jog as if you are outside on a flat surface, the treadmill incline should be at 1.0–1.5,” says Nurse. “A 0.0 is a downhill slope, which will primarily work your quadriceps.”
It’s a good idea to have 1.0 be your default, explains Jess Movold, a coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City. “This little bit of resistance will simulate walking outdoors and take away the small amount of assisted movement that is inevitable on a treadmill.”
Crank up the incline only after a good warmup at 1.0. “Give yourself at least five minutes of an easy walk or jogging,” says Nurse.
Hill work helps develop tolerance to the same speed on flat ground which can improve walking and running efficiency, says Movold. But a key part of achieving this is making sure the treadmill matches real terrain as much as possible. You don’t need to spend 10 minutes at a 12% grade (nor would you do that in an outdoor workout). “Poor form will easily set in with fatigue and could lead to injury if you’re not careful,” she says.
Aim for an incline between 2.0–5.0. “A 5.0 incline is really steep,” says Nurse. “Anything more than that isn’t something you’d come across much unless you are mountain climbing.”
Walk or run on a flat road all the time? “Make your changes gradually and systematically and monitor how your body is responding before you determine the load for subsequent workouts,” says Hamilton.
Start out easy, at 2.0–2.5, for example, and build up to steeper inclines to minimize the risk of injury, suggests Nurse.
An example: Do 2 minutes at an incline of 2.5 at your 80% effort, 2 minutes at 1.0 increasing speed slightly, then 1 minute at an incline of 0.0 easy.
Always make room for ‘flats’ like that in your repeats, too. “Sometimes, people will go from a steep incline to 0.0,” says Nurse. “It’s a good idea to give yourself at least 30 seconds at a plateau of 1.0–1.5 before the decline.” It helps your body adjust from predominantly hamstring and calf work to quad-heavy work, she says.
A manageable incline (2.5–3.5, for example) allows you to maintain good form (Think: Shorter strides and strong arms swinging straight back and forth).
You want to maintain that form as you increase incline or speed. If your form starts to go, slow down. If you’re able to do hills with proper form, you can then play with speed. Says Movold: “The benefits of working on inclines while on a treadmill is that you are in control of both difficulties — speed and elevation — and can really focus on quality improvements.”