The Treadmill Incline Debate

The winter months usually go hand in hand with the treadmill incline debate. A lot of runners training for spring races are forced to their treadmills because of snow, ice or freezing temperatures – and understandably, begin questioning the ability of the treadmill to train them properly for their goal race.

There are so many schools of thought on the treadmill incline. I know plenty of successful, strong runners who use either 0%, .5% or 1% (or more) when they are on the treadmill. But which is correct and what works best?

Short answer – I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I think you need to find what works for you and what you are comfortable with.

Each has perfectly reasonable arguments – both for and against. And I have tried all three – when I first started running, I never used the incline. A couple of years ago, I started using .5% incline for all of my runs and then after Potomac in November, I bumped it up to 1%.

I’ve been getting asked a lot lately about the incline I use for treadmill running (especially for my workouts) so wanted to share both my reasoning for using the incline as well as how I use it. But this isn’t a black and white argument. There are articles that are in agreement with my methods – and just as many that argue against it (see end of post).

– When I have the treadmill at 1% incline, the pace I’m running (and what the screen says) feels pretty close to what it does outside. I know what my warmup pace should feel like, what tempo should feel like, what mile repeats should feel like – and the 1% comes pretty darn close to that. These days, most of my workouts are on the treadmill because of the temperatures (or ice on roads).

– Mentally, I like knowing that I ran “x” minutes at “x” pace. It helps on other training runs (when I’m outside). It helps even more during the race. I pull from these runs and use it to keep pushing.

– I’ve tried increasing the pace (and keeping incline at 0 or .5%) so that it more closely resembles that pace outdoors – but my legs just feel like they are flying off the treadmill. Even if the conversion works out to be close to my goal pace for the workout, it feels different. There’s no resistance at all and it feels like I’m being supported.

I will add that I never keep the treadmill at the same incline from start to finish though. I’m always playing around with it – just like it would be outside – to change up the muscles I am using. I think keeping the treadmill at one incline for 10+ miles – whether it’s 0, 1 or 5% – can lead to injury. Here’s what I often do:

– Warmup: 0-1% incline with 20-30 sec hill climbs (1.5-2.5%) every 2-4 minutes
– Tempo and Intervals: 1% incline (these are the only times I keep it pretty consistent. I will often drop it down to .5 or 0% for the recovery periods)
– Long Tempo (part of long run – pace is slower than normal tempo): 1% incline with 20-45 sec hill climbs (1.5-2.5%) every 2-4 minutes to simulate rolling hills
– Easy/Recovery Run: 1% incline with 20-45 sec hill climbs (1.5-4.5%) every 2-3 minutes (getting ready for Boston Hills)
– Cooldown: 0-.5% incline with occasional short climbs

photo (32)

Please take what I am saying – and what I do – with a grain of salt. I made the transition to 1% gradually and after years of running with no incline and then at .5%. I started with just the workouts at 1% and eventually transitioned to almost all of my miles at 1%.

But also keep in mind that I’m not using the treadmill for every single run this winter. I am trying to get outside for at least my easy and long runs (3-5 runs/week). So, I’m not logging 60+ miles on the treadmill at 1% incline – which could potentially lead to overuse injuries (achilles, calves, etc) because of the prolonged and constant hill climbing. I try to limit my treadmill use to no more than 2-3 runs/week.

I also know plenty of runners who have trained (successfully) on treadmills at 0% so running at 1% is not the be-all and end-all of treadmill running.

This chart is pretty helpful in determining the “real” pace you are running based on the incline of the treadmill:


And I will end by saying that there are just as many articles that argue against the treadmill incline:

– Biomechanics Expert Debunks Treadmill-Running Myths (states that incline at 1% is only useful when you are running faster than 7:09 pace)

So, Treadmill Incline – Yay or Nay? 


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    20 thoughts on “The Treadmill Incline Debate

    1. Pingback: Going from 3:21->3:15 |

    2. Thanks for the chart – really good to know! I have always used the treadmill at 2%, simply because that’s what I was originally told to do, and it never bothered me so I never changed it.

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    4. This is such a great post, thank you! I definitely think it should be about feel- when I first started using a treadmill I thought you had to have the incline up a lot for it to be like running outside, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so exhausted after a tiny run! Later I realised I had it up way too high and should have listened to what my body was telling me, it was too hard! :)

    5. I was forced to use the treadmill last year when I was training for my spring marathon and I tried to envision the route I would have taken had I run outside and then mimic the incline on the treadmill. So I knew it was xx number of miles on that road and there’s a slight hill, so I’d bump the incline up or down accordingly. It keeps the run interesting and passes the time. The thing about the treadmill for me is that it always feels like a much harder effort than running outside at the same pace…it could be that the calibration on our TM is off, but 8 min pace feels more like 7:30 or 7:15. So it’s hard to go by effort.
      Sarah @RunFarGirl recently posted..Life Lately: Keeping it RealMy Profile

    6. my treadmill slowest incline setting is 1.5 percent. At first I hated that but now I realize it makes me much stronger and I go much faster when I’m outside, despite living in a very healthy area in utah. I guess it’s not that bad then! :-)

    7. I have had to hit the treadmill more than I would like to this winter more so due to having a 2 year old and my hubby having a crazy work schedule lately. I have a weird fear of falling and refuse to do speed work on the treadmill. It just so happened that I had a tempo run that HAD to be done and I had no baby sitter and the weather was bad so I had no choice. I used the chart that you put up and ran at a 2% incline at a lower speed, so that my pace felt like my tempo pace. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I was going to fall off and I still felt like I was hitting that pace. I now have the confidence to do speed work on the treadmill as long as I have that incline at 1 or 2%. Doing that speed with no incline brings that fear back. I prefer to run outside and will in all kinds of weather and hope to get the remainder of my runs this week outdoors!
      Michelle C recently posted..My week in running re capsMy Profile

    8. I don’t usually add incline to the treadmill but I also don’t do very much of my tempo/speedwork on the treadmill. I also live in a hilly neighborhood so when I run outside I get tons of hills and its never flat, so its nice to run on flat when on the treadmill. Plus I do a lot of speed work at the track when its nice outside and there is no incline there!

    9. That treadmill pace chart is the same one I’ve been using for the past year :)
      I alternate between 0.5, 1, and 2% incline if I’m indoors for a quality run, but just recently, I’ve bumped my easy indoor days from 0.5 to 1% as well. I feel the same way you do, that mentally knowing I’ve put in x many miles at a particular pace really helps me come race day, more so than if I did a “hilly” workout on the ‘mill at a slower pace.
      And I definitely agree there’s not one right answer. Just like everyone needs different training methods and we all handle weekly mileage differently, treadmill inclines should be based on what works best for our bodies & minds.
      Amber recently posted..Boston Training Week 9: Feb 8 – 14My Profile

    10. I mix it up often, helps me be able to handle being on the treadmill longer. I think my “go to” is 0.5%-1% but depending on the run will have longer sets at 1.5-2.5 with some higher ones thrown in as well. I also have access to treadmills that go downhill, I do incorporate those sometimes as well, just not long sets of it. No matter what I think it’s important to not have the incline set at the same the entire time though (at least for longer runs), You’re never gonna have an outside run where you are running at a 2% grade for 15 miles.
      Laura @losingrace recently posted..Boston/Winter TrainingMy Profile

    11. I used to feel obligated to set TM at 1% because it seemed like that’s what “everyone else” was doing. Then I read one of those articles, I think it was the debunking treadmill myths one and I decided to forget this! Now I do 0 or .5. I live in a hilly neighborhood so most of my outside runs involve hills of some kind. I never add in more elevation or hill training on the TM. I guess if I the majority of my workouts were on TM I could consider it but that sounds like torture to me! To each his own! : )
      Tia @ Arkansas Runner Mom recently posted..Donating Blood and Running?My Profile