Incline Walking vs Running: Which Is The Better Workout?

We give you the facts so you can choose which workout best fits your needs.

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Walking and running are both excellent workouts, each with its own benefits as well as a large overlap of shared benefits. 

In most cases, running is a better workout than walking in terms of being more demanding for the body, resulting in a higher number of calories burned per minute, greater improvements in cardiovascular fitness, and yielding more significant increases in bone density and muscular strength.

But, what about incline walking vs running on a flat surface?

Once you add the challenges of walking up an incline,1Padulo, J., Powell, D., Milia, R., & Ardigò, L. P. (2013). A Paradigm of Uphill Running. PLoS ONE8(7), e69006. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0069006 the metabolic, cardiovascular, and muscular demands of walking increase significantly.

So, will you get a better workout walking on an incline vs running, or is running better than incline walking?

In this guide, we will discuss incline walking vs running, comparing how these two types of exercise stack up, and factors to consider when deciding whether incline walking or running is a better workout for you.

A person running on the road.

Incline Walking Vs Running: Is It Better To Walk At An Incline Or Run?

Although every type of exercise has some unique benefits, most of us want to choose the “best“ workouts.

“Best” is really the operative word because even when comparing incline walking vs running, one type of workout isn’t necessarily better for everyone than the other in any sort of definitive way.

Whether incline walking or running is better for you depends on your fitness goals, fitness level, and physical health status.

For example, even though running may burn more calories per minute than walking on an incline, if you have arthritic knees or some other joint issue, incline walking is likely going to be better than running.

You’ll still get a great, high-intensity aerobic workout with less impact on your joints.

On the other hand, there are circumstances where running is a better workout than incline walking, such as when someone is training to run a 5K.

Therefore, it’s important to keep an open mind when comparing running to incline walking and really think critically about how the two different types of exercise stack up and which factors are most important to you based on your own fitness goals and needs.

A person walking on an incline on a treadmill.

Cardiovascular Fitness

Both running and incline walking have cardiovascular benefits and can contribute to heart health.

They both can provide a great aerobic workout, increasing your heart rate and strengthening your heart in the process. 

Numerous studies have found that aerobic exercise reduces the risk of many lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and certain cancers. 

As long as you increase your heart rate into the “moderate intensity” aerobic zone, incline walking or running can be a great way to improve your cardiovascular health and fitness.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine,2Scheid, J. L., & O’Donnell, E. (2019). REVISITING HEART RATE TARGET ZONES THROUGH THE LENS OF WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY. ACSMʼs Health & Fitness Journal23(3), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1249/fit.0000000000000477 to qualify as a moderate-intensity “cardio” workout, your heart rate should be in the range of 64-76% of your maximum heart rate, while vigorous-intensity cardio is associated with a heart rate of 77-95% of your max.

To meet the guidelines for physical activity for adults set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, June 2). How Much Physical Activity do Adults Need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm and the British Heart Foundation,4Understanding physical activity. (2022). Bhf.org.uk. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/publications/being-active/understanding-physical-activity# you should aim to accumulate either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise per week.

A person running.

In general, running is better than incline walking for improving VO2 max (aerobic capacity), which measures how efficiently your body takes in, delivers, and uses oxygen during exercise to produce energy.

Most people can get their heart rate higher running vs incline walking.

However, this isn’t an absolute rule. Some people find running to be prohibitively uncomfortable or fatiguing, so they can only jog slowly or run for very short periods of time without needing to stop or give up on the workout altogether. 

If you can perform longer, incline walking workouts than you can run, and you’re able to push the intensity higher walking on an incline treadmill than jogging on a level one, your aerobic fitness and cardiovascular endurance will improve more with walking on an incline compared to running. 

Calories Burned and Weight Loss

Is walking on an incline good for weight loss?

In most cases, running burns more calories than incline walking, but the intensity and duration of each workout will determine the amount of calories you burn. 

You will likely have more calorie burn per minute running. However, if you can do a longer and fairly intense incline walking workout, your total caloric expenditure between the two workouts may be similar.

A person hiking uphill.

Muscle Strengthening

Although strength training exercise is certainly more effective for building muscle, aerobic exercise can certainly help strengthen your muscles, and in fact, there’s evidence to suggest that aerobic workouts—when done right—may also help you build muscle (hypertrophy).

For example, research has found that cardio workouts can indeed result in muscle hypertrophy (an increase in size) by triggering muscle protein synthesis. Aerobic training can also increase muscle strength, function, and efficiency.

The key to building muscle with aerobic workouts like incline walking and running is to increase the intensity of the workout. For example, high-intensity workouts (HIIT) may help trigger more muscle growth.

Both running and incline walking are technically total-body exercises, but the movements mainly target the muscle groups of the lower body, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and glutes.

When it comes to the muscle-strengthening benefits of incline walking vs running, in most cases, as long as the incline is at least moderate, incline walking trumps running. 

Incline walking is essentially a form of resistance training because walking up a steep incline requires contending against the force of gravity. The gradient will help target the posterior chain leg muscles, especially the glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles. 

The higher the incline you set, the more powerful the muscle-building stimulus and the greater the potential for strength gains.

A person running on trails.

Impact and Injury

One primary difference between uphill walking and running is that incline walking is a lower-impact activity, whereas running is considered a high-impact exercise.

When you are walking, whether on level ground (flat ground) or up an incline, one foot is in contact with the ground at all times. This means that there is no “flight“ phase in which you are completely off the ground. As such, you never land on your feet from an airborne position.

In contrast, running is a high-impact activity because you do land on your foot at ground contact from an airborne position, which increases the magnitude of the impact stresses. After all, the acceleration due to gravity is added to your body weight.

High-impact exercise, such as running, is often thought to have negative side effects because the greater the impact, the higher the stress on bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles.

This can increase the relative risk of injury compared to performing a low-impact exercise, such as walking.

People walking on treadmills in a gym.

However, performing high-impact exercise has health benefits, mainly in its ability to help increase bone density.

Bone responds to the stresses placed upon it,5Hm, F. (1994). Wolff’s Law and Bone’s Structural Adaptations to Mechanical Usage: An Overview for Clinicians. The Angle Orthodontist. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8060014/ so adaptations occur with consistent running training that increases the mineralization of your bones. This can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and subsequent fractures.

Incline walking is a weight-bearing exercise, so it can help increase bone density. Plus, it can strengthen the muscles in your lower body, and stronger muscles pull more forcefully on the bones (which, in turn, increases bone density). 

However, in most cases, running will be a better form of exercise for improving bone density.

Therefore, if your goal is to build stronger bones, running is better than incline walking.

On the other hand, if you have arthritis or joint pain, the high-impact nature of running can exacerbate your condition. Incline walking will reduce stress on your bones and joints and can be more comfortable and safe.

A person incline walking.

Studies have found that incline walking can actually improve the health of your knees, helping to reduce knee pain, improve cartilage health, and decrease the risk of osteoarthritis of the knees.

If you already have osteoporosis or low bone density, incline walking can also be a better choice because it puts you at less risk of stress fractures. This is because the impact will be less while still allowing your body to strengthen your bones.

Overall, incline walking and running both require very little equipment, (just a pair of running shoes unless you are doing a treadmill workout) so the barrier of entry is low, and both forms of exercise are accessible to most people.

Walking on an incline or running can give you a good aerobic workout. Both forms of exercise burn calories which can lead to fat loss and can strengthen the muscles in your lower body.

Picking the best workout will depend on your own fitness goals, preferences, and needs.

For more benefits of incline treadmill walking and running, check out our guides for beginners:

26 Awesome Benefits of Running

8 Benefits of Incline Walking + Helpful Tips To Get Started

Two people running on treadmills.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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