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How good is stair running for runners?

I very often read in different magazines that stair running is a good way of improving fitness level. Typically: “Run stairs and become super fit!” Is this really the case? Well, before start doing this, read my advice about it, think a little bit about why you are running and what goals you actually have for your running.

My experience from stair running

I have first hand experience from stair running, when I was at my peak as a long distance runner. My coach at that time, Johan Kaggestad, suggested that we should go to Holmenkollen, a big ski jump arena in Oslo, and do some training in the stairs up there. So we went there to do it.

After some time into the session, it became very hard and unpleasant. But that was not the worst thing. I felt more or less “destroyed” for several days afterwards. I was running like a bag of potatoes and didn’t recognise my own body. Then Kaggestad came up with a comment that was rare from him: “Ingrid, I think I screwed it up this time. We should never have done this.”

My great competitor from those times, Grete Waitz, had the same experience. For a period she had a coach who had strong faith in stair running as a training method. They performed the training in the stairs of the highest building in Oslo at that time. To summarise it, that season was very bad for her. It was probably the worst season in her running career.

Then you may ask, how come? Why is this so bad?

Ruunning Brooklyn BridgeWell, let’s make it clear what we are doing as long distance runners. We are running much more than 4 minutes. We first of all need endurance and a good, efficient and economical stride. This further means that we need high aerobic capacity, which is the same as a high ability to supply enough oxygen to the muscles.

Stair running quickly becomes so hard that the aerobic system runs out of capacity and strength, and then “asks for help” from the anaerobic system.

Short said: stair running is more or less an anaerobic exercise. It is almost impossible to run in stairs so slowly that you don’t get sore in your muscles quite quickly.

Let us have a look at the distribution between aerobic and anaerobic consumtion for differerent running distances:

Distance     Aerobic energy consumtion            Anaerobic energy consumption
100m                      10%                                                        90%
400m                      30%                                                        70%
800m                      70%                                                        30%
1500m                    83%                                                        17%
5000m                    95%                                                         5%
10000m                  97%                                                         3%
Marathon         More than 99%                                        Less than 1%

Let us assume that it takes half a minute to run up the stairs. That means a duration that is between 100 to 400m (100m 10-15 sec, 400m 45-75 sec) As you can see, the stair running will mainly train a system that you don’t need for long distance running, such as 80% anaerobic and by that only 20% aerobic.

It seems a little bit stupid to train on something you don’t need. But the worst thing is that, due to sore muscles filled with lactic acid, you will harm your aerobic system. The aerobic enzymes that work as catalysts for the aerobic metabolism (burning of energy) will be destroyed.

The movements in stair running are totally different from running on flat ground. This will make your running technique less efficient. Stair running will, even with moderate intensity, lead to hyperventilation and that the leg muscles simply will stop after a while, due to soreness. Then you will also lose control of you movements. Experiencing these things are clear signs of anaerobic work.

It is often argued that stair running is good strength training. Then I would like to say that the movements are wrong for a long distance runner, and that it does not give strength for endurance. It may give absolute strength in muscle cells, but only in the fast cells that don’t need much oxygen and don’t last for long.

Who is stair running useful for?

Stair running

Stair running can be useful for those are training exactly for this: stair runs. It can also be useful for sprinters and medium distance runners.

Maybe you also think that it can be useful for those who are participating in uphill races. But then remember that those races very rarely last for 2-4 min. Normally they last from 20-30 min to more than one hour. if you look in the table above, a 5000m will take at least 15-20 min for most. Then we are talking about 95% aerobic need.

Alpine skiers often work hard with a short duration 1 – 3 min. They need to develop their anaerobic capacity, and may benefit from stair running. They call it stair training or stair jumping.

Boxers, wrestlers and athletes in other sports with short duration and intense efforts, lasting from a few seconds up to a few minutes, may also benefit from this kind of training.

Read more about interval training, long runs and training for running here:

Author: Ingrid Kristiansen

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