Fitness / Running

The Right Way to Practice Running Hills on a Treadmill

Expert tips to help you move on up.

There are so many reasons to run hills. It burns more calories than running on flat ground, improves your running form, and strengthens your muscles. And, it’s essential if you’re training for a hilly race. Hill training on a treadmill can be a super-effective way to get comfortable running hills. You can set it to the exact incline that you want and make the “hill” last for as little, or as long, as you can handle. But, running hills on a treadmill has its own challenges. It can be difficult to know exactly how far to turn up that incline and how long you should hold it there. Plus, hoofing it up a hill on the treadmill can feel unbearably tough.

“On the treadmill, the incline can be a little sharper than the hills you’d encounter outside,” says Aaptiv Trainer Jessica Muenster. “And, on an outdoor run, we have the benefit of distractions. When you’re climbing a hill, you’re looking at things around you and it’s easier because you’re not focusing on the hill.”

Good news: Dialing into the right incline and being conscious of your form can make running hills on a treadmill feel easier so that you can get the most out of your miles. Keep reading for Muenster’s tips about how to have your best ever hill workout on a treadmill.

Then, check out hill workouts in the Aaptiv app.

Focus on form.

When the going gets tough on the treadmill, a lot of people stiffen up and lean back, says Muenster. “The higher the hill, the more [that] you should be angled forward and driving from the knees,” she explains. For a posture that will help power you up the hill, “you want your body to be generally over your knees, so [that] your joints are lined up,” Muenster adds. Think about leaning forward a bit, but don’t hunch over. Keeping your chest lifted and shoulders rolled back will make breathing easier.

Get your arms in on the action.

Whatever you do, she says, don’t hold onto the side or front rails. For one thing, it can lead to knee problems. For another, your arms are a huge help when you’re ascending a hill. “Naturally your arms want to counterbalance your stride,” says Muenster. She advises focusing more intentionally on pumping your arms. “The faster your arms move, the faster your legs will follow to keep up.”

Adjust your incline.

So, what percent incline constitutes a hill? It totally depends on what type of workout you want. Think of a one percent incline as your starting point for a flat-road workout. Muenster suggests dialing up to two or three percent and keeping it there for a quick-paced, but steady workout, like a tempo run. The incline is small, but holding it for an extended period will amp up your fitness, notes Muenster. “Doing this builds your strength and will help get you faster on flats.”

If you prefer mixing it up with running hills and flats, dial up the incline higher. Go up to four or five percent incline for a sprint interval. Muenster suggests aiming for a minute or about 100 to 200 meters. If it starts to feel less challenging, increase the incline or the amount of time that you’re sprinting. (Want your workout to mimic hills on an actual race course or in your local park? Look online for the percent incline and length and adjust your intervals to match.)

For a hill-walking workout, pump up the incline even further. “To get your heart rate up, shift up and down, as needed, between five and ten percent incline,” suggests Muenster. “That higher incline is super-beneficial and will get you into a fat-burning zone, even if you slow down your pace.” 

Don’t skip recovery.

Don’t forget about the best part: the downhill. In between tough sections of hills during a run, Muenster suggests working in a recovery period: Lower the incline and slow your pace.

On an outdoor run, the decline is actually harder on your joints and muscles than the incline. Since you’re missing the downhill on the treadmill (most don’t have a decline setting), it’s a good idea to add some leg-strengthening moves, like lunges and squats, to your routine after you finish the run.

Aaptiv has workouts that will help you strengthen your legs that can be done anytime, anyplace. Check them out in the app.

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