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stair climbing workout

Why you should consider adding stair climbing workouts to your routine

Every Wednesday morning – while most people are still sleeping – Boston’s Harvard Stadium is buzzing with hundreds of happy, hugging people ready to get to work.

It may be 5:30 AM, and it may be cold, raining, dark, or damp, but these people show up for what they know will be the toughest workout of their week: running up and down the stadium stairs until either their lungs or legs decide they can’t keep moving.

Welcome to November Project Boston, where Emily Saul and her two fellow co-leaders conduct free workouts for anyone who decides to “just show up,” as the group’s motto goes.

The stadium climbing workouts are notoriously unrelenting, Saul says. The stairs never get shorter, and there are always 31 of them on the way up. But people keep showing up – and they’re getting faster, fitter, and a whole lot tougher along the way.

If you’ve ever looked at a flight of stairs and thought, “I bet if I run up and down those a bunch of times, it’ll really help my marathon training,” you’re probably right – but here’s what Saul says you should know before you go.

Who should add stair climbing workouts to their training?

Emily Saul: If you’re training for, say, a marathon, use stairs as a strength and endurance-based element. You don’t necessarily need to do more than one stair workout per week, but if you’re training for trail races, you may want to do them more often since trail races often include a significant amount of hiking or elevation gain. When I was training for the Boston Marathon in 2015 and 2016, I included weekly stair workouts in my training, and I played around with them.

How so?

ES: We’ve created a few different Harvard Stadium workouts at November Project so we can add a bit of variety to what we’re doing. One workout involves racing the person next to you and sprinting up the stairs as fast as you can. You race three to six times, and then you rest for a few minutes. Something like that mimics a track workout or interval work, as opposed to doing slower, steady stair repeats.

When you’re running these stairs, what does it actually feel like?

ES: I distinctly remember the first time I ran the stadium. I had to stop and catch my breath after every section, and I didn’t know how to find my rhythm. It’s very similar to when you start to do longer distances when running. If you’ve only ever run to your car in the rain or had to sprint a block after a bus, trying to go run miles on end feels a little hard or scary. You have to find your rhythm and pace in order to do things in an endurance-based way. People tend to go out too fast and feel like their heart and lungs are going to explode. It’s scary when you can’t catch your breath! And stairs are relentless, because they don’t get shorter. Most people feel like the stairs actually get taller as they go. But they don’t, FYI!

What can people expect to feel after a stair workout?

ES: If you’re able to stick with it and sustain your movement through an entire workout, your legs will get tired. You’ll probably feel the fatigue mostly in your quads – I call it the “Stadium Shake.” At a certain point, your legs are just like, “We’re done!” And they start to shake uncontrollably. It might happen while you’re still moving, or it may be at the end of the workout when you try to hug or high five someone. You’ll also probably feel it in your calves afterward.

What are your best tips for people attempting a stair workout – whether on their own or with November Project – for the first time?

ES: First, don’t cheat yourself. Don’t skip stairs. At Harvard Stadium, each section has 31 stairs, and we encourage people to use every single stair to get better. Go all the way to the top and all the way back to the bottom. And the key is to just keep moving. You can adjust how quickly you go up and down the stairs. You can start at the bottom and sprint as fast as you can to the very top and then race back down again, but it’s hard to sustain that for a significant period of time. You can walk up leisurely, pause, and take your time coming back down, or you can just find your own groove.

What about mentally? Any tips to stay focused and keep moving?

ES: Stair workouts absolutely provide a psychological challenge. I tell people every week, “You’re going to get about three sections in, and when you get to the bottom and turn to start going up again, you’re going to look around and wonder what you got yourself into.” It’s going to be hard. But you can’t psyche yourself out. I encourage people to just keep moving, to stay in motion and adjust your speed going up and down so that can happen. When you get to the top, simply turn and go. When you get to the bottom, turn and go again. It’s easier to stay in motion than it is to keep stopping, especially at the bottom.

What do you do when you start to get tired?

ES: Focus on your form. People tend to get tired and they start to hunch over, which means they’re dropping through their core. Whichever direction your chest is facing is the direction your body will move. So if your chest is hunched over and facing the ground, your body will follow. If you keep it up and proud, you’ll reengage your core and keep moving in an upward direction. Your hips, quads, and glutes are really powerful, so keep relying on those and actively think about the strong, stabilizing parts of your body that you use well when you run, and engage them with intention when you start to feel fatigued. And don’t use your hands to push off your knee! It seems like that’s assisting you, but it’s not – you want to push off with your feet.

Give us some stair running dos and don’ts.

ES: Do go with a friend and do it together. It’s way more fun. Do hydrate appropriately. Do challenge yourself, but respect your body. If you get dizzy, pause. Don’t push through that – it won’t make you better. If you’re new, don’t try to do what everyone is already doing. Don’t do too much your first few times. And do plan your workout before you start. If you just go and say you’re going to run some stairs, it’s too easy to do 10 minutes and call it quits when it gets too hard. Go in with a plan and stick to it.

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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