Incline Treadmill Running

Incline Treadmill Hill Workouts

Hill training should be an important part of every runners training. Whilst incline treadmill running will never match running hills on the road or on a trail, it can be a useful alternative to hill running. May be you live in an area without any hills? May be you’re prone to injuries following hill running on the road? May be 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.

Benefits of incline treadmill running

Incline treadmill running can be an effective way to gain some of the benefits of hill running. 

If you’re prone to injuries then treadmill hill training allows you to run hill intervals without the need to run back down the hill. In this way you gain the benefits of hill training (improved strength, muscular endurance, fatigue resistance, running efficiency, increased muscle fibre recruitment, training benefits for aerobic and anaerobic metabolism) whilst reducing the impact forces associated with having to run downhill afterwards.

Another advantage with incline treadmill running is that you don’t have to run right back down the hill to start your next hill repetition. You simply lower the incline and run until you are recovered and then repeat. So as well as reducing the impact associated with downhill running you also have greater control over the recovery periods. In addition you have control over the incline, removing the need to find a hill of the right length and gradient.

Another benefit of incline treadmill running is you can set an exact speed and gradient that remains consistent throughout the interval. With outdoor running, the gradient of the hill changes to some extent throughout the hill. Also your 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.

Whilst there are benefits to treadmill incline running. There’s also some negatives. 

The negatives of incline treadmill running

Firstly, there are benefits to downhill running and if we remove downhill running then we lose the training benefit from that. When we run downhill there is a greater level of eccentric muscle contraction. Eccentric muscle contractions are when a muscle contraction occurs whilst the muscle is lengthening. 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 is a highly beneficial training adaptation. Once the adaptation takes place our muscle strengthen and this can lead to a reduced risk of some running related injuries.

Secondly, whilst incline treadmill running can be useful for some hill training sessions – especially longer hills. It is less beneficial for some shorter faster hill sessions. It’s hard to safely and effectively, run short very fast efforts on the 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 the equivalent effort 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 intervals.

Incline Treadmill Workouts

How to set the pace for incline treadmill workouts

As with running hill intervals outdoors, when we run incline treadmill intervals we need to be thinking about the intensity of the intervals. Running at the same pace on an incline treadmill clearly results in increased work compared with running on flat terrain. However, the change (or increase) in work rate varies from person to person.

It’s never quite as simple as saying just run at a specific pace, such as 5k race pace, or run at a certain gradient to achieve a desired training benefit from incline treadmill running. There’s a wide range of individual variation that comes into play here.

Some people naturally find hill running easier. This can be due to a number of different 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 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 incline intensity

If you use a running power meter then it’s simply the case of setting the treadmill incline and then adjusting the speed until you hit the right 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 to match 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. Here it’s important to remember that when we run on a treadmill it is actually 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 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 Incline Treadmill Workouts

As with any interval session always include a good warm – ideally ~10minutes including 5minutes of easy running followed by some gradual accelerations. For the gradual accelerations increase speed from low/moderate intensity to near 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 certain muscle groups. Therefore we need to ensure we place the same emphasis on these muscle groups during the warm up.

As an example if you will be running the intervals at 16km/h and 5% incline then the accelerations could be 4 x 20second accelerations on 5% incline, separated by 60seconds of easy running on 0% incline: acceleration 1 = 14km/h, 2 = 15km/h, 3 = 15.5km/h, and 4 = 16km/h.

5km intensity incline treadmill workout:

  • 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 45seconds 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 incline treadmill workout

  • 5 x 2-3 minutes at VO2max** intensity (4-5% incline), with 2-3minutes very easy recoveries at 0% incline.
  • 10 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 workout

  • 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 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. Only do these sessions if you have a good level of training experience, are free of injuries and medical conditions. 

Treadmill Incline Running Summary:

  • Incline treadmill running can be an effective way to gain some of the benefits of hill running.
  • Some of the training benefits include: improved endurance, muscular endurance, fatigue resistance, running efficiency, improved aerobic and anaerobic metabolism
  • There is a much greater control of speed, gradient and recovery whilst running hills on treadmills – this allows you to maximize the training session and gain the greatest benefits from the workout.
  • A downside to treadmill running is we lose some of training benefits associated with the eccentric loading of downhill running. 
  •  It’s unrealistic to try to run very fast incline efforts on a treadmill.
  •  Treadmill incline intensity can be controlled by running power, heart rate, and grade adjusted speed.
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