Hill training is a proven way to increase strength endurance, efficiency, and running speed. But what if you live somewhere without hills? Or maybe you are prone to injuries when running on the road?… One option here is to include some incline treadmill running workouts.
Whatever your reason, incline treadmill intervals can be beneficial for runners.
In this article we’ll look at:
- The pros and cons of incline treadmill workouts
- How to gain the most from them
- Some example treadmill hill workouts
Benefits of Incline treadmill workouts
Incline treadmill running can be an effective way to gain the benefits of hill running.
Whilst it’s preferable to run hills on the road, or off-road, there are 3 advantages to using treadmills:
#1 Reduced Impact forces
If you’re prone to injuries, then the treadmill incline allows you to gain the benefits of hill running intervals without pounding the pavement. It also eliminates the need to run back down the hill afterwards. You simply lower the incline, run until recovered and then repeat.
In this way, you gain the benefits of hill training (improved strength endurance, fatigue resistance, efficiency, aerobic and anaerobic capacity), whilst removing the impact forces associated with downhill running.
#2 Greater control over the recovery
One feature of hill running workouts is the downhill recovery. While this works really well during short hill repeats; if you’re running longer hills this means that you have a long downhill recovery. With the treadmill incline, you have complete control over the downhill incline and the length of recovery. As an example, you could run longer 10k intervals on an incline and pair these with short recoveries on a flat incline.
#3 Greater control over incline and speed
Another advantage is you can set an exact speed and incline. And unlike with outdoor hills, this remains consistent throughout the interval.
With outdoor running, the gradient of the hill changes (to some extent) throughout the hill repeat. Your pace will also fluctuate when running outdoors. With treadmills, this remains consistent — unless you change the speed.
Whilst there are obvious benefits to treadmill incline running. There are also some negatives…
The negatives of treadmill incline running workouts
First, it’s important to recognize there are benefits to downhill running. When we run on a treadmil without a decline running function we lose that training benefit. Here are some negatives of treadmill incline running:
#1 Reduced eccentric loading of muscles and tendons
When we run downhill, our muscles contract differently. One key difference is a greater level of eccentric muscle contractions. Simply put, this occurs when a muscle fibre contracts whilst the muscle is lengthening. A prime example is the quadriceps muscle during downhill running.
It’s this eccentric loading that leads to soreness, and the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a few days after running downhill.
Whilst this can be uncomfortable, it’s proven to benefit running speed. Research has also found that downhill running increases muscle power. This causes important training adaptations that make our muscles stronger and more resilient.
One major advantage is this reduces the risk of running related injuries.
#2 Less beneficial for short fast hill workouts like hill sprints
Second, whilst treadmill running workouts can be a useful alternative to outdoor hills — especially longer hills — they’re less useful for short hill repeats.
As an example, hill sprint workouts are extremely difficult to run correctly on a treadmill. And whilst you may run these at a decent pace, they definitely won’t match the effort or intensity of running and 8-10second hill sprint outdoors.
So, we’ve looked at some advantages, and disadvantages of treadmill incline running. Let’s look at how you can run treadmill hill workouts.
Treadmill Incline hill Workouts
When we run treadmill intervals on an incline, both the speed and incline determine the intensity.
So, how do you set the pace for incline treadmill running? Let’s take a look…
How to set the pace for incline treadmill running
When we use the treadmill incline, we need to adjust the speed to account for the incline. For example, if you wanted to run at 10k intensity on an incline of 5% you would need to adjust the speed (reduce the speed) to match an equivalent horizontal running intensity.
To complicate things, the effect of hill inclines varies between runners — some runners struggle more with increasing gradients.
It’s never as simple as just saying “increase the incline to x and then run at 5k pace”. This doesn’t account for individual variations in our hill running ability.
This can be because of several factors — bodyweight, limb length, individual difference in the strength of certain muscle groups (calfs, quads, glutes, hamstrings etc), running efficiency, running cadence, aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
So, instead of focusing on pace, we need to be considering intensity. Or attempting to match a certain intensity — Mile, 5k, 10k pace, etc.
To do this, we need to be considering things like perceived effort, heart rate and running power. Using a running power meter like the Stryd Footpod, can work particularly well for incline treadmill running.
Using Running Power for Treadmill Hill Workouts
If you use a running power meter, then it’s much simpler to match the treadmill incline to an outdoor running speed. You set the treadmill incline and adjust running speed until you hit your target power zone.
Here, you just need to know the equivalent power for outdoor running. Such as the average running power you can sustain for 1500m, 3km, 5km, 10km, etc.
If you don’t have a running power meter, then another option is heart rate. This can work well during longer threshold pace intervals, but is less effective for anything above threshold intensity.
Another option is to estimate how much slower incline treadmill running should be, to match the equivalent horizontal running intensity.
Adjusting speed for incline treadmill running
One option here is to use the formula put forward by Jack Daniels, the author of the “Daniels’ Running Formula,”. He estimated running times slow by ~12-15seconds mile, for each percent of incline.
It’s important to recognize that when we run on a treadmill, it’s not always the same as running outdoors. When we run outdoors we have to work against air resistance. This isn’t the case with treadmill running. While this doesn’t have a significant affect at slower speeds, when running speeds reaches around 7minute mile pace the difference becomes more significant. And to reflect outdoor running we either need to increase the treadmill speed or increase the incline by 1%.
Example Treadmill hill running Workouts
As with any interval session, always include a good warm up: ideally a good 10 minutes including 5 minutes of easy running followed by some gradual accelerations.
For the gradual accelerations, increase speed from low/moderate intensity to interval intensity over a series of 4-5 accelerations. Run the accelerations on the same incline you will use for the intervals.
Why run the accelerations on an incline? Incline running places a different emphasis on running muscle groups and alters our running style. For example, uphill running encourages a forefoot running action. Therefore, it’s important to reflect this in the warmup.
As an example, if you’ll going to be running the intervals at 16km/h, and a 5% incline, then the accelerations could be 4 x 20second accelerations on a 5% incline. And run at speeds of: acceleration #1 = 14km/h, #2 = 15km/h, #3 = 15.5km/h, and #4 = 16km/h. With each separated by 60seconds of easy running on a 0% incline.
5km intensity incline treadmill hill intervals:
- 5-6 x 3-4 minutes at 5km race intensity* (4-5% incline), with 90-120 seconds easy running at 0% incline.
- 10-12 x 90seconds at 5km intensity* (4-5% incline), with 45-60seconds easy recoveries at 0% incline.
*remember this is 5km intensity — not 5km pace! The recoveries should be at a speed that’s easy enough to allow you to maintain the speed of the intervals. You may choose to use a standing recovery — that’s completely fine.
VO2max intensity treadmill hill workout
- 5-6 x 2-3 minutes at VO2max** intensity (4-5% incline), with 2-3minutes very easy recoveries at 0% incline.
- 10-12 x 60seconds at VO2max** intensity (4-5% incline), with 60seconds very easy recoveries at 0% incline.
**VO2 max intensity – this should be an intensity that you could sustain for around 8-10minutes in a one-off effort. Recoveries should be half the intensity of the efforts, or complete rest if needed.
Anaerobic endurance incline treadmill intervals
5 x 60 seconds at 800/1500m intensity*** (4-5% incline), 2-4minutes (depending on interval intensity) easy jogging recovery on 0% incline.
***an intensity somewhere between 800-1500m intensity — ideally this should be an intensity that you could sustain for around 3-5minutes in a one-off effort. Recoveries should be less than half the intensity of the efforts.
All 3 example sessions require a good level of fitness to complete. The VO2max and anaerobic conditioning session are challenging. So, only do these sessions if you have a good level of training experience, are free of injuries and medical conditions.