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Incline Treadmill Tips for Runners

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    Become a Stronger Runner

    Adding incline to your workout won't necessarily make you a faster runner, but it will make you a stronger one who's ready to tackle long distances, Wollpert says. Build several hill interval workouts into your monthly routine to increase cardio efficiency and build strength so you're ready to take on the added miles, he says.

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    Prepare for Outdoor Races

    Outdoor terrain is often uneven, so you'd be doing yourself a disservice by only training indoors on zero incline. "Hill intervals will help build up supporting muscles and tendons that are not stressed on a flat tread run," Wollpert says. So when you do finally take it outside, you'll be less likely to get injured. As race day approaches, hop on the treadmill for an incline run at least once a week, he says.

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    Don't Give Up Your Outdoor Runs

    "Don't try to make the treadmill mimic outdoor running," says David Siik, creator of Equinox's Precision Running, a calorie-torching workout that features treadmill incline training. "Learning to blend speed and incline with a mix of flat running as well is the healthiest recipe for your body." That info you heard about setting your treadmill to a 1 percent incline to mimic the outdoors? False, Siik says. It was true when treadmills were designed with motors in the front. But since technology has advanced, running on a zero incline is actually comparable to running on a flat surface outside.

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    Strengthen Your Heart and Lungs

    Take that incline to 12, and you'll quickly feel your body working harder. "Hill training can put varying amounts of stress on your heart and lungs," Wollpert says. But that's a good thing: Training with rolling hills—when you hit an incline of 10 and then decrease the incline to 4 before repeating, for example—gets your body used to these stressors. Your heart rate on flat roads will be lower as a result. "With proper intervals, the heart becomes more efficient and recovers faster from stress," Wollpert says.

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    Save Your Knees

    You'd think hiking up a steep incline would wreak havoc on your knees, but the incline is actually easier on your joints. "Incline running actually helps a lot of people with knee problems—some even say the added incline has made their pain go away," Siik says. One study published in the journal Gait & Posture found incline walking kept cartilage intact and reduced knee pain.

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    Activate Different Muscles

    Incline training recruits the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and lower abs—AKA muscles that don't do much work when running on a flat treadmill, Wollpert says. In fact, walking on a treadmill at a 9 percent incline activates a quad muscle called the biceps femoris by 635 percent, the butt's gluteus maximus by 345 percent, and a calf muscle called the medial gastrocnemius by 175 percent, compared to walking at no incline, according to a University of Colorado study.

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    Add Incline Slowly

    When you're ready to start, think slow and steady. You'll want to ease into it with a lower incline that gets the legs warmed up and loosened, Wollpert says. "Take the incline up slowly and always pull through a full foot stride," he says. That means you should land on the full foot and try not to walk or run on your toes. As the incline increases, pay attention to other aches. "If your lower back hurts, you're doing too big an incline at too fast a speed," Siik says.

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    Introduce Speed Gradually

    Once you've aced hiking uphill, start increasing that speed. Be warned: Speeding up an incline demands a lot of the body, Wollpert says. His advice? Listen to your body, and stick to an incline of 10 or below. Start small with 30-second intervals at a quick pace, and drop back to a comfortable walking pace for 60 seconds. Repeat six to 10 times for a full workout. As the incline goes up, your stride will shorten, so be ready to pump your knees and arms more quickly, Wollpert says.

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    Know Your Numbers

    There's a balance between incline and speed that guarantees a solid, injury-free workout. As you add a 1 percent incline, reduce speed by .2 mph, Siik says. As a general rule, keep your sprints to a 5 percent incline max. "The benefit of sprinting on an incline over 5 isn't worth the burn or the risk," Siik says. Limit the incline bursts to two-minute intervals or a maximum of one minute if you're sprinting. "We've found that when incline intervals go over two minutes, it becomes too much mentally for people, and they start checking out of the run," Siik says.

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    Don't Ditch Flat Runs Completely

    It's a rule for Siik's Equinox program—and it should be a rule for you too. "If you abuse incline, it'll destabilize your knees," he says. It's like putting a brace on your knees and then when you go for a run outside, you'll quickly realize your knees have lost stability control. Running flat will ensure that part of your body stays in top shape, Siik says. Plan to spend 25 percent of your workout time, warm-up, cool-down, and time between intervals, at a zero incline.