How To Do HIIT On A Treadmill

July 17, 2023
  • Sydney Kaiser
    Product Reviewer, Content Writer, Certified Personal Trainer

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Last Updated: July 17, 2023

HIIT is an acronym for high-intensity interval training, which is a form of intermittent exercise that has become popular in recent years for its time-efficient methodology and aerobic benefits. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) refers to exercise that involves alternating short bursts of high-intensity activity with lower-intensity recovery or rest periods. High-intensity activity is defined as exertion at or above 85% Vo2max. Busy people can benefit from HIIT since it can initiate improvements to cardio-respiratory fitness in significantly less time than steady-state cardio. HIIT has demonstrated benefits for adults and children at all fitness levels.

How To Use Your Treadmill For HIIT

How to do HIIT on a Treadmill

One of the biggest criticisms of treadmills is that they are “boring!” Granted, walking or running on a treadmill alone in a dark room doesn’t sound overly exhilarating. Thankfully, HIIT is so challenging that you’ll be working too hard to be bored. Also, it doesn’t matter if you have a high-end treadmill that includes subscription content, or a standard model with basic features — anyone can do HIIT on a treadmill. All you need is a timer (a good playlist!), a heart rate monitor, and about 30 minutes of time. Since HIIT is quite taxing, sessions should only be about 20-30 minutes (not including warm-up and cooldown). Also, exercise physiologists recommend only doing HIIT 2-3 times per week since it is challenging and can lead to exhaustion if performed too often.

If you’re looking for a good treadmill to do HIIT on, check out our list of best treadmills!

Step #1: Determine your maximum heart rate

To begin, you need to establish your maximum heart rate (MHR). An easy way is to subtract your age from 220. If you are 45, your max heart rate is right around 175.

However, this can be rather inaccurate as some people’s heart rates are naturally higher or lower depending on training and genetics. A better way is to use a chest strap, armband, or watch that keeps track of your heart rate. Jump on a treadmill and continue to increase your speed and incline until it feels significantly challenging. Your maximum heart rate is the point at which you can no longer continue to exercise due to exertion.

For those who are conditioned, 85% is roughly an exertion level that can be sustained for 45 seconds, but no longer than 60 seconds. HIIT intervals are usually between 75% – 85% of MHR, so multiply your max heart rate by .85 to determine your “high” exertion threshold. (If your MHR is 175, then 85% MHR would be 148). When doing HIIT training, aim for a ceiling of 148-150 HR during the “high” intensity part of the interval.

For deconditioned individuals, just walking up a moderate incline at 3mph can kick up your heart rate sufficiently to take you to that 85% MHR threshold. For others, that will be running at 9mph. If your treadmill has incline, you can use this feature to increase heart rate without having to run faster.

Play around a little to find the speed/incline that equates with your 85% maximum heart rate. This will determine the setting you use for your “high” interval. The recovery interval can be any setting you’d like: walking, jogging, increasing incline but decreasing speed, etc. However, DO NOT STOP during your rest interval! This can be hard on your heart, so always keep moving during recovery periods.

Step #2: Determine your recovery heart rate

Now that you know your maximum heart rate, you want to establish a minimum heart rate for recovery. Typically, HIIT allows the heart time to recover briefly, but not completely. This means, just about the time you start to breathe normally again, it should be time for the next interval! Again, you can tailor your recovery interval to include whatever exercise is best suited for you (walking, jogging, etc.); just don’t stop and don’t extend the rest interval too long or you’ll lose the benefits of this type of training. It is designed to be challenging. You should not feel fully recovered before it is time to run again.

Why HIIT Works

There are several theories as to how and why HIIT works. Short-term intervals demand a high mitochondrial response to produce ATP for working muscles, so repeatedly training at high intensity can lead to mitochondrial adaptations that improve cardio-respiratory fitness. This type of training may also increase the number of Type II fibers (fast-twitch) in trained muscles, which improves efficiency and power. Additionally, HIIT has been shown to increase stroke volume, tidal volume, and blood volume – all of which contribute to improved cardiorespiratory function.

In order to be able to do HIIT correctly, you will need a timer and a heart rate monitor. You can download one on your phone or watch that should work fine. Preset the intervals before you begin, so you’re not playing with your device while you’re trying to run! Heart rate monitors can be worn as a chest strap, armband, or even on an athletic watch that monitors your heart rate.

Now that we understand what HIIT is and how it works, let’s take a look at a few HIIT protocols you can use on your treadmill at home!

HIIT Workouts on a Treadmill

Beginner 1-1-2 HIIT

1-1-2 means you have one work interval, followed immediately by a second work interval, with two minutes of recovery in between. This is one of my favorite methods because it kicks your heart rate up for a solid two minutes, followed by two minutes of recovery. You only need to do this four times, and you’re at 30 minutes! Here’s the format:

  • Warm-up: 2-5 minutes either walking or jogging at 5% incline
  • First 60-second interval: Run at 6mph for one minute (incline: 5%)
  • Second 60-second interval: Run at 7mph for one minute (incline: 5%)
  • Two-minute Rest interval: Walk for two minutes (incline: 0%)
  • Repeat 7 times for a full 30-minute workout.

You can adjust the speeds based on your conditioning. Trained athletes may want to do the first interval at 7mph followed by 8mph – or even faster! Deconditioned individuals may need to speed walk for the first interval followed by a steady jog for the second interval, then back to a comfortable walking pace for recovery. Adjust per your conditioning level, but make sure to hit 85% MHR during the work intervals and then utilize the 2-minute recovery interval for rest.

Moderate 1-2 Work to Rest Intervals

  • Warm up: 2-5 minutes either walking or jogging
  • 20 second interval: Sprint! (>85% MHR)
  • 40 second interval: Recover (<75% MHR)
  • Repeat 4x
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Repeat the entire protocol 4 times followed by a generous cooldown. Do not stop moving until your heart rate is back to 50-65% MHR.

This one is simple, but it should really challenge you during that sprint interval. I want an all-out sprint during that 20 seconds. Then enjoy a 2 to 1 recovery interval (that 40 seconds will go fast, I promise!). Repeat the 20/40 intervals four times and then recover for two minutes. Again, tailor this to your conditioning level. For walkers, speed walk as fast as possible during that work interval and then slow down to recover.

Tabatas: 20s work, 10s rest repeated 8x = 4 minutes. Followed by 2 minutes of recovery. Repeat four times total.

Tabatas include a 20-second all-out sprint interval followed by 10 seconds of recovery (yes, just 10 seconds!). Repeat this pattern 8 times, which should be 4 minutes total. Then you can rest for two minutes. Repeat the whole thing 2-4 times for a calorie-torching workout! Here’s the outline:

  • 20 seconds of all-out work (sprint at >85% MHR)
  • 10 seconds of rest (keep moving!)
  • Do this 8x
  • Rest for 2 minutes or until heart rate is <75% MHR
  • Repeat 2 or more times.

Tabatas are designed to NOT provide adequate recovery. Basically just about the time your heart catches up to where you need to be, you rest for a quick 10 seconds and then go again. I used to use these all the time in my spin classes. Even the most conditioned individuals could only do three or four rounds at the most. I recommend having a really good playlist on in the background to get you through! Find a song that lasts roughly four minutes, and you can power through until the end. This one is highly challenging since the rest interval is half of the work interval rather than equal to or double.

Pyramid Training: 1 to 1, then 2 to 1, then 3 to 1. Rest. Repeat.

Here’s the lowdown on pyramid training: you’re going to increase your work interval by a set amount each time, but maintain the same rest interval. The first interval can be whatever you want it to be, but I recommend a minimum of 20 seconds. Anything shorter than that isn’t worth the time. So, let’s say your first interval is 20 seconds, the workout is going to look like this:

  • 20 seconds on, 20 seconds rest
  • 40 seconds on, 20 seconds rest
  • 60 seconds on, 20 seconds rest
  • Now you get a two-minute rest.
  • Repeat 5 times!

More advanced athletes can use this pyramid training with longer timing. An endurance athlete who wants to improve their Vo2max could modify it to look like this:

  • 1 minute of work, followed by 1 minute of rest
  • 2 minutes of work, followed by 1 minute of rest
  • 3 minutes of work, followed by 1 minute of rest
  • Recover for two minutes and repeat 4 times

During those work segments, make sure your heart rate is elevated! You can’t sprint for 3 minutes, but conditioned athletes can sustain ~85% Vo2max for 3 minutes, so this is a good option for marathoners, triathletes, 10k or ½ marathon runners.

If you want to make this even more challenging, work up and then back down that pyramid, like this:

  • 20 seconds on, 20 seconds rest
  • 40 seconds on, 20 seconds rest
  • 60 seconds on, 20 seconds rest
  • 40 seconds on, 20 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds on – followed by a two-minute recovery

Here’s the longer version:

  • 1 minute of work, followed by 1 minute of rest
  • 2 minutes of work, followed by 1 minute of rest
  • 3 minutes of work, followed by 1 minute of rest
  • 2 minutes of work, followed by 1 minute of rest
  • 1 minute of a full-on sprint, followed by four minutes of rest

As you can see, there are abundant options for HIIT training. In fact, exercise physiologists have found that HIIT training can be effective at varying work/rest intervals, so play around with several options! I guarantee you won’t be bored on that treadmill if you give one of these sessions a try. You’ll be dripping sweat and ready to be done by 30 minutes. That’s the great thing about HIIT – you get more done in a shorter amount of time by playing around with the intensity. Try one that looks interesting to you and have fun!