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

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Looking for a way to boost your power, increase cardiovascular strength, and improve your running? Stair running might not be the first thing you think of, but it’s a surprisingly good exercise to add to your weekly routine.

You can find stairs just about anywhere, so it’s not hard to start doing this as part of your training. Even if you’re already a mix of runs in your training, adding stair running is a good idea.

Let’s look at some benefits of stair running and how you can start incorporating it into your weekly routine for better performance.

What Muscles Are Worked During Stair Running?

For the most part, stair running and regular running work the same muscles but in slightly different ways. But with stair running, your whole posterior chain gets a workout. It builds strength and muscle in your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. It also works the abs if you do it with the proper form.

Running stairs also engages more stabilizer muscles than regular running. For example, the hip abductors are activated much more during stair running than when you run on flat ground. This is because you’re spending more time balancing on one leg as you run up the stairs.

Thanks to its plyometric nature, unlike running, this kind of exercise works the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which helps you to perform with more power. More power equals more speed if you use it right!

How Does Stair Running Improve Strength, Power, and Endurance?

Unlike road running, stair running has you working against gravity. Stairs are also usually much steeper than hills. The average staircase is at an angle of about 65 percent, while the average hill gradient is between 3 and 15 percent!

This turns running into a resistance exercise, which goes a long way toward boosting your power because you’re pushing harder to move yourself up. Resistance exercise builds muscle and strength; the more muscle and strength you have, the more power you’ll have when pushing off.

The steepness of the stairs also accelerates your heart rate quickly, which leads to heavier breathing for more oxygen intake. Do this fairly often, and you can expect your VO2 max to improve, so your body learns to use oxygen more efficiently.

The better your VO2 max, the faster and longer you can run for less effort or the same amount of effort as you were exerting before. This means better endurance on long runs.

The Benefits of Stair Running

If you’re thinking of starting, here are some of the best benefits of stair running that you can expect to gain when you start doing it regularly.

Enhanced Agility and Balance

Working against gravity means your stabilizer muscles come into play, a benefit many other exercises don’t provide. The more you work these muscles, the better your balance becomes, especially when you’re back on flat ground.

Better balance also equals better agility. You can move faster and be more sure-footed on the ground, recover more quickly if you misstep, and find it easier to keep your form.

Increased Cardiovascular Endurance

Research shows that stair running can boost cardiovascular fitness. This is most likely due to the intense exercise, which means you get more cardiovascular gains in a shorter time.

Improved cardiovascular fitness means better cardiovascular endurance, which means you’ll be able to run further for longer before becoming fatigued. The better your cardio health, the more oxygen you can take in on each breath.

It also means your heart can pump blood around your body more efficiently, providing your muscles with O2 and nutrients regularly so they won’t fatigue too early.

Increased Anaerobic Capacity

As you run stairs, the combination of cardio and resistance against gravity causes your heart rate to spike rapidly. As it does so, your breathing will also increase, so you can take in more oxygen.

Do this often, and you’ll find that your body begins to adapt, and your VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during exercise—increases. It will take a few weeks for this improvement to start showing itself, but the more you continue with short, intense exercises like stair running, the better your VO2 will get.

Improved Lactate Threshold

Your lactate threshold is when your body produces more lactic acid than it can flush. Explosive exercises help you reach your anaerobic threshold quickly, and the more you work in this zone, the better your body will get at working through it.

Every time you do stair running, you can expect your lactate threshold to improve a little. This means you’re effectively training your body to push harder for longer, boosting your endurance.

Lower Impact on Joints

If you’re sprinting, there will still be some impact on your joints when stair running. But the good news is that stair running is naturally lower-impact than regular running, because your feet aren’t coming down to “ground level” again—they’re landing at a higher point. i.e. the next stair.

If your joints are an issue, you can tone down the pace and intensity to a brisk stair walk, and you’ll get many benefits without the impact.

Your heart rate will still spike as you work against gravity to push yourself up the stairs. Your muscles will still get an excellent workout and gain strength. But your joints will be safe.

Elevate Your Fitness: How to Add Running Stairs to Your Routine

Stair running can be included during your weekly running training, or you can use it as a form of cross-training. While it’s still technically “running,” it’s more of a strength-building resistance exercise, which makes it an excellent cross-training activity.

If you do it as cross-training, you’ll want to do it once or twice a week, separate from your regular running training sessions. However, you can also replace your hill runs with stair runs if you don’t want to cross-train.

If you’re doing stair running in the same session as another workout—for example, if you’re going for a long run and want to do some stair running as well—it’s best to do your stair running first.

This is because stair running with already-fatigued legs can be difficult and compromise your safety. We only recommend doing them after a different workout if the first workout only targets the upper body or if you’re sure that you’ve still got enough energy to run stairs with good form.

You can use a stair stepper machine if you want to, but it’s a bit more difficult to do speedy workouts on a stair stepper. We recommend choosing the real thing instead!

Examples of Stair Running Exercises for Runners

Not sure how to start stair running? Here are some example stair running workouts that are easy to do.

Stair Sprints

Sprints are excellent for building power and strength. This workout is simple: sprint up the stairs as fast as possible. Once you get to the top, start a timer for 3 minutes and start walking or jogging back down. Wait for your 3 minutes to be up, and sprint again.

You want to do this for 5 to 7 reps in total, depending on your fitness level and how you’re feeling on the day. Keep in mind that the pace will be different for everyone here, so don’t push yourself too hard in terms of speed—stick with something that’s right for you.

Pyramid Stair Workout

Pyramid workouts start light and increase in intensity, then come back down—like the shape of a pyramid. Here’s how to do a pyramid stair workout:

  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes (on flat ground)
  • Run stairs for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run stairs for 3 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run stairs for 4 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run stairs for 3 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run stairs for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Cool down for 5 to 10 minutes (on flat ground)

Climb the Ladder

This is quite similar to pyramid workouts, but you get more rest between each intense session. Aim for 70% intensity throughout this workout.

  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes (on flat ground)
  • Run stairs for 1 minute
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • Run stairs for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 60 seconds
  • Run stairs for 3 minutes
  • Rest for 1 minute 30 seconds
  • Run stairs for 4 minutes
  • Rest for 2 minutes
  • Increase as you wish
  • Cool down when finished

Lateral Step Run

If normal stair running is boring or easy, you can try lateral step stair running. You’ll turn sideways and “run” up the stairs that way for this workout. Be careful with this one, though—it can be a little more dangerous than regular stair running.

You will need to go slower than you do with regular stair running. Take your time—you’ll still feel the muscles working!

Skater Hops

This is a fun little exercise that’s a bit different. Start with one foot on the lowest stair, closer to the end of the stair on the same side as the foot. So, let’s assume you begin with your right foot—place it on the first stair closer to the right side.

Push off with this foot and hop onto your left foot—onto the next step, closer to the left side. So you’re pushing up and to the side, which activates the muscles nicely. Continue hopping from foot to foot until you’re up the stairs.

Walk back down, and do it again. We recommend 3 sets in total.

Tips for Stair Running

Planning on starting stair running? Here are some tips you should keep in mind to make sure you do it most effectively.

Warm Up Before You Start

Warming up is important because it will help to prepare your muscles for the activity you’re about to do and get blood flowing. It doesn’t need to be long☺5 to 10 minutes of walking or jogging will be enough.

Start With Shorter Flights

It’s a good idea to start off doing your training on shorter, flatter flights of stairs. You can progress to longer and steeper ones as your body becomes more used to the exercise. If you start with long, steep ones, you may end up inadvertently pushing yourself too hard and too far.

If the only stairs near you are steep and long, you may want to reduce your intensity and duration so you do shorter sessions on them.

Go At Your Own Pace

There’s no need to rush upstairs. Especially if you’re new to stair running, start at your own pace—something that feels comfortable and controllable to you. You can increase your pace as you get better and more experienced.

Focus On Form

Your form is just as important on stairs as it is on the road or trail. Keep your back straight as possible—ensure you’re not hunching over as you run. Tighten your core to help maintain the proper posture.

Your chest should be lifted, and you should keep your eyes ahead. Don’t look at your feet, although this is tempting! Do your best to maintain an upright position—don’t lean forward or overstride.

Take Smaller Steps

To avoid overstriding, aiming for smaller steps while doing your stair running is a good idea. Smaller steps generate more push-off power but also help you not to overstride, which will reduce the efficiency of the movement.

You may have to adjust your stride to accommodate longer steps, but if you need to adjust it, try to take smaller steps instead.

If the only stairs nearby force you to take unnaturally large strides, looking for somewhere else to do these exercises is probably a good idea.

Pump Your Arms

Pumping your arms will help you to generate better momentum, as well as improve your balance as you move up and down stairs. Make sure they’re coordinated with your leg movements, bend your elbows at about 90 degrees, and keep your elbows close to your body.

Push Off With Your Toes

Pushing off with your toes not only helps you to maintain better form but it also allows you to get a better spring by activating your calf muscles. You’ll perform better in your stair runs and build an impressive set of calves while doing so!

Breathe Deeply

Focus on maintaining a deep, controlled breathing motion as you run stairs. Inhale through your nose and try to breathe down into your belly. Exhale through your mouth, with pursed lips to help you get the air out quickly.

If you breathe too shallowly, you’re at risk of becoming lightheaded. This can be more dangerous when you’re on stairs, so working on deep breathing is in your best interest. You may want to do some deep breathing exercises as part of your recovery routine to get used to the belly-breathing feeling.

Incorporate Variety

You can switch up your stair running routine to avoid getting bored with the same thing. Vary factors like the number of flights of stairs, single- or double-steps, or your interval times. Make sure that every time you try a new variation, you take time to get used to it first.

Max 2 Stair Workouts/Week for Best Results

Don’t overdo it on the stair workouts! Twice a week is more than enough to reap the rewards without inadvertently overtraining. You can do it as a form of cross-training, or implement it as an interval run in your regular running program.

Don’t be tempted to throw in extra stair workouts. You’ll only be increasing your own risk of overtraining and injuring yourself, which will set you back as you have to take time off to recover.

Listen to Your Body

Stair running can be high-impact, so it’s important to remember that the chance of injury may be increased. If you feel pain at any point, it’s a good idea to stop and not try to push through it.

Remember, stair running has a somewhat different mechanism than normal running, so rather stop and figure out the source of your pain rather than carry on and accidentally injuring yourself.

Cool Down Properly

Don’t forget to cool down after your stair workout. Spend 5 to 10 minutes walking briskly or jogging on flat ground so your legs can cool down. Making sure you do a cool-down every time will help your body to recover faster.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.