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  • Writer's pictureDavid Wilderman

Speed Intervals vs Incline Intervals–What You Need To Know About Your Treadmill Routine

Are you the type of person who doesn’t think twice about running on the treadmill? Are you in the habit of putting on your headphones, jumping on the treadmill, hitting the quick start button, cranking up the speed to 6.5mph, and just start running for 30 or 45 minutes (or until you get tired?). If you answered yes, then pay close attention…there is a much better and more effective way to work out. It’s called interval training, where you alternate high-intensity bursts with lower-level recovery periods. If your goal is to increase your metabolism and burn fat, all while saving time, then read on.

Now what I’m about to tell you may sound incredible…that less is actually more! Most experts agree that by incorporating incline intervals or speed intervals just once a week is fantastic for those of you who are at the beginner or intermediate levels. If you’re more advanced in your running routine, then two to three days per week is great (as long as you don’t do your interval training on consecutive days). So the question remains…should you focus on speed intervals or incline intervals? As is the answer much of the time, it depends! (on your goals, that is).

What if you’re just starting a running program?

If you’re totally new to running, than neither speed nor interval training is recommended. The main thing to focus on early in your running workouts is consistency–make sure you get in a routine that your body gets used to. Then, after at least a month of running 30 minutes or so on a flat treadmill several times a week, you can start to experiment with speed intervals. You don’t need to be regimented in the beginning–try running a little faster when you feel good, and slow down when you get fatigued. Maybe a rockin’ tune comes on in your headphones–pump up the pace (and the volume!), and see how you feel.

If you want to get a little more regimented, then try a 1:1 ratio–crank up the speed for 1 minute, followed by 1 minute of active recovery (decreasing your speed to a slow jog or a brisk walk to make sure you catch your breath). Just make sure that when you start slowing down your speed that you don’t start increasing your incline, at least not right away. Then you may run the risk of developing things such as shin splints or plantar fasciitis. It’s always a great idea to combine cardio with weight training, so you can build up the muscles of your hips, knees, feet, and ankles to avoid overuse conditions.

If you’re trying to lose weight…

If your goal is to slim down, then incline intervals rather than speed intervals is what you want. If you’re not quite sure exactly where to start, then hit the incline or hill program on your treadmill. You can tailor the program settings to your individual level of difficulty, especially if you’re new to running. Unfortunately, many people just starting out will hit the “quick start” button and think that they are actually working more intensely than they actually are. Quite often just by pushing the incline or hill setting, you’ll be pushed to work harder than you might on your own.

If you’re trying to build muscle…

You want to increase the strength of your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and trunk extensors. Again, incline interval training will help to do that. If you’re just starting out, try to maintain the pace of a brisk walk–3.5 to 4.0mph–and then gradually increase the hill (incline) somewhere between 5 and 7% (and try to keep the same pace as you gradually increase the incline). When you get to a point that you feel ready to be challenged by adding intervals, try and opt for a fairly steep incline (6 to 7%) as well as a moderately steep incline (2 or 3%). This time, shoot for 30 seconds on the steep incline at a fairly challenging pace, then back it down for 2 minutes (active recovery) at the moderate incline and at a slower pace. Try doing this for a total of 5 times.

If this routine is too strenuous at first, then try the 1:1 ratio–1 minute on, 1 minute off–with a moderate hill and level (flat) recovery. As this gets increasingly easier for you, try to increase your work time and decrease your rest time until until you have a 3:1 ratio–1 minute on an incline at a fairly quick pace and only 20 seconds of active recovery. But a word of caution…if you you start to develop pain in your knee, immediately decrease the level of the incline. If you take the incline down and you continue to experience knee pain, stop! Inclines put more stress on the knees which can lead to patellofemoral syndrome (PF Syndrome), also called “Runner’s Knee.” Again, make sure you are performing a strengthening exercise program as well.

If you’re training for a race and you want to run faster…

This really shouldn’t come as a shock to you, but if you want to get faster then you need to start practicing running fast! And assuming you’re not training for the Boston Marathon (a hilly course), then you should be focusing on speed. The intensity and frequency of your speed intervals depends greatly on your particular race. But in general, shoot for short, very fast interval or a long interval that’s just a tad faster than your typical pace. As an example, if you typically run at a 6.0mph pace, try increasing to 7.5mph for 10-20 seconds, then slow back down to 6.0mph for a 2 minute active recovery before increasing again. Or, as an alternative, you can ramp up to 6.5mph and maintain that for 2 minutes, then back it down for your 2 minute active recovery period.

The bottom line…

Remember–both speed and inclines have benefits. But make sure that, whichever you choose, you take it slow. Increase your speed and incline gradually, using the 1:1 ratio as your guideline (60 seconds of work followed by 60 seconds of active recovery). And another key point to remember--less is more! Just once a week may be all you need to reap the benefits of your new routine.

Do you or someone you know have questions on how to get started with a running or fitness program? Call my office at once at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at to schedule your FREE 30 minute consultation to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now

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