You’ve signed up for a stair climb race. Great!  Anyone - from a total beginner to an elite athlete - can be challenged and exhilarated by a stair climb race.  


Compared to many other cardiovascular sports, stair climbing engages more muscle mass, and can therefore result in faster respiration and heart rate. Training for a stair race ideally involves a combination of both cardiovascular and strength work.


The best thing to train on is real stairs. Unfortunately, most of us do not have access to stairs that are the height of an actual race. However, even relatively short staircases can help to prepare you for a race. Paul Crake, the record holder at climbing the empire state building, only had a 10 floor building to train in. If you can get into a 5-6 story parking garage, climbing up the stairs at faster than race pace will be good preparation for a longer climb, and you can run down the ramps for a lower-impact way to descend.


If you have access to a stairmaster / stepmill, this can be a great replacement for real stairs.  It also has the advantage that you can climb uninterrupted for a period of time equal to your expected race or even longer.  Not resting a lot of weight on the handrail is crucial.  Many people rest a large portion of their weight on the rails, and don’t get the workout they seek.  


You should should be aware that 100 floors on the stairmaster won’t really correlate to 100 floors in a real building. Thus if you try for that pace, you will likely have to slow or stop. You can take the step count from the real building, multiply them by 1.2 and this may correlate to the number of steps you need to climb on the stairmaster.  So if you are climbing up a 800 step staircase (the height of the Reunion Tower), 960 steps on the stairmaster may be pretty close to that if you don’t lean on the rails too much.


Cycling is also excellent training for stairs, especially because it mimics the motions and muscle exertion of stair climbing to some degree.  Cycling is also a low impact activity you can do for a long time.  A great workout can be to just hop on a stationary bike and listen to an audio book or watch a movie.  


Running is also a fantastic cardio workout, and many top stairclimbers get much of their cardiovascular and strength work from running.  If you have access to hills,this can be a fantastic way to train for a stair race. Steep and long is great, but even a short or shallow hill can be a great workout if you run it hard for repetitions.


Strength helps in stair races, and some leg work such as deadlifts, squats, or even simply unweighted lunges can help to build the lower body chain that will help to lift you up the stairs.  Since a stair climb race involves many repetitions (lifting your own bodyweight hundreds or thousands of times!), your strength training should be high repetitions and low weight.  Weight training and fitness classes, or even an active yoga class can build the lower body muscles needed. Many other activities could be effective stair training, such as rowing, swimming, or sports that involve a lot of running


For a beginner, four workouts a week would be good.  


One workout should be a short interval type workout.  So on a bike for example:

  • 1 minute high intensity, significantly raising your heartrate

  • 1 minute low intensity, allowing your heartrate to recover

  • Repeat the above two steps 10x


One workout could be more of a tempo type workout. For example:

  • 20-30 minutes at a steady intensity with the last 5-10 being harder to maintain

  • Could be biking, running, climbing, etc


Lastly, you should also aim for a long easier type workout. For example:

  • An hour or two at a slow enough pace to maintain a conversation.  

  • Biking or running are great options

  • Stairmills or stairs in general are not be recommended, as these workouts are higher intensity and raise your heartrate rather quickly.


Throw in a strength training workout, and you have a great balanced week working many different attributes of fitness that would give you a good stair race.


It’s great to mix up your workouts during the week to better train yourself for both high intensity and long duration. So for example running short wind sprint  intervals one day, 30 minutes tempo on the stairmaster a second day, and a long easy ride on the bike another day.  


If you are already a fit and experienced athlete, your work could be more skewed towards actual stairs, and these 3-4 workouts could be in addition or adjacent to 2-4 of your regular workouts.  


The week before the race, you should focus on coming into the race well rested while still working hard enough to keep your body ready to perform at maximum effort.  So for example, you could do 1 minute on the stairmaster at race-pace and race-effort, then 2 minutes very slow to recover, and repeat that 10-15 times.  This workout should leave you still feeling fairly fresh, while giving your body 10-15 minutes of work at race pace.


It is also very important to note that overtraining is real, and can be much worse than doing to little.  If you start to develop illnesses, have trouble sleeping, and feel in general broken down, you should reduce your training to let yourself recover. If you’re sick or injured, let yourself recover as well.  You will be better served to recover fully before training.  Also if you’re trashed from a workout, it is better to let yourself recover fully instead of worrying about getting in the set workouts for the week.


In summary, when preparing for an event that will take this long and is this intense, it’s important to vary your workouts considerably during training. The short intense interval workouts and long easy workouts each teach your body something the other doesn’t, and a combination of them will prepare you much better for the race.


The vertical mile


A vertical mile stair climb in 2 hours is a tough goal that will take long preparation and hard effort to achieve. On the stairmaster, a simulation of a vertical mile in 2 hours would entail:


8 minutes at 116 steps a minute.  2 minute rest to simulate an elevator ride down. Repeat 12 times. This will be a total of 120 minutes and a vertical mile of work.  Again--as little touching of the handrails as possible, and don’t put weight on them. This is a hard workout, and if you’re not already training in stair climbing, it may be too difficult.  It is always better to start too easy than too hard, and if you are just starting out, your 8 minutes of work might be at 60 or 70 steps a minute.  You could also do this same workout with running or biking, going high intensity for 8 minutes and resting for two.


A two hour climb will certainly dehydrate you, and if you don’t take in adequate fluids, you will be unable to perform at your best at the end.  The best strategy for a multiclimb like this is to grab a cup of water or sports drink at the top and drink it while waiting for the elevator and riding back down.  Even taking in a small amount of calories during the race is a good idea. This level of work will likely upset your stomach, so nothing hard to digest or that wouldn’t upset your stomach is crucial.  You may even want to experiment drinking some fluids or eating a small food item during your training to learn what helps you best.

By David Hanley and Jason Larson, two of the fastest and most accomplished stair climbers in the country. Both have won or placed high in numerous events. 

Training for the Dallas Vert Mile  

Photo by Paul Sampson