In one of the most iconic sports scenes ever filmed, Rocky Balboa sprints up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and knows he’s ready for the championship bout. There’s a good reason why: Running stairs is a tried-and-true method of gaining fitness. But what if if your goal is to complete a 5K, not win a boxing match—are stairs still a good use of your time?
Yes: A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that sedentary young women who progressed from walking up a 199-step staircase once a day to eight times a day, fives days a week experienced a 17 percent increase in their VO2 max, a measure of fitness which can be estimated using Fitbit’s Cardio Fitness Score. According to the researchers, climbing stairs for 11 minutes a day produces benefits that are equivalent to walking for 36 minutes a day over 24 weeks.
“Stair climbing, similar to hill running, requires more knee drive to clear the upcoming step,” says Jon-Erik Kawamoto, strength coach and owner of JKConditioning in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “And that requires more quadriceps and hip flexor muscle activity, and more explosive power from your hamstrings and gluteus maximus.” It’s like doing speed-boosting, strength-training exercises while also taxing your heart and lungs with a strong cardiovascular workout.
In other words, it gets you fit fast.
But there’s another benefit: Running stairs also torches major calories. A 150-pound person running stairs for 30 minutes burns 510 calories. To achieve the same calorie burn on a level surface, the same person would have to maintain a 6:30-mile pace for 30 minutes.
One More Reason to Climb Stairs
Although stair running provides an intense workout, it tends to be fairly easy on the body. Because you’re reaching for a higher step with each stride, your knees and shins don’t experience the same pounding as they do when you’re running on flat roads.
“That’s the huge benefit of stair running—no injuries!” says Suzy Walsham, who has won the Empire State Run-Up a record eight times and has been the Tower Running World Association top-ranked female every year since 2012. “I’ve gotten injured while flat running, but haven’t had any issues on stairs.”
That said, Walsham recommends taking the elevator back down whenever possible. Walking—let alone running—down the stairs can overly stress your knees and Achilles tendons.
How to Run Stairs
“To develop maximum power, I recommend power running up the stairs two at a time,” says Kawamoto. Walsham agrees, pointing out that long-legged men can sometimes take three at a time.
You can also work on endurance (both muscular and aerobic) by taking one step at time and pacing yourself on a long, steady climb.
And your upper body? In competition, tower racers use hand-rails to increase their speed. You can do the same to turn your stair run into a full-body workout. Or avoid the extra assistance to focus on building leg strength.
“Climbing stairs makes you feel uncomfortable really quickly,” says Stephanie Hucko, a personal trainer and last year’s top American runner in skyscraper stair races. “You have to break it up into intervals.” That means you go hard for a short period, then rest before you hit it again.
To start, she recommends running up a single flight of stairs, pausing at the landing or stadium level to catch your breath (and allow your heart rate to slightly lower), then running up the next flight. Repeat until you’re no longer able to run a full flight, then walk additional flights until you’ve completed 20–30 minutes total.
If you’re already pretty fit, challenge yourself.
To develop endurance, Hucko does a workout she calls “Power Hour.” Here’s how it works: Run up as many indoor stairs as possible, take an elevator back down to your starting floor, and then head right back up. Repeat for an hour. During her endurance sessions, Walsham aims to complete between 200 and 300 floors.
To get fast, try Walsham’s speed session: In a 30-story building, run 10 floors flat out, rest for 30 seconds, run another 10, rest 30 seconds, and then sprint the last 10 to the top before descending to the bottom and repeating three to four times.
When incorporating stair running into your workout routine, limit yourself to two sessions a week, with only one being a sprint session, says Kawamoto. For instance, you could do two easy stair workouts or one hard stair workout and one easy stair workout within seven days. Even a veteran stair climber like Walsham typically only works out in the stairwell two times per week. “Mentally and physically I can’t handle more than 3 sessions,” she says.
If you own a Fitbit One, Fitbit Charge 2, Fitbit Blaze, or Fitbit Surge, make sure you’re tracking floors climbed on your Fitbit app dashboard. Your device contains an altimeter sensor that can detect when you’re going up or down in elevation. Each time you climb about 10 feet, you’ll get credit for one floor. Reach 10, 25, 50 floors or more in one day and you’ll earn a new badge.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.