How to Train for Competitive Stair Climbing
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
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).
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