Saturday, November 22, 2014

Treadmill Workout: Variable-length Hills

Now that winter weather has arrived, I’m starting to read posts on other blogs about running on the treadmill.  When I started running, I ran outside all winter.  With the right clothes, I could endure the cold, but it’s hard to get a quality workout when you’re running on icy streets.  It can also be dangerous if you have to run after dark.

Now I do most of my winter training on a treadmill.  I’ve learned to use the treadmill to do a variety of different workouts, depending on my training needs.  On Thursday, I decided to do a hill workout, largely because I hadn’t done one recently.  It’s easy to neglect hill training when you’re running indoors.

I don’t listen to music when I run outside, but I always do when I’m running on the treadmill.  Over the years, I’ve created a playlist with more than 1,000 songs.  I have them arranged chronologically, so I gradually progress through time.  It takes me several months to work my way through the entire playlist.  I’m currently listening to songs from the early 70s.

For my Thursday workout, I did variable length hills.  I used my music to determine the length of each hill.  I started running on a level grade until I was warmed up.  As I warmed up, I gradually increased my speed to 7.5 mph.  That’s 8:00 per mile, which is my standard training pace.

The next time a new song started, I changed the incline to a 0.5 percent grade.  That’s a barely perceptible hill.  Outdoors, you might not notice it.  I haven’t been doing much hill training recently, so I wanted to ease into it gradually.  I ran at that grade until the end of the song.

Most treadmills can only do positive grades.  You can run uphill, but not downhill.  I have one that will let me run downhill, but the steepest downgrade is 3.0 percent.  After running a 0.5 upgrade for one song, I switched to a 0.5 downgrade.  I also increased the speed to 7.6 mph.

At the end of the next song, I switched from a 0.5 percent downgrade to a 1.0 percent upgrade.  I also decreased the speed back to 7.5 mph.  I continued this pattern for several miles.  I alternated between uphill and downhill and steadily increased the grade in half percent increments. Running uphill, I always went 7.5 mph, which got progressively more difficult.  Running downhill, I went a little bit faster each time I increased the grade.

There are two reasons why I like to change the incline on the transition between songs.  The first is to add some variety.  Some hills are long; some hills are short.  Unless I can remember the next song in my play list, I don’t know in advance how long the next hill will be.  The other reason is that it frees me from having to constantly watch the display.  I know when I’m reaching the end of a hill just by listening to the music.

Eventually, I reached a grade of 3.0 percent.  I was doing the uphills at 8:00 per mile and the downhills at 7:24 per mile.  After that, I couldn’t get any steeper on the downhills, but I continued to increase the grade going uphill.

Before I started, I had decided to run 11 miles.  I didn’t know exactly how many hills that would be.  I planned to keep running hills until I was somewhere around 10.5 miles. Then I would finish the workout on a level grade.  At 8.8 miles, I began running downhill.  The song was Beginnings by Chicago.  This was the album version, which is almost eight minutes long.

Since I can’t do steep downgrades, it was nice to have a long one.  At a 7:24 pace, I would be running downhill for over a mile.  That felt easy at first, but would eventually feel less comfortable.  At first, I felt guilty that I was getting a downhill that was twice as long as most of the uphills.  By the time the song ended, I was getting close to 10 miles total.  I would only have one more uphill.  I assumed it would be shorter, since most of the songs were between three and minutes long.

As the final notes of Beginnings faded out, I reduced the speed to 7.5 mph and changed the incline to a 5.0 percent grade.  Before the treadmill was done adjusting the slope, I recognized the next song.  It was Riders on the Storm by The Doors.  “Oh Shit,” I thought.  That song is over seven minutes.  I no longer had to feel at all guilty about the length of my last downhill section.  Seven minutes on a five percent grade at an 8:00 pace was going to be tough.  I hadn’t planned to finish with such a long hill, but I did it.  After that, I finished with about three minutes of level grade running.

This was a good workout, with the toughest hills coming toward the end.  I think running hardest near the end of a workout helps prepare me mentally for the tough miles at the end of a race.

Although my hills varied in length, the grade was always predictable.  This was still a fairly regimented workout.  Sometimes I’ll do workouts where I don’t know in advance how steep each hill will be.  I have a clock on the wall of my exercise room.  I’ll wait until the song fades out and then look up at the clock.  How steep I set the grade depends on where the second hand is pointing when I look up.

There are lots of ways you can keep treadmill workouts fresh.  This is just one example.  It works for me, because I really get into the music.  I don’t always remember which song is next, but they’re all songs I picked, and I love them all.


  1. Love hearing about how you do intervals on the treadmill! Though I had to laugh at your 7 minute uphill song to round out the workout :)

    1. Surprises like that keep it interesting.

  2. I dislike treadmill running and was just thinking about it the other day (while on the treadmill). I thought about how you can't run downhill on the treadmill, not knowing that there are treadmills with this capability. I like the way you structured your treadmill workout, making it a little fun and interesting. I'll be stuck with flat or uphill only when doing my treadmill workouts. I guess that's OK, because that's where I need the most improvement.

    1. The ones that can do downgrades aren't as common. I used to have one that could only do upgrades. One year I thought I was training well for a hilly race. Then the downhills beat up my quads.