Treadmill Workouts Using High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Get more benefits from your time on the treadmill and overcome plateaus

Running on treadmill at gym
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Have you reached a standstill in your treadmill training? One powerful way to improve your treadmill workouts is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). By adding HIIT to your workout plan, you can achieve more gains in aerobic fitness and burn more calories in your workouts. Learn how you can do a HIIT treadmill workout no matter what your fitness level.

Structure of a High-Intensity Interval Treadmill Workout

A HIIT workout begins with a warmup and then progresses to 1-minute work intervals at 80 to 90 percent effort, followed by a 2-minute recovery interval at an easier effort, repeated for several cycles. Your recovery intervals should be at your warmup effort. For runners, one rule of thumb is that the recovery interval speed should be 3 mph less than the speed needed for your work interval.

Intensity

Your high-intensity intervals on a treadmill can be with a higher incline, a faster pace, or a combination of the two. You can measure the intensity using your heart rate, aiming for 85 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate during the work interval. At this amount of effort, you will be unable to talk, you will be breathing extremely hard, and your heart will be pounding. You couldn't maintain this effort for more than a minute.

The speed and incline needed to reach this amount of effort vary for each person. For fit people, it will be a fast running pace or a very high incline. For beginners, it may be a fast walk or a lesser incline setting. For your work interval, choose a treadmill setting at which you can sustain your effort for no more than one minute.

Find Your 1-Minute Maximum Treadmill Setting

Start with your usual speed and incline and increase it by 1/2 mile per hour or 1 percent more of incline. Continue to do that until you find the speed and incline where you can only keep it up for one minute and still maintain good running or walking form.

Many treadmills have a HIIT workout available as a programmed workout. You may be able to select the intensity for the work interval to match your abilities.

Duration

You can find HIIT workouts that are as short as 10 minutes, but you will want to include a warmup of five to 10 minutes beforehand to prepare your body for this effort. Expect a HIIT workout to take 30 minutes, including warmup, HIIT intervals, and a cooldown.

Frequency

You will get the most benefit from setting aside an 8-week period to do HIIT workouts two to four times per week. It is important that you allow a recovery day between days of HIIT workouts. This gives your body time to repair and build muscles and energy systems, and helps reduce the risk of injury.

Periodization

An 8-week treadmill HIIT workout program can be perfect for winter months when outdoor workouts are challenging. You will improve your aerobic capacity and be ready for spring training for long walks and runs, such as the 10K, half-marathon, or marathon.

Benefits of HIIT on the Treadmill

There are research-based benefits for using HIIT workouts. All too often, you get stuck in a rut with your workouts. You use the same program on your treadmill or simply get on and walk or run at your favorite speed and incline. You will need to shake that up if you are going to see fitness progress. Your muscles and energy systems are used to your routine, and if you can give them a new challenge, they will have to work harder to respond.

Cardio and Aerobic Gains

If you are a healthy person looking to boost your cardiovascular fitness, HIIT workouts are an effective and time-efficient way to do it. Research has shown that those with health conditions will reap these benefits as well. A review of studies showed an 8-week HIIT program improves cardiorespiratory fitness in those with conditions such as cardiac disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and asthma. Another review of studies found that adults with high blood pressure had greater improvements in cardio fitness with HIIT as compared with steady-state aerobic exercise, with the same benefits in reducing resting blood pressure.

Fat Loss

While some older studies suggested high-intensity interval exercise was better for fat loss than steady-state exercise, recent reviews of studies have found it only has a similar effect. Still, it does help lose fat and can be a more time-efficient way to burn calories.

How HIIT Works

When you do steady-state cardio exercise, you are mostly using the slow-twitch muscle fibers which provide contractions for endurance exercise. When you switch to a high-intensity burst of activity, like a sprint, your fast-twitch muscle fibers come into play as well. If you haven't been doing intense intervals, this is a brand new challenge. Your body will build new muscle and energy systems to meet the new demand.

When you do an interval of HIIT, you boost your heart rate and fatigue your fast-twitch muscle fibers. The effect of the intense interval will keep your heart rate elevated for a few minutes even as you switch back to lower intensity activity. You will be prompting your body to build new muscle during recovery.

HIIT Treadmill Workout

Personal trainer Lorra Garrick designed this 30-minute to 40-minute workout.

  • Warm up for 10 minutes on the treadmill before you begin high-intensity intervals. When you are going to be doing sprints, it is important to do the full warmup. In the last 5 minutes of your warm-up, you can do one or two cycles of increasing the speed for a minute below your maximum level, such as 1 to 1.5 mph faster than your warm-up speed.
  • 1 Minute Work—2 Minutes Recovery: Now you will begin intervals of 1 minute of a work interval at your 1-minute maximum setting, followed by 2 minutes of recovery at your warmup setting.
  • Do 5 to 8 Cycles: One cycle is an all-out effort, followed by a recovery interval. Aim for five to eight cycles.
  • Cool Down for 5 minutes at an easy pace.

What It Feels Like

At the maximum setting you will be breathing so hard you won't be able to speak. You can feel your heart rate go up.

After 1 to 2 minutes at the recovery setting, your heart rate may still be somewhat elevated, but your breathing has returned to a rate where you can again speak in at least short sentences.

Walk, Power Walk, or Run for HIIT

You can mix up styles within a HITT workout. Each person has a different capacity for reaching their 1-minute maximum exertion. It may be a run, it may be a steep incline, or it may be a power walk. You can choose—there are no rules.

Aim for a recovery pace that is easy enough so you can again speak in short sentences by the end of the two minutes. This pace will increase as you get more fit, but for those new to exercise or returning to exercise it may mean a walk rather than a slower run.

Another key is that for your maximum effort you need to select a speed and incline where you are still able to use good form. You shouldn't have to hold onto the treadmill handrails or be in danger of tripping and falling. If you are new to the treadmill, it's best to select a pace and incline at a lower effort until you have mastered walking and running on the treadmill.

Once you find your HIIT combination, don't be afraid to change it up. You'll likely begin to build endurance and capacity. The speed and incline that were your maximum settings will become easier after a few weeks, and you'll need to bump it up again. Walkers may discover they will need to start running on the treadmill to reach their interval maximum.

Precautions

If you have a chronic health condition or any mobility restrictions, consult your doctor as to whether high-intensity interval training is appropriate for you. While this training is used in clinical and rehabilitation settings in addition to gyms, it is challenging.

The American College of Sports Medicine notes that HIIT is a top fitness trend. But in their survey, many respondents noted that it brings a risk of injury. This is especially true for people inexperienced with exercise or who are less fit. To be safe on the treadmill, you need to be able to use good form for walking and running at the speed and incline chosen. You can do high-intensity interval training on a stationary bike as an alternative.

A Word From Verywell

Keep challenging your body in new ways to get the results you want from your treadmill workouts. Whether your goal is losing weight, improving your speed, or building endurance, changing your workout can help. Have fun and experiment with different types, lengths of intervals, speeds, and inclines.

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