Treadmill Incline Workouts for Runners

Treadmill Incline Workouts for Runners

Whether it’s snow, thunderstorms, or high heat that drives you inside, most runners inevitably run on the treadmill at some point in the year. And almost every runner has the same reaction: the treadmill is boring, even though it is beneficial for consistent training.

Speedwork is one approach to making a treadmill run more engaging. But it is not the only option for beating boredom on the treadmill. Incline workouts add variety, improve muscle activation, and may actually make you a stronger runner than intervals alone. Plus, incline workouts are fun!

The Benefits of Treadmill Incline Workouts

Since incline treadmill workouts are incredibly effective, you can complete a hard workout in 30-60 minutes. Time feels slower on the treadmill and many gyms have time limits, so 30-60 minutes is all you need anyway. Unlike speedwork, you can’t as easily compare paces to road running – and for many runners, it can be frustrating to not hit your road paces on the treadmill (although here’s why the treadmill might feel harder). 

Using inclines instead of speed improves your biomechanics on the treadmill. It is all too easy to overuse your quads and not fire your glutes on the perfectly flat surface of a treadmill – but an incline forces your glutes to work. The variation of inclines reduces the repetitive use of the same muscles, thus preventing the tight hips or calves that can result after a treadmill run.

Incline training can be adapted for the purpose of your workout, meaning you can incorporate it into almost every treadmill run. (Unless you are deliberately utilizing the treadmill to train on flats in a hilly area). You can adapt incline training for a base phase, hill segment, or race-specific training. If you find yourself relegated to the treadmill during winter or summer months, hill workouts will establish a base of strength before peak training in spring and fall.

The biggest benefit of these treadmill incline workouts? They build leg strength even if you live in the flattest region. Any runner will benefit from building strength. It’s almost a cliche that hills are speedwork in disguise, but it is a cliche that bears truth. Strength is speed for the long distance runner (5K and beyond), but without the wear and tear of speedwork.

One final note? Disregard all of those hill conversion charts you find online. When you consider issues such as the difference in heart rate, endurance, and RPE on the treadmill, they will not be completely precise. That’s not to mention individual variance. Focus on your perceived effort on these workouts.

Treadmill Incline Workouts for Runners

Easy Day Inclines
Purpose: Build endurance, recover from hard workouts

An easy run is a staple in every training plan; in fact, it likely is the bulk of your training. Easy runs are done at a conversational, comfortable effort and improve endurance, fatigue resistance, and injury resistance. When adding inclines, the overall purpose of the run – building endurance – must be maintained; otherwise, you end up in the gray zone of training, where the run doesn’t deliver as many training benefits but fatigue increases.

For an easy day incline workout, incorporate small rollers throughout the run. What exact incline you define as a “small roller” will vary based on where you live; this might be anywhere from 2-6% incline.

The workout:
40-60 minutes at a conversational, easy effort, repeating 3 minutes at 0-1% incline, 2 minutes at 2-5% incline.

Stamina Inclines
Purpose: Improve lactate threshold, learn how to control pace

This incline workout is similar to cruise intervals (also known as tempo intervals). Cruise intervals are designed to improve stamina by increasing your lactate threshold. These intervals are done at a comfortably hard effort (faster end of tempo pace) and last approximately three to ten minutes in duration, with short rest in between.

For this workout, the intensity, duration, and recovery remain the same. The only difference is that incline is used to increase the intensity, instead of pace. You may have to experiment with the incline and pace settings on the treadmill to achieve the appropriate intensity, but once you do, you will be rewarded with a challenging workout that builds both strength and stamina.

It is important to maintain an appropriate level of intensity. It is easy to run too fast on these intervals, especially the first few. These are not typical speed intervals – resist the urge to pace them as such. They should feel fast but steady and under control, close to 8K-10K effort for most runners. If you can speak a short phrase, you are pacing this workout appropriately.

The workout:
10-15 minutes at easy effort at 0% incline
4-5 x 5 minutes at 8K-10K effort and 4-5% incline, with 90-second recovery jog/walk at 0%
10-15 minutes easy effort at 0% incline

Speed Inclines
Purpose: Improve power output and leg speed

Intervals done at approximately 3K-5K pace will improve oxygen uptake and fast twitch muscle recruitment. However, these intervals place a large amount of stress on the body and can increase the risk of injury.

Hill repeats bear less risk of injury. They are not a perfect substitute for speedwork in terms of exact physiological adaptations. However, hill repeats lasting 45-90 seconds in duration will improve your form, leg speed, and power output.

For this workout, set the treadmill to a moderately steep incline – approximately 4-6% for most runners, although those accustomed to hills may increase all the way to 8%. Run the repeats at an effort that feels slightly like 5K effort or slightly faster. Instead of jogging back down for recovery, set the treadmill incline to 0% and the pace to a slow jog.

The workout:
10-15 minutes at an easy effort at 0% incline
8 x 45 seconds hard at 5-6% incline, 60-75 second recovery jog at 0%
10-15 minutes at an easy effort at 0% incline

Mental Toughness Inclines
Purpose: Toughen the mind against fatigue

In running, you are always training the mind along with the body. A long, continuous hill climb is mentally demanding. You must learn to focus on a long effort and become mentally comfortable with prolonged physical discomfort.

Physiologically speaking, this run will function similarly to a long tempo run or steady-state run. You can get the same psychological benefits at a slower effort, however; what matters is the extended uphill climb. 

The workout:
10 minutes at an easy effort at 0% incline
20-30 minutes at a moderate to moderately hard effort, with the incline set to 3-8% throughout the entire workout (start at a lower incline and shorter duration; as you repeat the workout and become stronger, set at a higher incline and longer duration)
10 minutes at an easy effort at 0% incline

Treadmill Incline Workouts for Runners

Of course, if you live in a hilly area, you can do these workouts of the treadmill.

Try more treadmill workouts:
Treadmill Workouts for Race Training from the 5K to Marathon 
6 Treadmill Workouts for Runners 
Easy Run Treadmill Workout to Beat Treadmill Boredom

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10 Responses

  1. Yes! I coach a lot of runners who don’t have hills in their area. The TM is your BFF for hills. I just used it for a walking TM incline workout on Monday. With 1 mountain races coming up, I’ll be doing a lot of power hiking up inclines in addition to running.

  2. I definitely do not need a treadmill for hill training around here but, as you mentioned, weather or kids being home can sometimes force me onto the mill and I have done a lot of very effective hill training on mine! It makes the time go by quicker and I actually prefer a hill workout to speed 🙂

  3. As I ponder another treadmill run (can you believe this weather?!), I’m happy to have some new ideas how to make it bearable. I don’t know if I’ll do inclines today but it’s nice to know that there are some good resources available for mixing it up!

  4. Fortunately I don’t need to use the treadmill very often, but when I do I tend to do a speed workout just because it seems to make the time go faster. These workouts will be a great alternative.

  5. I very very rarely run on a treadmill but I do know that I would probably benefit from doing so. We can’t really avoid running up and down hills around here so that helps! Great idea here pinning

  6. I rarely get on a treadmill but I think that a mental toughness workout is something I could use (once I can start running again!). I haven’t run on a treadmill in years but I used to only use it at 0% for intervals. great post!

  7. I ran on my treadmill ALOT this winter, and I had not done so in several years. It does feel so much harder than road running, for me I think it’s the boredom factor that makes it more difficult. I always have the incline on 2 or 3, but have not done any specific incline training….I’ll keep these workouts in mind the next time I’m forced to stay inside.

  8. love this. i do love playing with the incline on the treadmill for sure. i always keep it set at 1 % and then vary from there. I like to vary my incline as i warm up as it usually helps me to then move faster. Once i hit an incline of 5 though, i am working crazy hard! going to try one of these this weekend i think since it’s supposed to rain!

  9. You just saved my ass again! With access to an indoor track and these workouts ( ” Stamina” and ” Mental Toughness” my faves) weather is no longer a constraint for consistent and appropriate training! Thank you! I have always been a self- coached athlete , but am leaning more and more in your direction!

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