Running Hills: Hill Treadmill Workouts and Alternatives

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This week, I’m talking about hill treadmill workouts for any distance! I live in Chicago, I have clients who live in Florida, and we don’t really have these things called “hills,” so I’ve had to learn how to do hill workouts on the treadmill! Join up with me for Running Coaches Corner!

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Thus far, we’ve discussed how beneficial hill workout can be for our running and actual hill workouts for every distance runner. This week, let’s talk about how to do hill workouts when you live in flat locales. Yes, I am talking treadmill, but not just!

Not all of us are as lucky as I was early in my running career, which I spent in NYC (which has Central Park with Harlem Hill and Cat’s Hill, not to mention Riverside Park (they call it Morningside Heights for a reason, you guys) and Charlottesville, Virginia (there a street called Ridge Street. It is named thus for a reason). Instead, many of us live in flat areas where (if we are lucky) we might have a bridge or manufactured sledding hill to run for our hill workouts. Unfortunately, those types of hills are rarely the correct incline or length for our needs.

What is the solution to doing hill workouts in flat places? Well, let’s start off with the most obvious answer, the treadmill. First, let’s discuss running hills on treadmills and then alternatives to hill treadmill workouts.

Doing Hill Treadmill Workouts

Benefits of Hill Treadmill Workouts

To put it bluntly: treadmills allow you to create your workout. Need to run x m/mi hills at y% incline? Boom, there you go. Simple as that. You can track your time, pace, and improvements easily, and you can even program the thing with your workout.

Controlled, consistent environment offers you an excellent chance for success. It is likely that you will be confronting the same conditions time and again, so you know what to expect, and you can avoid unfavorable conditions as well (hello, hot wet race weekend).

Running inside is better for personal safety because you aren’t going to be out there with the crazies coming over a hill to find a runner coming up the hill at them. (Running hills outside is honestly one of the few times that I will run with the traffic simply so that they can see me, rather than getting surprised by me).

You can get caught up on Netflix and your reading. (but don’t do the reading thing unless you are experienced. I am a master).

Cons of Hill Treadmill Workouts

Treadmills tend to encourage bad form habits and discourage glute engagement. For those of us with a history of poor glute activation, this can be a recipe for disaster.

Conditions indoors do not equate to conditions outdoors, no matter how hard you try. Wind, humidity, sun, shade, rain, snow… we all need to grin and bear it sometimes!

Most treadmills do not have the capacity to do declines as well as inclines, and declines are just as important for your training! Psst. that means that you should be using the downhills as much as the uphills during your training!

There is just something about staring up at a hill that scares you and learning that you can do it.

If the treadmill isn’t maintained correctly, you are going to be cheating yourself somehow (too fast, too slow, off balance, no cushion, etc).

Tips for Running Hill Treadmill Workouts

Go by rate of perceive exertion, not necessarily by pace and speed. Take note of the first pace that you use and try to return to that in your simultaneous repeats (unless otherwise planned), and remember–you want to be at or better than that pace for the entirety of your workouts! So don’t pick one that burns you out after a few.

Don’t go all the way back down to 0% incline–it may feel downhill, and with regards to workload, it might be similar, but going from incline to flat is like stripping the resistance all the way to nothing on the bike. You want to maintain some resistance in order to protect your joints. I recommend 1-1.5% incline as your baseline.

Remember to include time for the transitions in speed and incline! Don’t you be cheating…

Focus on glute engagement above everything else. Well, you know what I mean. Inclines typically engage your glutes regardless, but here is the time to really focus on learning what that feels like so that you can incorporate glute engagement into your other runs. Furthermore, running on the treadmill typically encourages reliance on hamstrings, and trust me, running hills using only your hamstrings is asking for injury.

Focus on hill running form. Form form form form. Otherwise, what is the point? Plus, injury.

You now know the pros and cons of hill treadmill workouts, as well as what to keep in mind when you are running them. So go and incorporate them to those hill workouts that I gave you last week! Inclines are included, so you should be good to go!

Non Treadmill Hill Running for Flat Places

Overpasses and Bridges

This is probably your best option because bridges typically have at least some length and some incline to offer you as well as the benefit of offering real life conditions for you to experience and deal with. Be really careful, though! Make sure that you are wearing highly visible clothing (BRIGHT colors and reflective pieces).

Parking Garage Ramps

Another great option that does a pretty good job of mimicking a real hill (though short). Again, be very cautious! Also, try to pick open air garages for fresh air.


Another way to werk dat booteh. I like stairs because they are generally everywhere (most cities and small towns have at least a building that gets up to 5 stories, which can at least give you shorter hill repeats. Furthermore, going down stairs is GREAT for your calves and ankles with all of the eccentric activity achieved as you lower down onto each step. One big con, though, is that you are going to be going the same direction as you turn over and over again, so try to find multiple stairwells (sometimes, you can find mirrored stairwells on opposite ends of the building) so that you can go both directions during the workout and try to prevent injury. Also, be careful of air quality!

Ellipticals with Variable Incline

Not my favorite option, but at least you can play with the incline and resistance. Make sure to pump your arms as if you are running (don’t hang on those handles!). I would suggest running by effort, time, and also cadence–try to be as close to your natural running cadence as possible (generally 160-180 steps/minute). The distance and speed on ellipticals aren’t that equivalent to real life.


Holy glutes, batman! Resistance = your incline. This is a great way to get those glutes to engage, but I have found that it is very difficult to maintain the right cadence when out of the saddle on a spin bike. In this case, I would again suggest that you go by effort, time, and cadence (knowing that it will be less than your running cadence, but still try to keep at 65+ RPM).


Stepmills give you another going up option (pretty much any machine is only going to offer you ways to go up). My advice when it comes to using stepmills is that you get off the stepmill in between your hill intervals (if you can find a treadmill or track to run around as your recovery, that is best). Otherwise, you are pretty much just going up the entire time.

There you have it! I hope that all of my fellow flat-terrain friends feel like this gives them some options for getting in hill workouts regardless. Now you have no excuse, so get out (or in) there and get to training!

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