When you think of cardio, do you think of running? You’re not alone — running is one of the most popular forms of cardio. It helps strengthen your heart and blood vessels, improve the flow of oxygen throughout your body, lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduces your risk for heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and some kinds of cancer.
But if you prefer to jog, or even walk, you may think you’re not getting the full cardiovascular benefits as runners do. But new research has shown you can have your cake and eat it too. The trick? Incline walking.
“Incline walking is simply walking on a gradient, and it mimics hiking but poses little risk like that found on rugged terrain,” says Chance Ruggeroli, a personal trainer on the staff at Texas Health Fitness Center in Burleson.
According to the Mayo Clinic, incline walking and training challenge your musculoskeletal system in new ways. This can offer training benefits for people who enjoy walking over running or find running painful or too strenuous.
Walking on the treadmill at an incline increases the work on your quadriceps (front of the thigh) as well as your gluteus (large buttock muscle). The incline also allows you to get an even greater stretch in your legs and increased workload on your calf muscles. From a cardiovascular standpoint, this increase in work means your heart rate will be higher than walking on a level surface alone. A 2013 study that measured the effects of incline running found that a 2 to 7 percent incline increased heart rate by almost 10 percent when compared with running on a flat surface.
“Given the added intensity of an incline, your heart rate will spike more quickly than at a level surface,” Ruggeroli explains. “That’s why I like to use inclines within the general warm-up phase of a training session when we’re trying to reach a specific heart rate quickly. However, walking at an incline can be a great exercise on its own. It is an excellent substitute for those recovering from injury, trying to reduce the impact on their joints, or to get an efficient workout within a small window of time.”
Walking: a Joint-Friendly Alternative
Where Ruggeroli admits incline walking outshines running and jogging is related to its impact on your joints.
“When we approach cardiovascular training, we want to exercise in a way that assures the least amount of additional stress is placed on the joints, facilitating better recovery while still allowing for better cardiovascular health. Incline walking is the best of both worlds,” Ruggeroli says.
The research is there, too. Ruggeroli notes that part of the reason why incline walking is such a great exercise is because of its ability to strengthen the knee. A 2014 study published in Gait and Posture examined the stress that knee abduction — the opening of the knee joint — poses on the cartilage in the knees and found that incline walking offered a chance to strengthen the body with less occurrence of knee joint abduction. Conversely, this is also why downhill walking usually causes more injuries in hikers and runners, because the impact that occurs on downhill or declining terrain is three times greater than the impact walking on a level surface.
“Research indicates that as little as a 5-10% incline strengthens the knee joint, and it also requires more musculature than walking on a level surface,” Ruggeroli explains. “Those with ankle mobility issues (surgical or otherwise) may also benefit from the increased dorsiflexion (the bending and contracting of your foot) that occurs during an incline walk.”
Incline walking is a versatile aerobic exercise that delivers both strength and endurance benefits with a lower impact on your joints as running or jogging.
Start with a gentle warmup that includes dynamic stretching or activations. These help you get the blood flowing to those areas, priming the muscle for movement and reducing the likelihood of injury. Commit time to your core, hamstrings, and quads, as well as your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
After you’ve stretched, hop up on the treadmill and walk at an average pace for you at 0% incline for five minutes. Imagine you’re just casually going through a stroll of your neighborhood or shopping mall. You should be able to comfortably hold a conversation with someone if they were there next you without pausing to catch your breath.
To even further reduce your risk of injury, maintaining good posture is also important. Think about engaging your core, keeping your torso upright and tight, while also engaging your glutes and hamstrings with each step down onto the treadmill You may slump down or forward towards the machine as you get tired. While it’s OK to brace yourself using the handrails, make sure you’re not hinging forward or leaning heavily on the device.
Interval 1: After your warmup, increase the incline of the machine to 2-3% and increase your speed to a brisk walk for 3 to 4 minutes. This may mimic the pace you’d walk if you were trying to get through the grocery store quickly before heading home or if you were trying to get out from the rain. You could hold a conversation with someone, but not as effortlessly as before.
Rest: Lower the treadmill back down to 0% incline and walk at your warmup pace for the next 1 or 2 minutes.
Interval 2: Increase the incline back up 2-3% for 5 minutes, but this time you’re going to walk at a fast pace. Take a rate you’d walk with if you were running late for work and you just parked. Remember this isn’t a jog or a run, you’re still walking. If you were having a conversation with someone, you’d have to possibly pause during your conversation a few times to catch your breath.
Rest: Lower the treadmill back down to 0% incline and walk at your warmup pace for the next 1 or 2 minutes. Take deep breaths here.
Interval 3: For this last interval, raise the incline back up to 2-3% and walk at the same brisk pace you did in interval 1 for 3-4 minutes.
Cooldown: Lower the treadmill back down to 0% and walk at an average pace again, like you did in the warmup, for at least 5 minutes. If you’d like, you could taper your speed down each minute until you come to a natural stop.
Feel free to adjust incline, pace or duration if you need to ease up or ramp up your workout. If you’re just starting out, you’re recovering from injury, or you’re trying to increase your activity level, try a lower incline first and gradually work your way up as you continue to increase your endurance. Keep track of your numbers so you can reference them each time you start up a new incline walk.
Also, remember to get those arms involved. Pumping them as you climb will not only help with cardiovascular health but will also get them engaged. You can up the intensity by including light dumbbells.
Running can be intimidating, painful or downright discouraging if you don’t already have a regular cardio exercise routine, you’re recovering from injury or you have aching joints. However, incline walking can be a beneficial alternative for anyone who wants similar cardiovascular benefits without the joint impact.
As with any exercise program, Ruggeroli suggests being honest with yourself and pacing yourself. While incline walking has a lower impact on your joints and doesn’t require fast speeds, lower impact does not mean lower intensity.
“We often do not fully appreciate the benefits of training smartly. There is a culture of breaking thresholds or personal bests, minimizing the importance of making subtle progressions,” Ruggeroli says. “It is these minor adaptations that, over time, have a monumental impact. My best recommendation is to pace yourself and leave room to grow. Walk, don’t run. Pun fully intended.”
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