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Benefits of Stair Running – How To Improve Your Strength, Power, and Endurance

It can’t be said enough times: cross-training is key to becoming a stronger runner. By changing up how your body moves and exercises, you are strengthening more than just your running muscles. And a stronger body is a fitter body.

Looking for new ideas for cross-training? Run stairs. This is a great way to cross-train – even better than a hill workout. Stairs are widely available (although you’ll need something more than just what’s in your house), and the power you use to get yourself up each flight will create some serious burn. No, seriously!

As someone who lives on the third floor and has to cover 42 steps anytime I want to go up or down (no elevator here), I can guarantee that you’ll get an amazing workout running stairs. So, let’s look at the benefits to runners for doing stair workouts.

what are the benefits of stair running

Is running stairs beneficial to runners?

In short, yes! Running stairs is extremely beneficial because you’re giving yourself a more intense version of a hill workout. You’re training your body to get faster by focusing on leg strength and your ability to generate power. This benefits you on both hilly and flat terrain.

Leg strength is one thing. You’ll also be putting your aerobic capacity to the test, making your legs, heart and lungs all work harder. The result is training your cardiovascular system to take in more oxygen, improving your VO2 levels.

Even with short workouts, you’ll increase your VO2 max. A 2005 study found that brief workouts five days a week for eight weeks improved VO2 max by 17 percent in women.

That means that if your VO2 is 45, you can increase it by over 7 points just by doing short bouts of stair running five days a week for eight weeks. Not bad, right? It should be noted that these were previously sedentary women, so the increase might not be as much if you’re already in good shape.

Plus, it’s a great way to vary up your running routine and a good way to cross-train. Although you’ll be pushing your lower body and legs in different ways than running, climbing stairs is easier on your legs than steady-state running.

It’s important to make sure that you’re running up the stairs, not down the stairs. Gravity makes descending nearly effortless. As you run up the stairs, your leg muscles contract and shorten (rather than contract and lengthen as they do when you go down the stairs to prevent you from falling). Your legs will get tired, but not damaged.

Finally, if you’re looking to train the often-neglected muscles like your gluteus medius and other stabilizing muscles, stair running is the way to do it. It may even help prevent injuries by strengthening these muscles that don’t get worked during a typical run.

If you’re someone who needs proof in the numbers, this 40-something woman who has been stair running has amazing times when she’s running on flat ground: a 17:05 for a 5k and 36:39 for a 10k. That’s a 5:30 mile pace and a 5:53 mile pace respectively! I don’t know about you, but I don’t run that fast, and I’m 27!

Are there any disadvantages of running stairs?

As with anything in life, there are some disadvantages. You have to remember that stair running as a cross-training exercise is for your lower body only. That means that you won’t be working your upper body. So, it can’t be your only cross-training exercise; you need to work all muscles.

Additionally, if you have balance issues or are overweight, you’ll need to be careful as you run up the stairs because it could be easy for you to hurt yourself. Remember that stair running is one of the most intense workouts you can do, so be sure that you’re ready for it. If it’s too much, it’s better to take a break and do something a little bit less intense.

What are some stair running workouts?

stair running

There are a lot of great stair workouts. You can just run up and down the stairs for 10 minutes, or up and down a certain number of flights as well as a host of others. Here are three specific workouts to get you started:

Pyramid Workout

Begin with 10-15 minutes of jogging (not on the stairs). Next run up and down a flight of stairs for 2 minutes. Rest for 30 seconds. Run up and down for 4 minutes. Rest for 1 minute. Run up and down for 6 minutes. Rest for 2 minutes. Run up and down for 4 minutes. Rest for 1 minute. Run up and down for 2 minutes. Cool down with a 10-minute jog.

Variety Workout

After a warm-up, run hard up the stairs for 1 minute. Jog back down. Do 15 push-ups. Run hard up the stairs for another minute. Jog back down. Do 30 sit-ups. Run hard up the stairs for 1 minute. Jog back down. Do a 1-minute plank. And finish by running up and down the stairs for 5 minutes before a 10-minute cool down. To add difficulty, do multiple sets or increase the times and reps.

Intense Workout

This workout will take you 20 minutes. Start by walking up and down one flight of stairs. Then run up and down that flight of stairs. Here comes the crazy part: jump up that flight of stairs two feet at a time. Next, carry a weight/weights up and down one flight of stairs (the heaviest you can do). And repeat these steps for 20 minutes.

What else?

It all sounds great—running stairs, which are readily available and require no equipment. But you might still have some questions. We’ll answer a few common ones. 

How do I get started?

Start out slow if you haven’t done stair running before. Even if you are experienced and in shape, make sure you warm-up before your first flight. For your first couple workouts, walk or jog up the stairs to make sure that your body is ready for a harder workout.

Remember when you’re running up the stairs to look forward as you would when you’re running. Your eyes shouldn’t be down looking at your feet.

After a few sessions, start working your way up. Roughly 10 sets provides a solid workout given the intensity. As a side note, while it’s great to add stair running to your routine, you probably don’t want to do it more than two times a week, especially if it’s a hard workout.

Is the StairMaster better than actual stairs?

Although a StairMaster will give you a great workout, it’s better for your heart and lungs to climb actual stairs. But if need to do an indoor workout because the stadium stairs you normally climb are covered in snow or football fans, it’s a good option.

Additionally, a StairMaster is easier on your joints. The machine’s stairs are softer than the surfaces for actual stairs. But a StairMaster requires you to keep up with the machine, whereas a staircase can be taken at the speed (and rest time) that is best for you. Although you can stop the machine, it’s hard to adjust as easily.

two steps at a time

Is it okay to run two steps at a time?

Yes, it definitely is okay, but you need to make sure that you have good balance and good knees. You’ll work your leg muscles and glutes more by doing two steps at a time and burn more calories, so it’s definitely worth incorporating into your workout if you can manage it. Running two-at-a-time helps you practice your knee-drive, too – good for running form.

You might even consider doing a combination of single-step and double-step running to get the benefits of both without wearing yourself out too much. It will likely help you improve your balance, always helpful as you get older.

Is stair climbing a good cardio workout?

Oh yeah. A 2007 study found that you only need 30 minutes of stair climbing a week to get the cardio benefits. Plus, if you do stair running for 30 minutes, you’ll burn over 500 calories.

Even walking up stairs for 30 minutes will burn about 250 calories, which would take two hours of walking to accomplish.

In fact, you’ll burn twice as much fat in half the time as compared to running, so you can kill two birds with one stone—a shorter workout, but more of a payout.

How many steps should there be for a good stair workout?

This question is hard to answer because it varies so much by individual as well as stair. At a minimum, you should run up and down at least one flight of stairs with 10 to 12 stairs each. But the more flights you’re willing to do, the better the workout you’ll get.

Stairs also vary quite a bit in height and steepness. Emergency stairs in an old buildings tend to be tall and steep. So a short flight might take a greater amount of effort. On the other hand, the famous Philadelphia Art Museum steps are shallow and not steep at all. There’s a lot of them, but they are easy to run up, even two at a time.

I have three flights of stairs at my house, and it seems like a good amount to me for someone who runs on a regular basis but isn’t super crazy and needs tons of flights of stairs. I can go up and down several times and get a workout, probably more than if I just had one flight of stairs, but it’s also not so many flights that it’s overwhelming to even run up once.

The Wired Runner