Gradual gains are key to a successful stairclimbing race.

Written by: Sabrina Grotewold

Popular around the globe, this niche sport presents a unique challenge to both the endurance and short-distance crowds because it may seem like common sense to either group that the training in their primary distances—aerobic stamina to power through the elongated effort for long-distance runners, and plenty of fast-twitch muscle fibers and explosiveness for short-distance athletes—would put them at an advantage. But, according to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, stairclimbers’ metabolic profiles prove similar to those of middle-distance runners. The research revealed that elite climbers maintained a constant vertical speed and heart rate throughout the race, whereas recreational athletes tended to reach a point where they decelerated suddenly. To avoid going out too hard, getting winded too early and lumbering up 20 or more flights of stairs, practice patient pacing.

“If this is your first stair climb, go slow and steady,” advised SkyRise Chicago event lead organizer and two-time SkyRise finisher Mitch Carr. “I’ve run marathons and half-marathons so I’m used to trying to pace myself, but the first year I did it, I moved up the first 20 flights pretty quickly. By the 35th flight, I was done—I was totally spent.”

Racing for a cause: SkyRise Chicago raises funds to support the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Photo: RIC SkyRise Chicago.

To excel, Carr, who has a master’s degree in exercise physiology, recommends climbing stadium stairs, using the stairmaster at the gym, or even racing up hills in addition to running or performing your cardiovascular exercise of choice. Cardiovascular strength training—lighter weights and more repetition—that includes traditional leg-building exercises like leg presses, squats and lunges combined with post-strength workout stretching should yield desirable results.

“If you’re a first-timer and haven’t had the chance to do four or five months of incorporating stairs into your training, go slow—even if that means power walking the stairs,” advised Carr. “You’ll find that you’ll start passing people who moved way ahead of you in the beginning.”

Just like any running race, finding your rhythm and locking into that pace during the first few flights will set you up for a steady race. If, after bursting out of the stairwell, gulping a breath of fresh air, lunging across the finish line and looking down at the city streets below—albeit while clutching your knees and panting—you decide to do it all again, consider how the elites win the race. There’s definitely a strategy and technique that requires arm strength and handrails to spring up the steps. “The elites do this year-round, and you’ll see that they almost catapult themselves up by using their arms,” Carr noted.

Test your mettle at any of these upcoming stairclimbing events:

Sept. 24, 2011: Climb for Life-Dallas

Oct. 23, 2011: Climb for Life-Boston

Nov. 6, 2011: SkyRise Chicago

Feb. 7, 2012: Empire State Building Run-up

Feb. 26, 2012: Hustle Up the Hancock


Fight for Air Climb