The Benefits of Hill Running and a Treadmill Hill Workout

The Benefits of Hill Training + Rolling Hills Treadmill Workout | This Runner's Recipes

In my recap of week 1 of Portland Marathon training on Monday, I promised I would share a treadmill hill workout with you! I did a six mile run with rolling hills (0.25 mile climbing 3-7%, 0.15 mile at 0%) and climbed nearly 700 feet, which is a lot for my flatlander legs! I modified the workout to make it easier to remember (because who likes complicated workouts?) and am sharing it with you today! 

The biggest mistake I made in my training for the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon was not doing enough hill training. By the end of that race, my quads felt shredded, my hip flexors were burning, and I had finished 3 minutes slower than my goal time.

Where I had trained for that (Valparaiso, IN, a suburb of Chicago) was flat. The nearest “mountain,” which is Mt. Baldy at the Indiana Dunes, could serve as an easy warm-up for some of the hills out here, especially in the Issaquah Alps or in downtown Seattle. Hill training in Valpo left me with two options: running up and down a hill on the busiest street in town (pass, Valpo drivers are like Chicago drivers) or adding hills in on the treadmill…which I barely did.

I anticipated that once we moved to Seattle, I would be running on super hilly routes every day. After all, downtown Seattle is the type of place where you drive with one foot on the gas and one foot on the break.

The Benefits of Hill Training + Rolling Hills Treadmill Workout | This Runner's Recipes
So beautiful, but so flat as it’s right along a river.

Surprisingly, the Eastside of Seattle is flatter, at least on the major running path. Since most of the paved running trails follow a body of water and are made for cyclists, these paths have very variation in their terrain and all of my runs end up with very little uphill or downhill running. There are plenty of hills near me, but again, they are all on very busy roads and Seattle drivers are more unpredictable than Indiana drivers.

So, while I continue to search for a safe and hilly route nearby, I have been utilizing the treadmill for my hill training. While the treadmill is never a perfect match for outdoor running, the option on most treadmills to go up to a 15% incline does offer a desirable alternative for those who do not have easy access to hilly routes.

The Portland Marathon is not a hilly marathon by any means, unless you’re comparing it to the pancake-flat Chicago Marathon. Still, I’m including hill training in my marathon training in order to strengthen my lower body muscles, build speed, increase my fatigue resistance, and overall have a better race.

The Benefits of Hill Running

What are the benefits of hill running?

  • Hill running doubles as speed work without putting as much strain on your body as traditional speed intervals. It’s simple physics: when you run up an incline, you have to work harder to maintain the same pace than you would on flat ground. So if you are running at a 10 minute per mile pace (6.0) on the treadmill but at a 5% incline, your exertion would be the same as if you were running at an 8:20/mile pace (7.2) on flat ground. If you ran an 8 minute mile (7.5) at a 5% incline, this would be the equivalent of a 6:55 minute mile!
  • Hill running strengthens the muscles in your butt and legs. As you run up a hill, you are explosively pushing your body weight up on leg at a time, which creates microtears in your glutes and quads. On your way down, you use your hamstrings to propel you forward and keep you balanced. The result? Your legs endure a tough workout, similar to doing dozens of squats, lunges, and plyometrics jumps, and as your muscles repair themselves, your lower-body muscles will become stronger and more fatigue-resistant.
  • Hill running provides advantageous training for your brain. Powering up a steep hill will build your confidence in your running; this confidence will help you stay motivated and help you practice positive self-thought on race day. As with any challenging workout, running at steeper inclines will also train your brain to push through the signals of discomfort and maintain the pace.
  • Hill running improves your aerobic capacity, which will help you stay strong even during those painful and challenging last moments of a race. Most races will have some variation in elevation, so training on hills will prepare you to run up and down hills repeatedly while maintaining at race pace. Hill running will also improve your ability to quickly recover after climbing a hill, which again will help you quickly return to your original pace after running up a hill.

Rolling Hills Treadmill Workout

There are three primary hill running workouts: hill sprints, hill repeats, and rolling hills. Hill sprints are short and intense efforts, such as 20 x 15 seconds sprints up a 10% incline. Hill repeats are longer, but are still anaerobic, such as 8-10 repeats of 2 minutes at 5K effort or 5 minutes at half marathon effort up a hill. Rolling hills are exactly as they sound: running up and down moderate to steep hills for an extended period of time at an even effort.

This treadmill hill workout features rolling hills from a 3%-6% incline, with 0% incline used as a substitute for downhill running. After a mile warm-up at 1-2% incline, you will run up a hill for ¼ mile, then at 0% for a quarter mile. Each hill gets progressively steeper until you take a quarter mile recovery and then start climbing all over again.

If you want to make this workout more challenging, shorten the recovery/downhill portions to 0.15 of a mile, raise the incline even more, or go for longer. Each hill cycle is about 2 miles, so you can customize the duration of this workout. If you’re a newer runner, do only one hill cycle or lower the inclines to make it easier.

 The Benefits of Hill Training + Rolling Hills Treadmill Workout | This Runner's Recipes

Pick an easy pace for this run, as you want to be able to maintain the same speed throughout the entire workout. Aim for about 1 minutes to 90 seconds slower than marathon pace (or roughly 2 minutes slower than 5K pace); if you don’t have a recent race time, keep the pace the same as your normal easy run pace.

[Tweet “Hit the hills for faster and stronger running with this treadmill hill workout from @thisrunrecipes #running #fitfluential”]

Questions of the Day:
How do you include hills in your training?
What’s your favorite workout to do on the treadmill? —> Hills or shorter speed intervals for me!


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18 Responses

  1. This is really helpful because I have no idea how to do a hill workout on a treadmill. I tried experimenting last winter but I had no idea what I should be putting the incline to. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with hills!

  2. I HATE hills on the treadmill. But I don’t mind them in real life. I got my start long distance running in NYC (Think Harlem Hill and Cats Hill and Riverside park–straight up the mountain) and VA (Cville is right on a ridge and next to the Appalachians). Then I came to Chicago. Now I am spoiled with flats pretty much everywhere, So wind becomes your hill workout!

    1. The hills in NYC and VA sound insane. And the Lake Michigan wind! I swear it comes from every direction at like 30mph, or at least it did on my side of Lake Michigan back in NWI. No wonder you’re so fast! 🙂

  3. You go girl. I’m so bad at incorporating hill work into my training cycles. I like to think that just running on routes that have some hills is enough haha. I really like that you put together this hill workout for the treadmill. It’s a great way to control pace and incline. And it has to help make the time go by much quicker! Favorite treadmill workout would be intervals, but even then after 5 I’m so bored.

  4. Thank you for sharing this workout! I am in Redmond and can find some pretty decent hills around here to torture myself with BUT…I still hit the dreadmill for more concentrated hill workouts (or “speed” for that matter…and it is “speed” becasue half the time I feel like a turtle trudging along). 🙂

    1. Thank you! I hope you enjoy it if you try it! From what I’ve seen of Redmond, there are some great hills, but the treadmill is so great for controlling and really focusing on the hills! 🙂

  5. I trained for my first (and probably only) marathon in DC, which is relatively flat, and raced in Pittsburgh (which wasn’t flat AT ALL.) It threw me for quite a loop on race day, but I learned my lesson! I now incorporate a lot of hill training in my spinning classes and my legs/glutes have gotten so much stronger!

    1. I’ve heard that Pittsburgh is super hilly! That’s great that you’ve done so much hill training in spinning – maybe there will be another marathon in your future 🙂

  6. Thanks so much for the training tips! Hills + treadmills boggled my brain too much to even think about … until now. I think if the RnR tomorrow doesn’t kill me, I’ll try this out Monday 🙂
    Luckily I’m surrounded by hills (Fed Way) so I can’t avoid them like a tried doing for so long.

    1. Good luck on running RnR tomorrow – I bet all those hills in Fed Way will really help you conquer the Seattle hills! Let me know if you enjoy the workout 🙂

  7. Hello! Im an 18year or female and I recently discovered that I really like hill trainings on the threadmill. I usually do a 20 minute workout in wich I include 12.5 minutes of a 13% incline at a 5-5.5 speed (not pace) and 7.5 remaining minutes of a 15% (max) incline at a 4.5-5 speed rate… is it good or is it too difficult to be considered a good workout for your quads? I know that at some point it becomes endurance instead of muscle building/fat burning so I was wondering if it’s the case here! I end up really sweaty and super out of breath so I doubt it but I wanted to get your point of view on the workout 🙂 Alongside this cardio workout I do a all-body muscle workout as well
    Thank you for your help!

  8. Can you provide some scientific references on the benefits of hill training, in particular on muscle balancing, hip flexor and glute strengening?

    1. Thank you for commenting! Yes – Vernillo et al. (2017) provides a thorough discussion of the biomechanics involved in uphill and downhill running. While Lemire et al., (2020) look mostly at cardiorespiratory responses to hill training, they do address the interplay of muscular endurance and strength. Finally, Whiting et al. (2020) looks at EMG to understand muscle activation during uphill running compared to level running, particularly in the glute max, glute med, gastrocnemius, and soleus.

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