Because there’s a lot more to walking uphill at pace than just walking up a hill at pace
By Ed Cooper
If you’re struggling to make strides in your fitness and feel ready to flip the switch on your routine, there are plenty of ways to ensure you’re moving closer to your goals. Very few methods, however, are as tried-and-tested as incline walking.
From TikTok’s ‘For You’ page to fitness forums and health publications to scientific journals, everyone’s talking about it and, whether you’re sweating it out on a treadmill or venturing out to tackle your local rolling hills, incline walking provides the ideal one-two punch of both boosting fitness and scorching through calories. Inevitably, though, there’s more to mastering the art of walking uphill at pace than just, well, walking uphill at pace. We’ve broken it all down right here, because gassy 5K efforts can jog on.
As the name suggests, it’s walking up an incline. Any slope will do, be it the artificially endless hills of your treadmill, or the less predictable type in the real world. Beyond that, options abound. You can vary your pace, your load, your intervals and your incline to get different results, hit different muscles and feel the burn in endlessly different ways.
“Generally, you can split incline walks up into five per cent, 10 per cent and 15 per cent inclines,” explains Third Space Elite Trainer and Education Coordinator Tom Hall. “Once we’re getting near 10 per cent, compared to the same speed [on a flat surface], you’re probably doubling the calories you’re burning during that session. It’s also incredibly easy to maintain a heart rate because you haven’t got to think, as the machine is doing the pace for you.”
If you’re struggling with your running but want to keep cardio in your training split, incline walking is a safe way to shake things up without risking an injury. As Hall explains, “the treadmill is a happy medium between walking on grass and walking on concrete. Instead of beating your knees and hips through a firm surface, it’s the best substitute for the consequences of walking up a hill for a long time.”
Similarly, the low-impact nature of incline walking – as opposed to running, where “there’s always weight on the ground,” says Hall – helps you load your your musculature instead of your tendons. Translation: lots of punishment to your cardiovascular system, very little punishment on your knees and back.
By not being a hero. “Pick a five per cent incline, walk for five minutes, then pick a 10 per cent incline, walk for five minutes and then bring it down again,” says Hall. By gradually increasing time on the treadmill and recognising the feelings of different inclines, you’ll be steadily getting your body ready for the demands the exercise brings.
Once you’re there, there are a few ways you can take to begin to progress your incline walking, but you have to stay consistent with these first steps. “Get your heart rate at 60 to 70 per cent, see what you can maintain for 20 minutes and progress from there, whether that’s increasing speed, incline or time.”
Once you’re comfortable consistently walking at an incline for 20 minutes, you’ll want to start making some changes in order to keep progressing. Now is the time to consider why you started. Was it to increase tendon strength? To burn fat? Just to feel fitter, perhaps?
Once you know why you’re incline walking, you can start modifying your session according to your goal. Adjusting the slope, for example, will help build strength in your ankles – which is ideal for runners – whereas adjusting your speed scorches calories. Similarly, “if you’re moving to a fitness-based goal,” says Hall, “move to a higher incline, making sure it doesn’t turn into a run.”
For something so simple, there are a surprising number of pitfalls to avoid during an incline walk (literally, if you’re doing it up an actual mountain). Before we get into the form of the exercise, Hall is keen to disprove one popular myth: incline walking will not increase your metabolism, it just burns more calories.
If you’re using a treadmill, Hall warns that he’s seen plenty of people “using their hands to hold onto the treadmill” and that they’re “losing the point” of the exercise. Rather than leaning forward, “your torso angle should be perpendicular to the floor, not to the treadmill.” Also, Hall advises to “strike with the ball of your foot and avoid any kind of valgus effect” – that’s your knees buckling in – “keeping a nice stride length.” Lastly, people tend to “ go too hard, too soon,” he says. “It’s a normal thing, but they’ll burn out after two minutes.”
Get these right, however, and you’ll unlock a host of benefits from incline walking that include accessible fitness, a higher calorie burn, stronger cardiovascular fitness and an effective warm-up routine. “It’s accessible to all,” says Hall. “If running is sore on your joints and you want that kind of effect, it’s a great option.”
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