The Dreaded Stairs – How to get the best out of it for you

Training up and down stairs is maybe not one of the first things an ultra runner thinks about as part of his or her training repertoire. But it’s something that many more people are incorporating into their training, particularly with the North Face 100 race down here in Australia.

One thing you generally hear at the finish line of this race is the phrase “Those bloody stairs!”, and it’s true to say that the North Face 100 Australia has its fair share of climbing up and down stairs throughout the course, but particularly at the start, the wonderful Nellie’s Glen and indeed the final slog back up to the Fairmont resort where your finishers medal awaits you, along with severe quad burn!

But can you really train for this and what’s the best way to approach it? The answer is of course yes, and many people will use stairs training as a way to increase the strength in their legs as well as it being an awesome short, sharp intense cardio session. What’s great about stairs training is that you can use it in a variety of different ways according to the type of training you wish to do, so we’ve mapped out a few different approaches you can take to training up and down stairs that could suit you and your training, whether you’re aiming for the Aussie North Face 100 or not.

Nellie's Glen has over 400 steps down into the valley and around 450m of elevation over 1.5kms. A great workout.
Nellie’s Glen has over 400 steps down into the valley and around 450m of elevation over 1.5kms. A great workout.

The key to all of the below is specificity. If you train to run up stairs two at a time then you’ll become good at running up big sets of stairs. If you train to walk up stairs then likewise, you’ll become good at walking. Running downstairs has its merits too, but the key is to experiment a bit according to what you would like to achieve.

Strength Session

If you’re seeking to build more stamina in those legs, then simply walking up and down stairs can help with this, as the emphasis is more on taking the strides up at a pace that doesn’t put too much pressure on your heart rate (although you’ll still get a good workout from it!). This is probably one of the most vital sessions you can do if you’re training for the North Face 100, given that 99% of those entered will be walking up the steps. I’m not sure of the numbers of steps, but it’s fair to say that there’s probably over 1,000 steps at least on the North Face course, and if you don’t want to find yourself cursing those bloody stairs, incorporating this type of workout in your weekly routine will be essential.

The great news is that you can do it pretty much anywhere too, be it in the office building or even at home if you can. Andy DuBois, ultrarunner and coach agrees:

“Stairs are an almost essential part of training for the TNF. Be aware there is a big difference between running up stairs and walking up stairs. In the TNF almost everyone will be walking up. 20 minutes of stairs is plenty to begin with. If you aren’t used to them they can play havoc with your knees. As you improve you can add a pack or do a couple of sets at the end of a long run. I think you should wait until you are relatively proficient at stairs before you start adding them at the end of a long run though since doing stairs with already fatigued legs has the potential for more injury.”

Cardio Session

I call these sessions, ‘death training’… and the reason for this is of all my training, running up stairs pushes my heart rate further than any other kind of training I do. Generally I’ll look to run up stairs two at a time (uneven stairs where possible) and then coming back down one at a time but as quickly as you can. Part of the reason I do these sessions is that I can gain the greatest amount of elevation over the shortest possible distance and keep my heart rate at near enough full whack for 30-35mins. I don’t have as much time on my hands as I used to, so for me, these sessions are a great way to gain the maximum amount of benefit in the shortest possible time. Also, if you’re seeking to go around the North Face course in around 12-14 hours, you’ll probably be running up some of the stairs too.

Try to find uneven stairs, or some of gaps int he middle if you're aiming to run sets of stairs
Try to find uneven stairs, or some of gaps int he middle if you’re aiming to run sets of stairs

But there is a balance to strike with these sessions. That is trying to find a set of stairs that gives a good elevation rise over one rep, versus having too many stairs in one rep… if there are too many then you’ll find that you’ll probably be only able to do a very limited amount of reps before you have to start walking. Ideally you’ll climb one set of stairs and then have around 5-10 seconds of uphill running before you hit another set. This slight ‘rest’ as I call it in between different sets of stairs in the one rep allows you to recover just enough to run the second set within a rep. However, I do appreciate that finding these stairs can be difficult, so the key is to adapt your training as best you can for the race that you’re training for.

If you know you’re going to be doing a lot of walking up stairs, or indeed some very steep inclines (Bogong to Hotham is a perfect example down here in Australia), then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t just walk them two at a time. Add a loaded pack as well to make it harder. In my own personal training, I’m using the stairs session as a type of ‘recovery session’ on Friday mornings, before my long run on a Saturday to simulate the effects of running on tired legs. I’m doing it for a very specific reason for a specific part of a race that I have coming up in a few months, but the key is specificity.

Downhill…

Why would you bother with the downhill, surely that’s the recovery right? In some respects it is, but there’s also a certain skill in being able to run down stairs quickly, and I for one know that this is one of my biggest weaknesses. Again, there are a few different techniques you can try, from going down one at a time to improve cadence, or taking two at a time to get down in as short a time as possible. Although running down steps two at a time does take some skill and concentration, so be careful not to trip up!

Additionally, traveling down stairs quickly is a sign also of improving fitness as it means your ability to recover from the climbing upwards is getting better too.

We hope some of the above is useful for you, and remember there’s no golden rule here, just follow a plan that suits you and your race strategy.

 

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Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

16 thoughts on “The Dreaded Stairs – How to get the best out of it for you

  1. Stairs are a great workout, thanks for the post. I first got into stairs to give me a hard workout when a calf tear prevented running (but allowed walking). You can really get your heart rate up even when fast hiking them. Going down stairs also provides an eccentric load to the calf – so I was able to get a workout and some strengthening rehab at the same time.

  2. Just got back from my Warrior stair set at Woolloomooloo. Closest I come to puking in any session. My strength is definitely the down. I try to go at least as fast down as I do up.

    Nothing beats doing a long set of stairs during a long run.

      1. how many reps do you do over at woolloomooloo? I did 10 last week (first time ive done stairs in ages) and i almost threw up. I thought that was pretty lame. Hoping to build up to 50 before TNF100. will do 15 reps over there this week, possibly tonight.

  3. Bluff Knoll WA. About 5 hours from Perth 600m+ climb over 3.1K. Almost all stairs.
    Record is 23min, mine 33. Have walked in 42 also.

  4. For those on the northern beaches of Sydney, Timber Getters Track – Seaforth Oval to Bantry Bay landing provides lots of uneven steps with a few short runnable sections. You get a 140m(+/-) vertical climb. I did numerous repeats on this track for the TNF100’12. 6 full repeats = 10km = 670m ellivation gain.

  5. Yes, agree stairs are the way to go for trail ultras. I have been using kettle bells over the last few years in preparation for GNW and recommend them for anybody who wants to climb those ascents and get to the top fresh. Last two GNW 100 milers, I have not struggled on the climbs and in fact look forward to them over the flats. I am now incorporating a stair session at the gym into my routine. 10 lots 2 steps at time, followed by shoulder / core, for three sets, then 8 reps, then 6….etc. ends up 110 flights. Now I am adding weights to legs as I find it too easy! So I am a convert to stairs, anything with a big incline.

  6. Nice set of rock steps heading south out of Berowra Waters along the Great North walk. Lots of uneven gaps to mess up the stride, so makes good training.

  7. Thanks for this brilliant article! I am not an Ultra Runner yet, but been dragged to it by running longer and longer distances since I started running 15 months ago. Now, the other day I tried stairs excercise as I have plenty of them around and wondered how I can optimize it.

  8. Deffo tick for the Woolloomoloo stairs. Before TNF100 last year i would do 30 – 40 reps.
    Now i’m based in the inner west i’m eyeing off John St (Pyrmont) light rail station which is only 90 steps but with shorter landings between flights.
    This year two at a time or bust! Nellie’s Glen i’m coming for you…or at least i would be if was doing more than the 50k. Fatherhood excuse.

    1. Hey Aaron, there’s a great set of stairs down at Dawn Fraser pool in Birchgrove… you’ll see me there most Friday mornings bashing out 25-30 reps of that. Dan

      1. Hey Michael, they start on Glassop Street at Elkington Park. There’s a lot of trees there so you might not see them on Google maps. Shout if you still can’t see them πŸ™‚

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