Stair racing is extraordinarily difficult. These races, up the stairs in skyscrapers, are downright grueling. But they’re also ridiculously rewarding, and the feeling of overlooking an entire city, knowing that you climbed to your perch, is second-to-none.
I’ve been asked (a couple times) to share how to train for a race. I’m happy to share what I know! I’m not the fastest guy at these events, but I’m experienced. I’ve done three dozen of them, in nearly a dozen cities across the country, all in the past few years, and I started as a complete newcomer. I’ve learned a lot! Here’s what you need to know – and how to prepare!
For more about how I started in stair racing, check out my 5-minute presentation.
FIND A RACE NEAR YOU!
Most major US Cities have a stair race at some point during the year. Bigger cities have more than one (there are three in downtown Los Angeles, and five in downtown Chicago). Some smaller cities, like Springfield, Illinois, and Oxnard, California, even have races. Nearly all of them are charity fundraisers, so be prepared to pay a registration fee (typically $20-50) and commit to a fundraising minimum (typically $100-250). Here are some excellent places to look for races:
- StairSport.com – A list of US races, broken down into regions.
- TowerRunningUSA.com – Has a race calendar, so you can see what’s coming up next.
- American Lung Association – Fight For Air Climbs – Dozens of local chapters across the US hold their own stair race, you can search for them here.
- CF Climbs – There’s dozens of Cystic Fibrosis Climbs across the country as well.
- Towerrunning.com – An international list!
I write detailed recaps of every race I’ve done, and include lots of photos, and you can find an archive my my race recaps here.
If one of these sites references a race that’s already happened this year, visit the website anyway – chances are it’s an annual event.
Here’s the deal, folks. I’m not a personal trainer, or a doctor. I’m not going to prescribe a single, specific training regimen for a couple reasons: 1) Everyone’s fitness level is different. 2) Everyone may not have access to the same equipment or training resources.
But what I can do is give a lot of ideas and share lots of resources, so you can figure out what’s best for you. Check with a doctor and make sure you’re ready for strenuous physical activity!
The best way to train for a stair race is… to climb stairs. Start taking the stairs whenever you can in your daily life. When you’re at the mall or the airport, and there’s an escalator next to a flight of stairs, take the stairs. When you arrive for an appointment, and it’s on the third floor, take the stairs. If you live in a second floor apartment, take the stairs. Every time.
Keep in mind that nearly all stair races are only UP stairs, not DOWN. Climbing up stairs is an excellent cardio-vascular activity. It burns lots of calories, and is low-impact. Climbing down stairs is much more dangerous, and it’s more taxing on your body – especially your joints. You may not be able to avoid climbing down stairs in your day-to-day life, but you don’t need to race down them!
FIND STAIRS NEAR YOU
Think about your neighborhood, your area, your city. Do you have access to a lot of stairs? You don’t need tons. I can get in a great workout in the stairwell at a 4-story parking garage near my home. Parking garages are a great place to train. If you live in a hilly area, there may be public stairways, like the one pictured above. Are there a ton of stairs in front of city hall or the courthouse? Does your local high school or college have sizable bleachers at their sports fields? Is there an outdoor amphitheater nearby, where you can run up the aisles? Can you gain access to a taller building? Do you have a friend who lives or works on the 8th floor? Ask them if they’re accessible (don’t go tripping any emergency alarms!). Hotels are great places to train, because stairwells are easy to find and often easily accessible. Ideally you’d want to train in a place where you can take the stairs up and the elevator down, but that may not always be an option.
You didn’t hear it from me, but if there’s a tall building (like a hotel) where you can gain access to a stairwell, consider just going and doing it. Asking permission often leads to “no,” because of insurance and liability risks.
What do you do on the stairs? Simple answer: Push yourself.
Note how many flights you can do until you’re winded. It may only be a couple, if you’re just starting efforts to get fit, but that’s ok. Do what you can, and make note of what you can do, because the next time, you’re gonna do more. If you can do 5 flights before you’re exhausted, aim for 6 next time. Then 8. Then 10. Keep going, like that, to build your endurance.
If you’re able, take the stairs two at a time, for as long as possible. While it seems more difficult, double-stepping is actually a more efficient way to climb.
When you’re ready, work in some high-intensity interval training. For example, sprint up 2 floors, then recover for the next 5, and repeat.
Switch up the stairs with other exercise – don’t do them every day, maybe just once or twice a week. Do other workouts: walking, running, swimming, elliptical, yoga, weightlifting, group fitness classes… anything. Stairs really push your legs, lungs and heart, so do something else and let them recover from the stairs!
You may not have access to stairs on a day-to-day basis, for training purposes. Don’t worry about it! You can still prepare for a race. The main thing to remember is that stair racing really engages your leg muscles, and it’s a heavy-duty cardio-vascular workout. So figure out things you can do that tackles one of those objectives, or, preferably, both! You’ll need to work on your endurance – so you can push through pain and keep climbing – and do things that elevate your heart rate, too. Some ideas:
StairMaster. Stair machines are great. They engage all the right muscles, and you can climb non-stop, literally, for as long as you like. Or as long as you’re able. I spent months on a StairMaster, before my first-ever stair race, and turned my StairMaster workouts into an ongoing blog feature that I called ‘My Skyscraper Collection.’ It’s not exactly the same as climbing a building, because StairMasters don’t have landings, and you’re not lifting your body weight exactly the same way, because the stairs are moving below you, but it’s still an awesome training tool, and I would recommend the same basic attack: See how much you can do during your first couple workouts, and then slowly increase it. Increase the speed of the StairMaster, and increase your duration on the machine, slowly, over time.
Incline Walking or Running. No StairMaster at your gym? Get on a treadmill and bump up the incline. Many ellipticals have adjustable inclines, too. Doesn’t matter if you’re walking slow. Just get that incline up so you engage your quads, calves, and glutes. Alternate between steady, endurance-building workouts and ones where you do short bursts of sprints – those will really get your heart racing, and that’s something that will happen during a stair race, and quickly!
No access to a treadmill? Find the biggest hills in your area and walk or run up them! Hike up a mountain!
Strength Training. Lunges and squats are great exercises to prepare for a stair race, because they involve raising your body up and down using power generated from your legs, which is exactly what you do in a stairwell. Here’s a short video demonstrating 4 types of lunges , and here’s 4 leg exercises (including squats and lunges) with dumbbells.
Exercises like jumping jacks and burpees are also excellent, because they get your heart pumping, and are full-body exercises, so they wear you out quickly and really challenge your stamina. Check out this video for a few variations on burpees, based on your fitness level.
I may not be a trainer or a fitness expert, but luckily, there are plenty out there who have written about stair racing. Some of these links have very specific programs you can follow, so explore, figure out what’s right for you, and get to it!
- X-Gym Stair Training Page. PJ Glassey is a personal trainer who owns a couple gyms in the Seattle area. He’s also a nationally-ranked stair racer, and my friend, that I met through these races. He’s put together an awesome page that covers the basics, and gets into more advanced stuff, like stair technique and targeted gym exercises. Lots of info, and lots of videos to watch!
- 7 Day Stair Climbing Workout Plan. PJ provided Active.com with a very specific one-week training breakdown, including workouts on stairs, StairMaster, spin bike, and treadmill.
- Stair Climbing Australia Training Page. Stair racing is a big deal down under, and the national stair climbing association has three different 5-week training programs where everything is laid out for you, and it’s all on 2-page printable PDFs. There’s one for beginners, one for intermediate racers, and one for advanced racers.
- Go Vertical. Bowflex Fitness Advisor (and Empire State Building Run Up veteran) Tom Holland wrote this article about stair racing, and includes non-stair exercises that will get you in shape. And I’m featured in the article, too!
- How to Run – and Win – A Stair Climbing Race. Suzy Walsham, 6-time winner of the Empire State Building Run-Up, shares with ESPN her training and race tips.
- How to Train For a Stair Climbing Event. AZCentral’s guide includes specific stretches (always important!) and how to have a great workout on a single flight of stairs.
- How to Train for a Stair Climbing Race. This EXOS blog post is short but sweet, and suggests an interval-based program.
- LiveStrong – How to Train For a Stair Climbing Event. This article breaks down how to train into five broad steps.
- When the Race Course is a Stairwell. My friend Bob was featured in the campus paper at the college where he works, and shares how he trains, including the advanced pacing technique of using splits.
- Ten steps to becoming a skyscraper running champ. Tips from experts, including my friend Madeleine!
Stair racing is brutal. I’m so wiped out by the end of a race that I can no longer stand up. If you’re training to the point of exhaustion at the end of a workout, than congrats! You’re preparing yourself for how you’ll feel after a race.
That said, no level of training is going to make a stair race seem easy. What training does – even intensive training – is prepare you for the challenge. You’ll know what it feels like to get your heart rate extremely elevated, and for prolonged periods. You’ll know what it feels like when your legs are burning, and your lungs are maxed out, and you’ll know you can keep going. Stair climbing is about persevering, exceeding your limits, pushing your boundaries.
It sometimes seems like torture for me when I’m in the stairwell, but after a race? Pure exhilaration. Pure triumph. That’s why I keep doing it!
If there’s other resources you want to share, pipe up in the comments section.
I wish you the best of luck, and… keep it up! I’ll do the same.
Keep it up, David!