Which is Best For Your Training Goal?

Incline walking and running are both effective cardio workouts. Deciding which is ‘best’ depends on your training objective.

Running is the better option to boost your calorie burn and aerobic capacity.

People who require a lower-impact workout and want to increase their glute, hamstring, quad, and calf strength are better off incline walking on a treadmill.

As a veteran personal trainer, I’ve been programming incline walking and running for nearly 30 years. I’ve seen firsthand how each impacts my clients’ diverse training goals.

In this article, I bring you my from-the-trenches experience and the scientific data to help you decide between incline walking and running.

I explain the different training benefits of incline walking vs. running, when to choose each, and some personal trainer tips to maximize your training time.

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Aerobic Fitness — Incline Walking vs. Running

Incline Walking vs. Running

Running is the better option for aerobic fitness.

The word aerobic means ‘with oxygen’. Aerobic fitness relates to how well your body can take in oxygen and put it to use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week.

Moderate intensity is defined as a working heart rate of between 64-76% of your maximum heart rate. Vigorous intensity is between 77-95% of your maximum.

A popular method to estimate your maximum heart rate involves subtracting your age from 220.

Both running and incline walking are effective forms of aerobic exercise.

Running allows you to achieve a higher aerobic threshold than incline walking on a treadmill. As a result, your heart rate increases, compelling your heart to work more strenuously to circulate blood and oxygen to your active muscles.

This makes the heart stronger so that it can pump more blood with each beat. As a result, the cardiovascular system becomes more efficient, with both the resting heart rate and blood pressure coming down.

Your VO2 Max, a measure of aerobic capacity, will also be greater for runners than incline treadmill walkers.

Not everyone will find running to be the better option for aerobic fitness.

I have had several personal training clients who struggled to run at an intensity high enough to boost their VO2 Max substantially. This has been due to various reasons, including joint pain and fatigue.

These clients achieved better aerobic results from walking on a treadmill set between a five and 12-degree angle. They’ve sustained their walking workouts for longer, leading to more significant overall cardiovascular improvements.

Low Impact Workout — Incline Walking vs. Running

Incline Walking

Walking on an incline treadmill is a lower-impact workout and is more joint-friendly than running uphill.

When walking on a treadmill, one of your feet is always in contact with the running belt. When you run, both feet are off the ground simultaneously, dramatically increasing the impact stress when your feet contact the surface.

During a 20-minute run, your feet will contact the ground thousands of times. The greater impact of running can negatively affect the tendons, ligaments, and bones of your ankles, knees, and hips.

There is a counterargument to this for people without pre-existing joint issues such as arthritis or osteoporosis. The stress on your bones caused by running leads to an adaptive response that strengthens the bone. This is similar to how resistance training makes muscles stronger.

A 2021 study published in Nature concluded that the ground impact forces of walking and running led to bone cell formation. The researchers believe that the cells that form new bone tissue can detect the pressure of the joint impact caused by the exercise and respond accordingly.

The study also showed that the new bone cells release growth factors that increase infection-fighting B and T cells. (1)

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Another study examined the influence of incline walking compared to flat walking on joint mechanics. Fifteen healthy male subjects walked on treadmills at five gradients ranging from 0 to 20 degrees.

It was noted that the greater the angle, the less the internal knee-abduction moment was, resulting in less cartilage degeneration. The researchers concluded that walking on an incline was healthier for the knees than walking on a flat incline. (2)

The greater the stress imposed on your bones, the more significant the adaptive response will be. So, while running and incline walking will increase bone strength, running will do so more effectively.

Weight Loss — Incline Walking vs. Running

If you work out for the same amount of time, you will burn more calories running than walking. That makes running the more efficient exercise for weight loss as it is a more aerobically intense activity requiring more energy.

Most people can sustain an incline walking workout longer than a running workout. This can help balance the calorie equation so you may burn more calories with incline walking. The steeper the incline angle, the greater your calorie burn will be.

A 160-pound person who walks at a 12-degree incline for an hour at a moderate pace will burn around 440 calories.

That same person will burn around 720 calories while running at a moderate pace for the same time.

Check out how many calories you can burn on a treadmill.

Muscle Strength — Incline Walking vs. Running

Man Running Training

Incline walking and running are less effective than resistance training for building muscle and strength. However, walking on an incline is the better option of the two.

Recent research has shown that aerobic exercise can increase strength and muscle mass more than previously thought. A meta-study published in Exercise and Sport Science Reviews analyzed several previous studies involving walking and running. The researchers concluded the following things about aerobic exercise:

  1. It increases muscle protein synthesis post-exercise.
  2. Aerobic exercise boosts mitochondrial activity, which enhances hypertrophy (muscle building).
  3. It reduces myostatin mRNA expression, reducing muscle catabolism (3).

Most forms of aerobic exercises are lower body-centric. As a result, the muscle and strength-building focus is on the legs. Walking on an incline places more stress on your leg muscles than running on a flat surface. The higher the incline angle, the more your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves must work.

Incline Treadmill Walking Tips

Over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of treadmill injuries. All of them could have been avoided by following these simple training tips:

  • Do not hop onto a treadmill that is already in motion. Stand on the running belt with feet shoulder-width apart, then push the start button and slowly increase the speed.
  • When standing on the treadmill, ensure that your throat, sternum, belly button, and pelvis are in alignment.
  • Begin with a 2-minute warm-up at a slow walking speed and zero incline.
  • Lean forward slightly while running.
  • Strike the running belt with the mid-back of your foot, avoiding the heel
  • As your speed and incline increase, hinge through the pelvis while maintaining your upper body alignment.
  • Your line of sight should be forward and down, meeting the ground about 15 feet before you.
  • Walk as if you were walking uphill, with your arms naturally swinging at your sides.
  • Only grab the handles to stop or rest. Never hold onto the top of the console.
  • If you have to hold onto the handrails, it’s a sign that the incline angle is too steep for you.
  • Focus on using your glutes and calves for forward propulsion.

Weight Loss

Running Tips

If you’re a beginner runner, the following tips will help you ease into the activity safely, building a solid foundation for your running workouts:

  • Start with short distances, and increase it gradually.
  • Start with a nice, easy pace that allows you to enjoy the experience.
  • Invest in a good pair of running shoes that match your gait.
  • Take a day off between each of your runs over the first month. This allows your body to adjust to the new stress.
  • Mix up the types of surfaces you are running on. Include pavements, off-road, and the treadmill.
  • Run for distance rather than time.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk occasionally; it is not a sign of failure!
  • Perform static stretches after your run. Focus on the calves, quads, and hips.
  • Build up your running distance gradually. Do not add more than 10% to your weekly volume.
  • Maintain a training diary where you record your distances and how your body feels before, during, and after the run.

Is It Better To Walk or Run on a Treadmill or Outdoors?

Exercising on a treadmill has some obvious benefits over walking or running outdoors. It allows you to get your workout in regardless of the weather conditions or time of day. A treadmill also provides a stable surface, whereas outdoor running makes you prone to undulating underfoot conditions.

Most treadmills come with a console that gauges various training metrics. This allows you to measure and adjust variables such as your speed and incline more precisely.

But is treadmill running better in terms of tangible benefits to your body?

A Sports Medicine study compared the biomechanical implications of treadmill versus outdoor running.

The participant pool consisted of 33 individuals whose lower body biomechanics were scrutinized during various conditions, including incline running, non-cushioned treadmill running, motorized treadmill running at quasi-constant velocity, and outdoor running.

The study concluded that:

  1. The vertical displacement of the knee was reduced when running on the treadmill compared to outdoor running.
  2. With its less rigid surface, the treadmill demonstrated superiority over road running, particularly in injury rehabilitation.
  3. Elevated muscle forces were recorded in the calf muscles during treadmill running. Treadmill running generated a diminished level of propulsive force compared to running outdoors.
  4. A decreased braking force was noted on the treadmill relative to running in an outdoor environment.

The researchers concluded that treadmill running exhibited slight advantages for various joints, including the knees, when contrasted with running outdoors. However, the research acknowledged that outdoor exercise offers the added benefit of breathing fresh air. (4)

Wrap Up

Incline walking and running are both excellent cardio options. Choosing between them comes down to your main training objective. Running is the better option if you mainly want to increase your aerobic capacity.

Running is also the best option for weight loss, as you’ll burn significantly more calories for the time spent exercising.

If you are more interested in strengthening your lower body muscles, especially the glutes, hamstrings, and calves, treadmill walking is the way to go. Walking on the treadmill is also your best option to reduce joint stress.

References

Fitness Volt is committed to providing our readers with science-based information. We use only credible and peer-reviewed sources to support the information we share in our articles.

  1. Shen, B., Tasdogan, A., Ubellacker, J.M. et al. A mechanosensitive peri-arteriolar niche for osteogenesis and lymphopoiesis. Nature 591, 438–444 (2021). 
  2. Haggerty M, Dickin DC, Popp J, Wang H. The influence of incline walking on joint mechanics. Gait Posture. 2014 Apr;39(4):1017-21. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2013.12.027. Epub 2014 Jan 8. PMID: 24472218.
  3. Konopka, Adam R.1; Harber, Matthew P.2. Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy After Aerobic Exercise Training. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 42(2):p 53-61, April 2014. | DOI: 10.1249/JES.0000000000000007
  4. Van Hooren, B., Fuller, J.T., Buckley, J.D. et al. Is Motorized Treadmill Running Biomechanically Comparable to Overground Running? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cross-Over Studies. Sports Med 50, 785–813 (2020).

If you have any questions or need further clarification about this article, please leave a comment below, and Steve will get back to you as soon as possible.

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