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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.