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Could Running Stairs Be the Secret to More Speed and Power?

Yes, stair workouts are humbling as hell. That's why you should do them more often.

Stairs are a part of everyday life; you probably don’t think much of them as you’re hauling laundry up a flight or carrying the trash down. But if you’ve ever found yourself wheezing at the top of a set of steps (who hasn’t?), you should think about incorporating stairs into your running regimen.

The Benefits of Stair Workouts for Runners

Stairs, like hills, up the intensity of a running workout. But the intensity of the stairs’ elevation is often harder than a gradual hill, which increases the load. Physiologically, that intensity “makes you breathe harder and faster so you can take in more oxygen, which spikes your heart rate,” says Meghan Kennihan, a USATF- and RRCA-certified running coach. Doing stair workouts consistently eventually leads to an improved VO2max, she adds, because your body learns to use oxygen more efficiently—which means faster paces will feel easier on flat ground.

Research proves this: When scientists had sedentary people vigorously climb 60 steps of stairs three times a day (with one to four hours between climbs for recovery) for six weeks, those people showed improvements in their peak oxygen uptake and peak power output in a cycling test, according to a 2019 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

Speaking of power output, stairs work some of the biggest muscles in your body (think: glutes, quads, and calves. Plus, you’re working against gravity to propel yourself up the stairs, which adds resistance—a great way to build strength, says Brady Irwin, owner of and head coach at Science of Speed.

“When you push off each stair, it’s a form of explosive or plyometric training,” adds Kennihan. This kind of training builds strength and power, increasing the ability of your muscles and joints to react upon landing. It also trains your body to recruit muscle fibers more efficiently, which “means you don’t need to work as hard to hit a particular pace,” she explains. “That keeps your energy expenditure lower, so you can go faster longer without fatigue or pick up the pace mid-run without getting as winded.” (In one study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, two plyometrics training sessions per week over six weeks led to improved 10K times, despite a reduction in training mileage.)

Stairs can also help you dial in your running technique. “Like running uphill, stairs are a great teacher of running efficiency,” says Irwin. “They naturally require you to shorten your stride and emphasize lean angle. It’s easy to understand if you try running uphill or on stairs while landing on your heels or if you try going upstairs without leaning forward—it may be one of the most awkward things you’ve tried in some time!”

And, in an era where gym access is still limited, stairs become a playground of workout opportunities beyond just sprinting up and down. You can use them to add in other plyometric exercises, as well as variations of standard bodyweight moves, like push-ups, squats, and lunges. Considering how many runners skip strength training, this is an easy way to knock out strength and cardio in one.

How to Incorporate Stair Workouts into Your Routine

An easy way to add stair workouts is to sub them in for hill workouts. But you can also do them in place of a strength training session every so often, during the first half of an easy run, or even in the middle of a longer run.

Whenever you do them, make sure to keep your form on point—since stairs require that explosive form and a little more technique than running in a straight line, you want to be focused and engaged. “Eyes should be straight ahead, not staring down at your feet,” says Kennihan. “Lean slightly forward and pump your arms to help you drive your knees up as you lift your feet up each stair.” Only do stairs at the end of the run if you’ve still got the energy to do them right.

Want to add some incline to your running? Try these workouts from Kennihan and Irwin.

Pyramid Stair Workout

  • Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes running on flat ground
  • Run up and down stairs or bleachers for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run up and down stairs or bleachers for 3 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run up and down stairs or bleachers for 4 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run up and down stairs or bleachers for 3 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Run up and down stairs or bleachers for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Cool down by running for 10 to 15 minutes on flat ground

Total-Body Stair Workout

  • Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes running on flat ground
  • Run up and down the stairs 5 times
  • Perform 10 push-ups at the bottom
  • Run up and down the stairs 5 times
  • Perform 10 triceps dips at the bottom
  • Run up and down the stairs 5 times
  • Perform 10 air squats at the bottom
  • Run up and down the stairs 5 times
  • Perform 10 full sit-ups at the bottom
  • Run up and down the stairs 5 times
  • Hold a plank for 60 seconds at the bottom
  • Repeat the circuit 2 times total
  • Cool down by running for 10 to 15 minutes on flat ground

Stability Stair Workout

  • Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes running on flat ground (or do this workout after a steady-state run)
  • Perform 3 x 30-second pick-ups (start at a jog and increase the speed until you are at a 9/10 intensity), recovering with a 1-minute walk between each rep
  • Do 3 x 30 single-step sprints
  • Do 3 x 30 double-step sprints
  • Do 2 x 20 single steps with lateral bounding
  • Do 3 x 10 double-leg jumps
  • Cool down by walking or jogging for 10 to 15 minutes on flat ground

Leg Burnout Bleacher Workout

  • After a moderate run, perform 3 x 30-second pickups (start at a jog and increase the speed until you are at a 9/10 intensity), recovering with a 1-minute walk between each rep
  • Do 2 sets of 4 x 40 stair sprint repeats (run up the stairs, laterally across the bleachers, and down the stairs, then walk laterally across the lower bleacher to recover)
  • Take 4 minutes to recover between sets
  • Cool down by walking or jogging for 10 minutes on flat ground

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