How to Train for a Stair Climbing Event

How to Train for a Stair Climbing Event
How to Train for a Stair Climbing Event (Image: Dziggyfoto/iStock/GettyImages)

Stair-climbing, also known as tower running or racing, is becoming an increasingly popular endurance event around the world. Many amateurs compete regularly, but the sport even has pros -- called vertical runners or tower runners.

Australian pro Suzy Walsham has won the Empire State Building Run-Up eight times in a row, most recently running up the 1,576 stairs in a time of 12 minutes and 11 seconds. If you're ready to jump -- or climb -- on this bandwagon, here's what you need to know about training for your first event.

Climb Stairs Whenever Possible

This is a no-brainer. The best way to train for a stair-climbing event is to climb stairs, whenever and wherever you can. If there's an option to take the stairs instead of an elevator, do it. If there's a flight of stairs next to an escalator, take the stairs. If you live in an apartment building, always take the stairs, even if you're carrying heavy grocery bags. As long as it's safe, take the stairs.

Tip

Practice taking two steps at a time. It might seem harder, but it actually takes less energy and is faster than climbing one stair at a time.

Gradually Increase Your Vertical Distance

Each week of your training, aim to increase the number of stairs you climb in a single workout. This builds endurance you will need come race day. In order to go into your race with confidence, you should be able to climb the same amount of stairs -- or close to it -- in your training. Typically, you want to achieve this goal a few weeks before your event.

Try to simulate the same environment of the race as closely as possible. If you have access to a stairwell in a skyscraper and, assuming it's safe, do one longer training session there per week. If not, your gym probably has a stair climber, an exercise machine that simulates climbing stairs. You can climb for as long as you want, tracking aspects such as number of stairs, pace and heart rate.

In the last couple weeks before your training, begin to taper down, both distance and volume. While you still want to train during the time before the event, you don't want to put too much stress on the body during that time.

Take the Elevator Down

While climbing stairs is good cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercise, descending stairs can wreak havoc on your knees. Since you only have to race up the stairs in a stair climbing event, there's no need to practice descending stairs. So, save your legs and always take an elevator or escalator down when possible.

Interval Train

Doing speed intervals will help you increase your cardiovascular fitness and climbing pace. Do a speed workout once or twice a week in which you sprint up flights of stairs -- bleachers work well for this -- then recover for a minute or two before repeating the sprint. You can also use the stair climber machine by increasing the pace.

You want to be working at your maximum capacity for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, and your recovery period should equal that. Do this for five to 10 rounds, for a workout of 20 to 30 minutes total, including a warm up and cool down. Gradually increase the amount of time you sprint.

Sportswoman running up on stone stairs
Climb stairs wherever and whenever you can. (Image: lzf/iStock/GettyImages)

Cross Train

Your training regimen should include one to three days of cross-training, preferably low-impact. Climbing stairs can put a lot of stress on the knees, so you shouldn't do it every day. Two or three stair workouts -- one long, one or two short to medium -- per week are enough. Choose a low-impact activity like swimming, cycling or rowing on your off days to continue to increase your cardiovascular fitness.

Strength Train

Climbing stairs builds great lower-body strength, but in a very specific way. It's a good idea to build overall lower body strength by working out all the muscles of the legs -- calves, hamstrings and quadriceps, and the adductors and abductors of the inner and outer thighs -- as well as the glutes. The core muscles -- abdominals, obliques and lower back -- should also be strengthened, as they provide a lot of power and stability.

Don't neglect the upper body either. With all the stair climbing, the upper body muscles can become weak. Using the handrails to pull yourself along during a race is legal, so strengthening those muscles will increase your climbing pace. Make sure to include exercises that target the upper and middle back, shoulders, chest, biceps and triceps.

Compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time are a great option for getting an effective and efficient full-body workout. Choose exercises such as step-ups, squats, multi-directional lunges, push-ups, pull ups, lat pulldowns and rows. Keep the weight light and the reps high, in the 15 to 20 range. You want to build muscular endurance rather than mass -- you don't want to be carrying a lot of bulky muscle up all those stairs.

Tip

Pro Suzy Walsham's favorite exercise is 1-minute wall sits followed by 10 jump squats, repeated three times. She says it builds power and strength in the glutes and quads, a necessity for stair-climbing.

Take Time for Recovery

Recovery time is crucial for injury prevention and increases in strength and endurance. Training too much can lead to losses in strength and endurance, fatigue, loss of motivation and various injuries. Take at least one day off a week. It's OK to stay active by walking or taking a gentle yoga class, but you shouldn't do anything intense on that day.

Stretching is also key to injury prevention. Do dynamic stretches like leg swings and high knees before each workout and take time for static stretches for the quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves after each workout.

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