Hill training should be an important part of every runners training schedule. Whilst treadmill hill workouts will never match running hills on the road, or trail running, it can be a useful alternative to hill running.
May be you live in an area without any hills? Perhaps you’re prone to injuries when running on the road? Possibly, you just want a change to your routine, or, want a bit more control over the hill session? Whatever your reason, incline treadmill running can be beneficial for running training.
In this article we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of treadmill hill workouts and how to run hills on a treadmill.
Let’s start with looking at why you may choose to run hills on a treadmill.
Benefits of treadmill hill workouts
Incline treadmill running can be an effective way to gain some of the benefits of hill running. Here’s 3 benefits of using treadmills to run hills:
#1 Reduced Impact forces
If you’re prone to injuries, then treadmill hill workouts allow you to run hill intervals without the need to run back down the hill. You simply lower the incline and run until you are recovered and then repeat.
In this way, you gain the benefits of hill training (improved strength, muscular endurance, fatigue resistance, running efficiency, increased muscle fibre recruitment, improved aerobic and anaerobic metabolism), whilst reducing the impact forces associated with road running and particularly downhill running.
#2 Greater control over the recovery periods
By eliminating the need to run back down the hill, you gain greater control over the recovery periods. In addition, you have greater control over the incline, removing the need to find a hill of the right length and gradient.
#3 Greater control over incline and speed
Another benefit of incline treadmill running is you can set an exact speed and gradient, which remains consistent throughout the interval.
With outdoor running, the gradient of the hill changes – to some extent – throughout the hill repeat. Also our pace, or effort level will fluctuate when running hills on the road or trail.
When running on the treadmill this doesn’t change – unless you change the speed or incline – and you have to match the speed of the treadmill.
Whilst there are clearly benefits to treadmill incline running. There’s also some negatives.
The negatives of treadmill hill running workouts
Firstly, it’s important to remember there are benefits to downhill running, and if we completely remove downhill running, then we lose that training benefit. Here’s some of the 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 contracts whilst the muscle is lengthening. A prime example is the quadricep 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, our body soon adapts. In fact, this causes important training adaptations. Once this adaptation takes place, our muscles strengthen and become more resilient. And overtime this leads to a reduced risk of running related injuries.
#2 Less beneficial for short fast hill workouts like hill sprints
Secondly, whilst treadmill running workouts can be a useful alternative to some hill training sessions – especially longer hills. It’s less beneficial for some shorter faster hill intervals – like hill sprints – which can’t be run effectively on a treadmill. And whilst you may be able to run these at a decent pace, they’re unlikely to match the effort or intensity of running hill sprints outdoors.
So, we’ve looked at some of the benefits and negatives of incline treadmill running. Let’s look at how you can run treadmill hill workouts.
Treadmill hill Workouts
When we run treadmill intervals on an incline, the intensity is determined by both the speed of the treadmill and the incline. And, if we just increase the incline and run at the same pace as flat terrain running, then our work rate will increase.
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
So, when we use the treadmill incline, we need to adjust the speed to account for the incline, in order to match an equivalent flat terrain running intensity.
To complicate things, the change (or increase) in work rate varies from person to person.
When we use the treadmill incline, it’s never quite as simple as just saying “increase the incline to x and then run at 5k pace”. That doesn’t tell us how intense that is and it doesn’t account for individual variations in hill running ability.
Clearly, some runners naturally find hill running easier. Which can be due to a number of factors such as bodyweight, limb length, individual difference in the strength of specific muscle groups (calfs, quads, glutes, hamstrings etc), running efficiency, running cadence, aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
So, instead of just focusing on pace we really need to be considering intensity. Or, trying to match a specific intensity.
Here, 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. It’s just a case of setting the treadmill incline and then adjusting the speed until you hit your target power zone.
For this you just need to know the equivalent power for outdoor running. Such as the running power you can sustain for 1500m, 3km, 5km or 10km.
If you don’t have a running power meter then another option is using heart rate. This can be useful for longer threshold pace intervals but less beneficial for anything above threshold intensity.
Another option is to estimate how much slower incline treadmill running should be, in order to match the equivalent flat terrain running.
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 that running times slow by ~12-15seconds mile, for each percent of incline.
It’s important to remember that when we run on a treadmill, it’s actually slightly easier than running on the road. In fact, research has shown that a treadmill incline of 1% best reflects outdoor running.
So if you set the treadmill incline to 5%, in reality it is more like 4% when running outdoors. This difference is mainly due to the wind resistance associated with outdoor running.
Example Treadmill hill running Workouts
As with any interval session, always include a good warm up: ideally ~10minutes including 5minutes 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. The accelerations should be run on the same incline you will be using for the intervals.
Why run the accelerations on an incline? Incline running places a slightly different emphasis on running muscle groups. Therefore, you need to ensure that you place the same emphasis on those muscle groups during the warm up.
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.
These could then be separated, by 60seconds of easy running on a 0% incline. Here, the acceleration speeds would be approximately: acceleration #1 = 14km/h, #2 = 15km/h, #3 = 15.5km/h, and #4 = 16km/h.
5km intensity treadmill hill intervals:
- 5-6 x 3-4 minutes at 5km race intensity* (4-5% incline), with 90-120 seconds easy recoveries at 0% incline.
- 10-12 x 90seconds at 5km intensity* (4-5% incline), with 45-60seconds easy recoveries at 0% incline.
*5km intensity – not 5km pace! Recoveries should be at a speed that’s easy enough to allow you to maintain the speed of the intervals.
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.
**VO2max 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.
Anaerobic endurance incline treadmill intervals
5 x 60 seconds at 800/1500m intensity*** (4-5% incline), 3-4minutes 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 particularly challenging. So, only do these sessions if you have a good level of training experience, are free of injuries and medical conditions.