Climbing Stairs Can Take You to New Heights of Fitness

Every year since 1978, a group of intrepid runners gathers at the foot of the Empire State Building to compete in an event sponsored by the New York Road Runners. But this is no ordinary run — these competitors will run up 1,576 steps, from the bottom level to the Observatory deck on the 86th floor. Most finish in under 20 minutes, while the record thus far is just under 10 minutes.

Crazy? Hardly. Stair climbing is an increasingly popular way to squeeze a great aerobic workout into a short period of time. According to fitness expert Wayne Westcott, PhD, author of Get Stronger, Feel Younger, climbing stairs is among the most vigorous cardio workouts you can find. “You’re lifting your center of mass vertically,” he explained. Since your body weight is not supported — as it is with, say, swimming or rowing — you expend greater effort and burn more calories. Athletes have a long tradition of training by dashing up sports stadium bleacher stairs… and who could forget the triumphant scene in Rocky? You can get a great workout using the stairwells in hotels, office buildings, apartments or even your home, and many people find it is an inexpensive, convenient alternative to the gym.

Stair climbing increases cardiovascular fitness as well as muscular endurance and strength. It works most of the leg muscles, especially the quadriceps (front of thighs) and buttocks, and requires a tremendous outlay of energy. Some “tower runners” (as those who compete in events like the Empire State Building Run-Up race are called) use their arms on the stair rail to help pull themselves up, which gives the upper body a bit of a workout as well. Additionally, stair climbing delivers a good core muscle workout — this, in turn, improves posture.

TIPS FOR STAIR CLIMBERS

Intrigued? Here are a few tips to help step up your workout:

1. Wear running shoes or those designed for cross-training.

2. Take a few minutes to warm up first by walking around on level ground before you start your ascent… and cool down the same way afterward, followed by stretches (described below).

3. Stretch the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves after your workout, not before.

4. As you climb, lean slightly forward from your hips while keeping your back straight.

5. Place your entire foot on each step. Allowing your heels to hang over the edges may injure your Achilles tendon. Look forward, keeping your head up. Don’t let it droop, which can cause neck strain, though it is fine to glance down when necessary to get your bearings.

6. Don’t lock your knees as you climb up.

7. Vary your pace for maximum fitness benefit. Start by walking… walk faster… then slow down and speed up again, and again.

8. Stay safe. Just as you wouldn’t jog in a dark alley alone, don’t use stairs in a remote stairwell where calls for help wouldn’t be heard.

9. Drink plenty of water before and after. Stair climbing is intense, so you should plan to rehydrate just as you would during a jog or a race on level ground.

PREPARE FOR DESCENT

Though it’s aerobically easier, Dr. Westcott warns that coming down has its own dangers. “Walking down stairs or running downhill puts incredible stress on the joint structure — in particular the tendons, fascia and ligaments,” he says. You can minimize this stress by descending slowly, perhaps even stopping for a moment on landings. Resist the temptation to bound down two or three stairs at a time and instead come down purposefully. Or, you could take the elevator down — but first, walk around up top to let your heart rate return to normal.

NEXT STEPS…

There are plenty of ways you can change-up stair climbing workouts. You may feel a bit breathless when starting out. If so, walk around the landing (or down the hall of whatever floor you are on) and then return to the stairwell and climb some more. You can create an interval training program by alternating spurts of high intensity (climbing up fast) with periods of “active rest” (walking on flat ground). Vary your workouts by climbing higher, faster and/or longer between rest stops.

Another benefit: You don’t need to work out for long periods of time to take your fitness to a higher level. In fact, Dr. Westcott told me that climbing 10 flights of stairs at three different times over the course of a day is actually preferable to going up 30 flights all at once. The reason? “Some of the most important physiological adaptations, such as improvement in aerobic capacity, take place during the recovery period,” he explains. “With three separate bouts of exercise, you get the benefit of three recovery periods.” Also, you may find it easier to push yourself to do 10 flights at a time, rather than having to take on all 30.

A stair-climbing machine can deliver many of the same benefits, of course. Dr. Westcott noted, however, that the classic StairMaster machines aren’t as intense, since you’re not working against gravity — they don’t require you to lift your feet off the steps but rather shift your weight from one leg to the other. He said that a better choice for gym rats is the type of machine that features an actual revolving staircase — though I can tell you from experience, these are significantly harder.

If you’re interested in competing, you can get a listing of worldwide “tower running” events at www.towerrunning.com/english/races.htm, which sorts the races by number of stairs. For example, in Chicago you can “Hustle Up the Hancock” (1,632 stairs) or really high achievers could consider the pinnacle of the sport — the “Sächsischer Mt. Everest Treppenmarathon” in Germany, climbing a nearly unimaginable (to me) 39,700 stairs. Also, the American Lung Association (www.lung.org) has a list of stair climbing fundraising events.