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What Treadmill Incline Should I Use During My Workout?

Don’t just set it and forget it.

treadmill incline
Steve PrezantGetty Images

Like it or not, with colder weather often comes treadmill training season for many. It’s a safe, convenient means to getting in your miles, especially during the winter months or off-season. That said, it’s important to understand the metrics on the treadmill in order to get get in a good workout, particularly treadmill incline.

By adjusting incline and speed, you’ll be able to keep your training up all winter long, without leaving the warmth of your home or the gym (if you’re able to safely go during the coronavirus pandemic). Here’s what research says about when—and if—it’s necessary to up the treadmill incline.

What is Treadmill Incline?

The grade of a hill is measured as a percentage, and so each treadmill displays incline as a percentage, not a level. For example, if you raise the treadmill to “2,” it means you are running at a 2-percent incline (not a level two). On most machines, the treadmill incline can increase from from 0 percent up to 12 percent—some can even decline.

What Incline Should You Set the Treadmill At?

Research has shown that when you set the treadmill at a 1-percent incline, it will more closely simulate the “energetic cost” or intensity of outdoor running as it makes up for the lack of wind resistance at certain paces. Between 8 mph (7:30/mile pace) and 11.2 mph (5:21/mile pace), a 1-percent treadmill grade provides the right adjustment.

At paces slower than 8 mph, no adjustment is necessary because the difference is so small, but you can still choose to set the incline at 1 percent for an extra challenge. Doing so may give you a little confidence boost when you’re back out on the road.


You may also hear recommendations to run at a 2-percent incline if you run faster and thus experience greater wind resistance. While it is important to train to specificity, running at a constant 1- to 2-percent incline on the treadmill may not be the best way to go. For one, it’s a mental nightmare. Thinking you’re charging even slightly uphill when you could be training on a flat is rough. Two, hills on any race course will vary in length and incline, so while you will need to expend the energy to get up a hill, you’ll also get a relief on the descent. And finally, it can really mess with your biomechanics if you aren’t used to running at a constant incline.

While the weather is cold, consider training on a hill program or course built into the treadmill that rolls up and down throughout the run. This will better simulate the rolling hills found outdoors, decrease the risk of an overuse injury running at the same incline, and provide a more mentally-stimulating workout. If your treadmill doesn’t have built-in programs, you can also adjust the incline manually throughout.

How Should You Transition Back Outdoors?

As soon as the weather breaks, begin to gradually transition your runs outdoors. Running on a treadmill is very different than running outside, mostly due to the fact that you are keeping up with the tread rather than propelling your body weight forward as you do while running outside. The terrain, surface, and elements (cold, hot, wind...) are also more demanding outside of a gym. Plus, if you’re training for a race, the more specific you can train to the actual course, the better you will race and recover.

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If you are currently doing 100 percent of your training on the treadmill, take your time transitioning to outdoor running. Transition one run outside every other week to allow your body the time it needs to adjust to the differences in running gait, impact, and intensity. Start with moving your shorter runs outdoors, and then progress to the longer runs. Aim for at least half of your training runs outdoors three weeks before the race.

Remember, it is super important to run by effort level rather than speed while making the transition to outdoor running. For instance, if you run a 10-minute mile on the treadmill, you may well be running a 10:30 pace outside at the same effort level (intensity). It is more effective to run by your effort level during the transition and will reduce the risk fatigue, injury, and frustration. You will also learn to pace yourself more effectively. Patience is key. Your body will adjust in a matter of weeks.

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