Do you take the stairs only when the elevator is out of service? Think again. If you want to feel stronger on hills, improve your running times and become more injury resistant, all you need is a flight of stairs and a fair dose of determination. Keryn Foster, a biokineticist and experienced runner, explains how your running can benefit from training on stairs.
Most of us get bored with our normal routine of training runs and we all often look for different ways to become stronger, fitter and faster. Step training is the perfect addition to your usual training week, as it adds fun and variety. And the best thing? It does not require any equipment. Even if you are travelling and stuck in a hotel without a gym and no safe roads to run on, you can head for the hotel stairs to get your daily dose of exercise.
Step training is not easy, but you can make it work for you and adjust the intensity according to your fitness level. Whether it’s just walking the stairs instead of taking the elevator, or doing a running-specific interval training session on the steps, using stairs has many benefits for runners.
The benefits of step training include:
- The muscle groups used in step training are very similar to those used in running and they work in a similar way. Step training emphasizes the use of the hip flexor group (muscles on the front of the hip). This group of muscles is essential in pulling the leg forward and striding out during the running gait cycle.
- Because leg turnover speed is usually high during step training, it encourages less contact time between your foot and the ground. This will carry over into higher leg speed turnover while running.
- The intensity of training on steps is quite high so you can have a really effective workout in as little as 20 minutes.
GET TO GRIPS WITH THE BASICS
There are two important principles to understand when you start step training:
1 Interval training
Interval training involves the performance of repeated bouts of exercise with brief recovery periods in between. Step training is best done as interval training because the intensity is so high that it is difficult to maintain for long periods.
2 Concentric versus eccentric muscle action
Muscle action can be described as concentric or eccentric. Eccentric muscle action describes the action of the muscle lengthening while it is working (for example the quadricep muscle lengthens while going down stairs.) Concentric muscle action is when the muscle shortens while working (for example the calf, quadricep and buttock muscles shorten while going up the stairs).
Eccentric muscle action causes soreness after running and is generally the action during which injuries occur. Running is different from sports such as cycling and swimming because of its eccentric nature. Step training has the added advantage of being able to focus on the concentric component too!
GOING UP OR COMING DOWN?
When you run up stairs, all the muscles involved in propelling you forward during normal running are strengthened. Generally the run up the stairs is short, hard and fast. The focus should be on maintaining good posture (don’t slouch, keep upright with a slight forward lean) and producing as much power as possible.
You can make contact with each step or skip a step each time running with bigger, deeper strides. Single step running involves more calf use while double step running will work your quads, hamstrings and buttocks more. Be sure to mix it up during your session, but skipping a step will be particularly advantageous for trail runners.
Running down stairs on the other hand is slow and controlled, and is generally considered your recovery period. Remember, there are two great dangers with running down stairs: falling and poor alignment. Falling on the stairs could put you out of action for a few months, as one of the most common ways to sprain an ankle is landing badly on a step.
Particularly on narrow steps, runners tend to turn their feet and knees out, which encourages poor running biomechanics. Aim your knee over your second toe and keep your feet straight, don’t allow them to turn out excessively. A fear of falling leads people to look down at their feet; add to this the jarring of running down stairs and it can put some serious strain on your neck! However, as discussed above, running down stairs is great eccentric muscle training so if you can maintain your footing and posture, it can be incredibly beneficial.
HOW DO I START?
First, find a flight of stairs. There should be at least ten steps. Make sure that there are no loose bricks, tiles, floorboards or any other obstructions. Now warm up by walking up and down the stairs for a few minutes to get the leg muscles warm and the heart rate up.If there is open space nearby, go for a short jog. Then jog up and walk down the stairs a few times, concentrating on posture and alignment.
Now you are ready to get to the nitty gritty of the session! There are a number of ways of structuring the workout and recovery periods:
- Run up, walk down and repeat immediately.
- Run up hard, easy down and take a recovery period at the bottom of the flight. If there is a flat section between flights, walk or jog this as a recovery.
Specific Step Workouts
Jog up stairs for 6-12 seconds; walk down and repeat. Up and down is one rep. Do 12 reps.
Sprint up for 8-12 seconds; walk down. This is one rep. Do one to two sets of 8-12 reps.
Run up for 12-20 seconds; walk down. This is one rep. Do two to three sets of 8-12 reps.
Be sure to always warm up before starting and to have a cool down period afterwards, such as a light stretch.
AT A STRETCH
There are also great running specific strengthening exercises you can do on stairs. Try these easy ones:
- Eccentric calf raise – Stand with the balls of both feet on the edge of the step so that your heels are hanging down towards the ground. Push up onto your toes. Once at the top of the movement, transfer your body weight onto one leg and slowly lower to the starting position, taking 5-7 seconds to reach the bottom. Use both legs to push up to the top again and then lower down on the other leg. Do two sets of eight and build up to three sets of ten. This is a great exercise for those suffering recurring calf strains or Achilles injuries, but must be done free of pain!
- Quarter squat – Stand sideways on the step, close to the edge so you have one foot on the step and one foot dangling in the air. Bend the knee of the leg on the step so that the other one reaches down and touches the ground. The lowering motion should take 3-5 seconds. Make sure your knee goes over your second toe and that it does not swing in or out. Push back up so that your leg is straight again and repeat. Do two sets of eight and build up to three sets of ten. This is a great exercise for injuries such as ITB syndrome, patellofemoral syndrome and patellar tendonopathy, but must be done free of pain!
So what are you waiting for? Head for the stairs!