Incline walking vs running: which is a better workout? Whether you want to know which form of exercise offers more benefits or are looking for a way to lose some weight, we’ve got you covered here.
First things first, if you’re looking to up your daily steps, it’s really important to protect your body and your joints with the best shoes for walking. Without the correct footwear, you can experience pain in your knees, hips, and even your back. But before we get into that, what exactly is incline walking and how does it compare to running?
“On a treadmill this would be anything higher than zero percent or in an outdoor setting, finding a nice hill in your neighborhood and walking up it!
“Running is placing one foot in front of one another at a speed that causes you to rebound through your legs, elevating your heart rate.”
The pros of both are that they will increase your heart rate, and strengthen the heart – a vital component of keeping healthy throughout life.
“The downsides to incline walking are extremely minimal unless you do it to an excess without correctly stretching through your hips after exercise,” says Bennett. “Due to the nature of having to lift your knees higher than you would normally when walking on flat ground, this could overload your hip flexors which can lead to injury.”
Bennett says running is pretty safe too but he strongly advises starting at a level suited to your fitness ability. “This might be jogging for 30 seconds then walking for 90. Be mindful of the impact on your joints as the dynamic nature of running can be hard on them, especially if you’re new to it.”
Incline walking vs running: which is easier?
As we’ve heard, you can walk on an incline on a treadmill at home, or find a hill outdoors. Likewise, you can run outside or at home on a running machine.
Both activities are great for the cardiovascular system, boosting heart and lung health. However incline walking is far kinder on the joints, and is probably a better option for anyone who is new to running or has knee issues.
When it comes to which is easier, it depends on your fitness level. If you’re new to running, build your stamina and endurance up first by walking on an incline.
Incline walking vs running: burning calories
Depending on your speed, walking on an incline can often be as effective as running on a flat surface. For every incline gradient on the treadmill, your body has to expend on average 4% more energy – boosting the calorie burn significantly.
Bennett says: “If you look at the speed walking event when the Olympics is on, you'll notice that those athletes have the lowest body fat percentage of any athlete in the entire games. This is because a fast pace walk or indeed a walk on an incline will place you into a heart rate zone where the body can utilize fats for energy most effectively.
“Running at a moderate pace would also be great for burning calories however the body would be using more carbohydrates and fats as a fuel source.”
Incline walking vs running: muscle building
Walking at an incline adds resistance to your workout, recruiting the glutes and quads more than a walk on the flat. The result? A peachy butt, and strong, toned thighs.
A study in the journal Exercise and Sports Sciences Reviews (opens in new tab) found that, similar to incline walking, running used repetitive weight-bearing movements to target the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
“If you were to start on a treadmill, set the incline to its maximum (around 14% for most) and walk until your legs felt heavy and were unable to continue, then you would be experiencing a build-up of lactic acid. This is the same as when you lift a weight for a number of repetitions until you can no longer move the weight. This is strength training or 'muscle building',” says Bennett.
“Essentially there are a number of ways you can make incline walking either a form of cardio or a form of muscle building and it's all down to the gradient of the incline and the speed in which you will be walking. A low gradient and fast walk would be more cardio-based, and a steep gradient and slow speed would be more strength-based.
“Similarly in running, If you sprinted until you began to slow down, that would constitute a form of building muscle. This is because you're using your muscles for a short period of time at a high intensity, much like lifting a weight for a number of reps at a similar effort.”
Incline walking vs running: cost
The good thing about incline walking and running is they are both free. The only potential cost is the price of a treadmill, but check out our best treadmills guide to help you find something within your budget.
Bennett says: “Investing in a decent pair of walking or running shoes is also important. If you can also stretch to a fitness watch, then that way you can track distance/calories and other metrics to improve on and give you the motivation to push that little bit harder.”
Incline walking vs running: benefits
“All exercise has benefits,” says Bennett. “There are the immediate physical benefits such as reducing your risk of chronic illnesses like osteoarthritis, and heart disease, but there are also great mental health benefits, too.
“When you perform each of these types of exercise, you'll release a chemical in the body called endorphins that trigger a positive feeling.
“You might not experience it at the time but shortly after you've completed your exercise you will. Your energy levels will also be elevated as you'll be improving your fitness throughout your exercise journey.”
So what are the pros and cons of getting started with incline walking vs running?
Incline walking is a full-body workout that can improve muscular strength in your legs, abs, and core. From a musculoskeletal perspective, walking on a treadmill at an incline hits the quads (thighs), glutes (buttock muscle), hamstrings, and calves hard. This increases the heart rate more than on the flat, so metabolically this means you will burn more calories and body fat.
Walking on an incline is great for people who find running painful or unpleasant. This aerobic exercise boosts both strength and endurance without placing stress on the joints, making it an excellent substitute for running for people recovering from injury.
While incline walking is generally kinder to joints than running, downhill walking can be quite tough on the knees – in fact, the impact that occurs on a declining terrain or treadmill is three times greater than level ground.
This is because when you switch from a flat surface to one with an incline or decline, you’re putting extra stress on the front and back lower leg muscles. This can lead to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS) until the body adapts to the training.
If you’re someone who suffers from lower back pain you might need to work with a physio to set an incline that doesn’t aggravate it – put simply, the higher the gradient, the more strain there will be on the back and hips.
Running does carry an injury risk because while one foot is off the ground, the other one (and the leg) is supporting your entire body weight during the impact of landing. This puts more stress on the knees and joints and a higher risk of a fall.
Incline walking vs running: verdict
Incline walking is a low-impact way to torch calories without putting a strain on your joints. It’s also great for people recovering from injury or who find running hard or boring.
Running is better suited to people who are relatively fit and is an excellent way to lose weight and build muscle mass.
However, research published in the journal Sports Health (opens in new tab) found that long-distance running could increase the risk of a heart attack.
Both types of exercise have great mental health perks – particularly if you take your workout outdoors. Our personal favorite is incline walking, because it is less taxing on the body while still reaping some good muscle gains. It does require a treadmill or living in an area with hills to climb, however.
“Mix it up to keep it exciting and to steer clear of monotony,” says Bennett. “Don't walk the same distance on a treadmill each week as you will plateau and reduce the training effect over time. Keep the body guessing and it will adapt. Do it with friends to keep it social too and most importantly have fun!”
Maddy is a freelance journalist and Level 3 personal trainer specializing in fitness, health and wellbeing content. She has been a writer and editor for 22 years, and has worked for some of the UK's bestselling newspapers and women’s magazines, including Marie Claire, The Sunday Times and Closer. She also manages Fit&Well's Instagram account.
Maddy loves HIIT training and can often be found running on her treadmill or working out while her two young daughters do matching burpees or star jumps. As a massive foodie, she loves cooking and trying out new healthy recipes (especially ones with hidden vegetables so the kids eat them). She makes a mean margarita and has twice won awards in previous staff jobs as the “office feeder”.
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