How to Train for Competitive Stair Climbing

Updated on November 17, 2016

Stair climbing is one of the most grueling sports, requiring competitors to move their body weight not only vertically but horizontally as well.

Although I’ve participated in an annual stair climb event in St. Louis for just four years, the sport has been around since 1977. That was when 15 competitors ran up the 1,576 steps of the Empire State Building. Runners were between 20 and 78 years old and came from 25 countries.

In February 2012, more than 670 people competed, including 27-year-old German Thomas Dold. (This article was last revised 4/9/2015.) He made it up the 1,576 steps to the observation deck on the 86th floor in 10:28. Dold has held the world record for several years but still hasn’t bested Paul Crake, who set the record in 2003 with a time of 9:33. The woman’s record of 11:23 was set in 2006.

Since then, competitive stair climbs have sprouted up around the world. You can find an older (most current I can find) list of them here.

What level stair climber are you?

  • You are a Beginner if you have never run a 5K race or longer and don't participate in regular cardiovascular training or an exercise program.
  • You are an Intermediate athlete if you are able to run a 5K race or longer under 35 minutes, train aerobically at least 3 days a week for at least 25 minutes, and/or strength train weekly
  • You are an Advanced athlete if you are able to run a 5K race or longer under 20 minutes and train 3-5 times per week.

Benefits of Stair Climbing

  • Stair climbing is a total body workout and great for cross training. Arms get stronger when you use them to pull yourself up with the handrails. Leg muscles get built up, especially quads and calves. And of course, it is an aerobic sport as it works the cardio-vascular system.
  • You don’t need special equipment and can climb stairs anywhere – outside at stadiums, inside office or apartment buildings.
  • Stair climbing burns about twice as many calories than any other sport or activity.
  • Because it is a grueling sport, stair climbing requires less time to do the same intensity of a workout. If you run 30 minutes per day, the same workout intensity could be achieved with 15 minutes of stair climbing.

Tips for Practicing

  • Do as much aerobic exercise that taxes the legs and lungs as possible
  • Climb any stairs you can find
  • Run or bike on a steep hill
  • Plyometrics will help with the “explosion” movement of running up the stairs. Plyometrics are things such as jumping up onto a 12” to 18” box or squat jumps
  • Lunges are good because they work through the complete range of motion necessary for taking the stairs two or three at a time
  • Specificity is the name of the game with event training. Running or using a stair climb machine at a gym can’t compare to the actual event. If you must use a machine, VersaClimber is the most recommended

Our team, Mountain Climbers, 2012
Our team, Mountain Climbers, 2012 | Source
Me at the end of the climb in 2011
Me at the end of the climb in 2011 | Source
My husband and I at the 2015 stair climb. I made it in 9:06, 0:14 / floor!
My husband and I at the 2015 stair climb. I made it in 9:06, 0:14 / floor! | Source

Mastering the Met

The St. Louis chapter of the American Lung Association started its Fight for Air Climbin 2008. According to Amy Lewandowski, the fundraiser's development manager, the event has raised more than $1.5 million since then to support local American Lung Association programs and services. The event continually grows in sponsorship, participants and fundraising, making it one of the top American Lung Association Climbs in the nation each year. As of March 2012, the St. Louis chapter is currently in third, with Milwaukee in first and Denver in second.

Kevin, my boot camp class instructor, started competing in 2009. A couple years later, he challenged several of us to join his team and I thought I’d give it a try. Since then, I’ve competed two more years. It’s a different kind of race and makes for a different challenge.

The first year I competed, I waited in line for my turn and wondered what the heck I was doing there. I didn’t know what to expect. Every year since, I still wonder what the heck I’m doing there but now it’s worse because I DO know what to expect!

Seriously, though, it’s like any other race I’ve competed in. As I’m waiting to start, I wonder what possessed me to sign up. Then I feel energized among the other competitors. Halfway through I feel like I’m dying and filled with regret but by the time I get to the top or finish line, I’m proud of myself and feeling pumped up again. (By the way, this is not unusual. I’ve talked about this to two other runners and they go through the same thing).

My Results

3/10 - 12:51

3/11 - 10:44

3/12 - 12:04

3/15 - 9:06

The Metropolitan Building

  • has 42 stories
  • is 593 feet tall
  • was completed in 1989
  • has 1,018 steps
  • is about a vertical mile
  • had 1,235 registered participants in 2012

Tips and Information for the Race

  • The St. Louis climb releases participants in waves, spaced 10 seconds apart. This prevents a bunch of people trying to squeeze through a narrow doorway, which is how the Empire State Building Run-up is done. This is dangerous, in my opinion, as it’s a good way to get someone hurt.
  • Use the handrails to pull yourself up so your upper body can assist with the climb
  • Since it’s a vertical event, the competitive stair climb is not a total sprint and requires endurance and muscular strength to complete in a fast time.
  • Pace yourself at the start and then finish strong. Pacing is something I need to learn! I did fine to the 7th floor, then had to stop for a breath. By the time I got to floor 20, I was having to stop more often, although not for long. But even a few seconds can add up and knock a minute or so off your final time.
  • The St. Louis stair climb had two or three water stations along the way. Unlike the two previous years, the stairwell in the 2012 race was very stuffy and my mouth dried out quickly. If you don’t want to stop for a swig or two of water, carry a small bottle with you.

Some Other Stair Climbs

  • Fight for Air Climb Detroit, Detroit Marriott (Renaissance Center) – 1,035 steps
  • Stair Climb to the Top, US Bank Tower, Los Angeles – 1,500
  • Hustle up the Hancock, John Hancock Center, Chicago – 1,632
  • Taipei 101 Run-up, Taipei 101, Taiwan – 2,046
  • Sky Rise Chicago, Willis Tower (Sears Tower), Chicago – 2,109
  • Fight for Air CLIMB, Presidential Towers I, II, III, IV, Chicago – 2,340

Tell me what you think!

Have you ever participated in a stair climb?

See results

Metropolitan Building

A marker211 North Broadway, St. Louis, MO -
211 N Broadway, St Louis, MO 63102, USA
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    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 2 years ago from Illinois

      It looks tough! Have you done it yourself? How did you do?

    • profile image

      Victoria 2 years ago

      You should try the Quebec City Staircase Challenge!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure Danette. It sounds challenging. I'll stick to low intensity for now, until I'm ready for it. I haven't cycled in over a decade, due to a bike accident, when I broke my clavicle.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 2 years ago from Illinois

      Hi Kristen, yes it will give you a great workout especially if you don't usually work out. My advice is to do lots of cardio before trying this - running, cycling, high intensity exercises, etc. It will help a lot Thanks for the vote up

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Danette, this sounds interesting and maybe like fun. It would probably give you more of a workout than doing it in the gym. Voted up for interesting!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 3 years ago from Illinois

      Hi John, is this the first time you or your son will be doing a stair climb? How have you trained? Thanks for commenting and good luck!

    • profile image

      John Waller 3 years ago

      i am going to do willis tower with my Son in November.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois

      Hi calculus-geometry - yes it can be very competitive, but fun! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

    • profile image

      calculus-geometry 4 years ago

      Wow, I had no idea this was a competitive sport!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Thanks torrilynn. It's coming up again soon (March 23) but I may not be able to compete this year. I have a slight running injury and will wait to get the ok from the dr. before I sign up. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 5 years ago

      thank you for sharing this story. i never knew that people actually competed in stair climbing. when i did track back in high school i thought that was hard but now I see that was merely a warm-up compared to going up the stairs in the empire state building. voted up.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Thanks Docmo and thanks a bunch for sharing it on FB!

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      Fantastic.. who needs fancy gyms when we've got stairs. this is practical, perfect for those who have no time to make that trip to the gym and immensely healthy. great share Danette: I'm posting this on FB.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Dee, thanks for the compliments. Wish we were together to celebrate (anything!) too.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

      OMG Sister! You ROCK! Oh, by the way-I'm the one who voted in the poll that said, "Oh heck no!" LOL

      Wonderful article filled with fascinating information. What a great reporter you are-I could just feel the excitement of anticipation and then the exhaustion but exuberation. I wish I were there to pop a cork with you to celebrate. Bravo!

      Voted up and across!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Hi jpcmc, thanks for reading. I was surprised to find that there are stair climb events all over the world. Keep taking the stairs - it's good for you!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      There is a similar event here in the Philippines. I used to walk 7 floors up for work. But now, I need more practice. :)

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Cara -- I included the Detroit info just for you and Christa, ha ha

      Alicia - I guess it's like having kids, painful going through, then afterwards you forget about that part and do it all over again! Thanks for reading.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I know from running and walking up stairs during my walks that stair climbing is a great workout. I admire you for taking part in competitive stair climbing - I would find it very difficult! Thanks for the information, though - perhaps one day I'll be brave enough to train for a stair climbing event.

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

      This hub was filled with some great information. I knew that you had done this competition several times but I didn't know that there was one in this area. I loved how you included the benefits of stair climbing and the tips for practice. Great job.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Hi Gail, That was probably a smile of relief that the ordeal was over! Thanks for reading and commenting so quickly!

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 5 years ago from South Carolina

      Wow!!! What a great hub. I've never heard of this as a competitive sport or charity fund raiser but I'm really impressed that you've not only competed in it but were actually able to SMILE for the camera at the end of your 2011 climb.

      I also loved the way you listed all the benefits of stair climbing even if it's done on a non-competitive basis.

      Voted up across the board except for funny.