Stair climbing for beginners

Posted: January 7, 2016 in Training
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Stair climbing is one of the best fitness activities you can do, but it’s not always clear exactly how to get started if you’re a complete beginner.

If you’ve signed up for Shelter’s Vertical Rush in March 2020, your training should be getting under way soon, so you might be looking for some ideas on how to approach the race and how to train for it.

To steer you in the right direction we’ve put together this quick guide to stair running, which has training tips and techniques to help you prepare.

Why stair climbing?

Stair climbing is the perfect workout as it’s free, low impact and high-intensity, which means you get a great fitness boost in a short space of time. No big long runs or expensive fitness classes here. You’ll likely burn as many calories doing a solid 15-minute stair workout as you would doing a much longer steady state jog.

Sign up for a stair race

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve already signed up for a tower running event. But if not, there’s nothing like the draw of an upcoming event to keep you motivated and committed to stair climbing.

London skyline

If you’re in the UK, our tower running race calendar has every upcoming UK stair race listed, so you can pick an event and plan well ahead. It’s regularly updated as new races are announced, so if you don’t see anything that suits it’s worth checking back at a later date for updates.

If you’re outside the UK, the race calendar on the Towerrunning World Association website should have you covered.

Where to run stairs in London?

So you’ve signed up for a stair race. What now?

If you’re in London your best bet for an easily accessible training venue is to go to the Tower Wing of Guy’s Hospital. There you’ll find 700+ steps on a quiet stairwell (if you go in the evenings) that’s open until 10pm (note the doors into the stairwell close to the public at 8pm, so you’ll want to get inside by then. Once you’re in, getting out isn’t a problem).

If you can’t get down to Guy’s Hospital, there are other options available in the capital. Check out our guide on where to run stairs in London.

If you’re not in London, you should be looking for hospitals and hotels as your go to training venues. If you work in an office with 6+ floors, or have access to a block of flats, that will be perfect, too.

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Guy’s Hospital alongside the Shard

Take two steps at a time

If possible you really want to be taking two steps at a time while your training for a stair running event, and when you’re racing. If you’re hoping to make a fast time at Vertical Rush this is essential. It can feel harder but try single stepping the same distance and you’ll see you actually expend more energy, especially if you’re not just walking.

Double step as many flights as you can and then build from there. If you make it five floors in your first sessions, aim for six or more in the next one. You’ll find you body will adapt really quickly and you’ll probably surprise yourself with the gains you’re making.

Of course, if for whatever reason you can’t double step, you’ll still get an excellent workout taking one step at a time. The important thing is to get on some stairs and start climbing.

Use the railing
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US stair running legend Kristin Frey demonstrating a great rail technique – hand over hand like a pulling a rope

We see a lot of newcomers to stair climbing not touch the railing, but it’s far more efficient if you do. Not only does it keep you stable and straight, thus focusing your energy on going up, but it also helps you to take the turns on each landing a little quicker, which will save you time overall in a race. Add to that a decent upper body workout and pulling on the railing is a no-brainer.

Coming down the stairs

Ideally you always want to get the lift back down after you have done your stair climb training sets. All the non-impact benefits are undone if you have to keep descending stairs once you reach the top. It will likely leave you with sore calves and quads for a couple of days after too.

If getting the lift down is simply not an option then try and spread the load around your muscles by using different descending techniques each time (sideways, backwards, feet turned in and then out), or even each flight.

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Should have taken the lift – avoid descending the stairs when you can and be careful when you can’t.

How to train for a tower race without stairs

If you can’t find access to stairs on a regular basis for your training, don’t worry. There are plenty of options available.

As long as you’re taxing your legs and cardiovascular system in each workout, you’ll be well prepared for the demands of a stair race.

If you have access to a gym then a step mill, Jacob’s Ladder or stationary bike are all solid options for replicating the demands of stair running.

Incline walking or running are also excellent alternatives to climbing stairs. This will elevate your heart rate quickly, simulating the effects of a stair race, and will also engage the key muscles of your glutes, quads and calves as well.

You can alternate between steady, endurance-building workouts and ones where you do short bursts of sprints, such as 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off.

If you don’t have access to a treadmill, then hill runs outdoors will get the job done, too.

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