Preparing for a Stair Climb

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As temperatures turn cooler in Chicago, outdoor endurance events become fewer and farther between. Though the prime season for road races may be winding down, stair climbing season is just getting started.

Thousands of Chicago area residents will participate in local stair climbs in the next few months, including SkyRise Chicago on Nov. 4, Aon Step Up for Kids on Jan. 27, Hustle up the Hancock on Feb. 24 and the Fight for Air Climb on March 10.

Though different in their lengths and venues, all of the events have a few things in common. Each event raises money for charity and features both first-time participants along with returning veterans.

Though stair climbs usually take much less time than other endurance events, in many ways they can be just as physically draining. Because of that, proper training beforehand is critical to a good performance and to avoid injuries.


Training for the event should be similar to training for other endurance events says Joel Press, medical director for the Spine and Sports Rehabilitation Center of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, organizers of SkyRise Chicago.

“If you are training for baseball, you don’t do that walking along a track,” Press says. “The best way to train is to practice going up steps. You can use the steps where you work or at a local stadium.”

If those options aren’t available, the steps in your home, a Stairmaster or a single step will work, Press says, as long at the activity mimics what you will do at the stair climb. While a single step won’t engage the arms like you would in a stair climb—in the race, climbers use the handrail and a single step has no such rail)—it still engages the same leg muscles: the quads, the calf muscles and the hamstrings. That exercise also helps build cardiovascular strength.

Press recommends trying to work up to the same number of steps as at the event. The web sites for any of the events often provide full information on elements of the climb such as number of stairs, flights and number of participants.

Hightstown, N.J.-based strength and conditioning coach Mike Volkmar recommends creating a plan of progressive overload based on volume, intensity and type, working backwards from the day of the event. Your first week should be 60 percent of the total, with progression from there, including a recovery week.

“As with any new fitness adventure, start slow and see results,” Volkmar adds. “If you start too fast—too much volume or intensity—your first couple of weeks you could derail your progress or you could get injured. Also, get a foam roller and roll the heck out of your calves and quads. Those two muscle groups are going to be the primary movers for your climb and they need to be free of muscle cramps and knots.”

Press doesn’t see a need for any special clothing because even for the slowest participants, the event is over relatively quickly. “Just have comfortable workout clothes,” he says. “Something that is loose-fitting and comfortable.”

Seattle, Wash.-based certified personal trainer Dan Lawson recommends wearing lightweight, moisture-wicking clothes. Volkmar suggests avoiding cotton, which gets heavy and uncomfortable with perspiration.

While Press recommends running shoes at the first option, cross-training shoes also work for stair climbs.

Even with training and the proper clothes, stair climbing is a different environment for first-timers. Just like other endurance events, pacing is the most critical factor in successfully completing the event.

“Don’t try to do too much too fast,” Press said. “If you can’t catch your breath, take a break. The [SkyRise Chicago] event is staffed very well with medical professionals. See one if you need to.”

The medical professionals there and at the other stair climbing events will ask a climber to take a break if there appears to be a health issue.

The events themselves can be crowded, so the organizers stagger the times people start up the stairs in an attempt to avoid congestion. Some is still inevitable at the lower floors, so organizers recommend that slower climbers stay to the outside. As the event goes on, the climbers spread out as sprinters move ahead of the pack.

Even with the staggered start, the stairwell environment is a lot different than participating in a race or triathlon outside or training on a stair climbing machine due to its enclosed nature.

“Expect your legs and lungs to be burning early,” Lawson cautions. “It feels like a long time when you’re in the stairwell, though it’s usually over pretty quick compared to endurance races. [It] can be a little claustrophobic and dizzying.”

A stair climbing event takes less time than other endurance events but is still physically demanding on some parts of the body, though it is easier on other joints and muscles.

“It is by far the most challenging cardiovascular workout I have endured,” Lawson says. “It is far easier on the joints than running/jogging as the ground is moving up to your foot each step rather than your foot slamming down each step. I shattered my ankle a few years back and still have some metal in there, long distance running really irritates my ankle, knee and hip, but I can stair climb without any of those issues.”

Volkmar adds, “If you are bounding up the stairs two, three or four steps at a time, climbing is more stressful to the body. If you climb at a walking pace, climbing is less stressful on the body that other endurance sports due to the lower eccentric (landing) force. Jogging can be two to three times your body weight in force during each stride. Sprinting can be four to seven times your body weight in force during each stride.”

Registration for the three 2013 events opened within the past month. Stair climbs have grown in popularity over the years, so it’s best to register early to guarantee a spot in the event.