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Health benefits of running stairs and a step-by-step guide to getting started, according to a running coach

A person running up a giant set of yellow bleacher stairs.
Start out with a 10 to 20-minute warm up followed by two full minutes of stair running.
  • Running stairs offers many health benefits like improved heart health, bone density, and balance. 
  • Start by walking stairs and gradually increase to running stairs as your lower-body gets stronger. 
  • Make sure to have proper footwear to support your foot laterally, like cross-trainers.

Whether you are walking up stairs, running up a hill, or skipping steps, adding inclined work to your exercise routine is a challenge, but it's worth it. 

"Running stairs is a high-intensity and high-impact activity," says Kristen Hislop, CPT, and head running coach for Hislop Coaching. "It's not necessarily a starting point for everyone, but most people can get there with a good progression program." 

Running up stairs builds power, agility, balance, and coordination, among other benefits. Read on for more benefits of running stairs, how to practice proper form, and a quick workout to get you started. 

The benefits of running stairs

For most of us, simply walking up stairs can increase our heart rate. So if you amp up your pace and run up those steps? You'll be working your cardio fitness even more. 

As you build your cardiorespiratory fitness, research shows related benefits like a reduction in cholesterol and lower blood pressure

Beyond that, running stairs can also benefit bone health and balance. Below, we get into the research behind these many benefits.

Improves lower body strength  

Running and walking stairs activates the largest muscle group in the body, your glutes

"For runners looking to improve speed or endurance, this is really important," says Hislop. "Many runners don't activate their glutes when they run, so even just doing stairs as a warm up will activate the glute muscles and allow runners to get more power in each stride." 

Climbing stairs also helps build muscles in the calves and quads, so you are really hitting all the major lower-body muscle groups. 

Helps maintain bone density 

Plyometric work, weight-bearing, and impact exercises like jumping — or descending stairs — help build and maintain bone density.

Work on your balance 

Researchers have found that training on stairs does in fact enhance balance performance. 

As you climb stairs, you are constantly working against gravity, which means you are engaging your legs and core to support your balance and stabilization. And the stronger your legs and core become, the better your balance.

It's accessible 

Most people will have at least some access to a flight of stairs or two, which is all you need to get started. 

Alternatively, you can use the stair climber at a gym, where you can easily control the speed and intensity. If you are just getting started with running stairs, you can also use the stair machine handles for support. 

Hislop encourages, though, to not rely on the handles fully so that you are still engaging your muscles. 

Proper stair-running form 

Proper stair-running form isn't too complicated, but there are some things to note.

For starters, your main goal when running stairs is to engage your core and stand tall. Aim to look straight ahead, rather than down at your feet. "If you find yourself starting to bend at the waist, take a break," Hislop says.

Hislop also stresses the importance of asking yourself how you feel balance- and stability-wise when just walking stairs, before running up them. 

"You should be able to balance standing on one foot for at least 20 seconds before tackling a stair workout," Hislop says, who also recommends to try walking up stairs at a medium-to-fast pace to gauge your overall balance and coordination. 

If you feel pretty solid, start to increase your pace. Don't let this jump in speed jeopardize your form, though.

Even seasoned athletes can get injured by doing too much of a new thing or spacing on form and focus. 

"Just like when running on a flat road, form matters," she says. Not paying attention or having improper form can lead to various injuries, like sprained ankles, shin splints, or knee pain. 

You should also take into account the type of surface you are climbing on and the height of the stairs. 

Surfaces like bleachers, for example, are more forgiving than concrete stairs, and the stair height shouldn't be higher than mid-shin. Make sure you wear good shoes, too, that have a grippy base to avoid slippage. 

How do I get started? 

For Hislop's clients who run regularly and do a variety of workouts, she has them incorporate a stair workout every other week. 

"Stair workouts are high intensity, so most will do best with a day of rest after hills or a stair workout," says Hislop. "Recovery is a tough concept for a lot of runners, but sometimes doing stair workouts will drive this home. It is really tiring and when you use so many lower body muscle groups, you'll likely be sore the next day."

Want to give it a go? Find a decently long set of stairs, like bleachers or multiple flights of stairs, and give Hislop's workout a try:

1. Start with a 10- to 20-minute walking or jogging warm-up. 

2. Then, climb up stairs for two minutes, followed by two minutes of recovery. This recovery can look like walking or jogging back down, or if you aren't at the top of the stairs yet, hang out for two minutes and catch your breath. "The goal is that the heart rate comes down as the athlete prepares for another set," says Hislop.

3. Repeat step two for five times at either a walking or running pace, for a total of 20 minutes of work. 

4. Once you feel confident in that routine, you can move to longer intervals with shorter recovery, a faster pace, or by skipping steps.

Insider's takeaway

Running stairs isn't going to be an easy task, but it's worth the effort. 

You'll improve your heart health, build those lower body muscles, and add some variety to your workouts. 

Just remember to start slow so you don't jeopardize your form and enjoy that well-earned recovery the day after. 

Read the original article on Insider
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