I run daily but stairs still kill me. please explain why.
September 13, 2009 10:40 AM   Subscribe

I run daily but stairs still kill me. please explain why.

I run between 7 and 12 km daily and that at a decent pace: I recently finished a 10k race in 49.45 minutes and I'm working on getting down to 47 minutes by the end of october. so while I'm no bekele I'm probably not as abysmally bad as I used to be either.

I also live on the fourth floor of a pre-war building with high ceilings and the stairs are killing me. I am huffing and puffing with a flushed face every time I get to my apartment. some of that may be that it's summer and warm around here but shouldn't it get easier the more I train? how come I can run a 5.15 at cruising power (meaning I am using 70-80% of what I've got) but climbing stairs doesn't get any easier? the hill sprints certainly aren't killing me anymore!

I'll grant you these are two different exercises but I'm a bit disappointed that my workouts haven't made situations like this one much easier. mefi, can you manage my expectations?

stats: 32 y.o. male, 1,92m, 98kg, low heartrate (no high blood pressure here). I have a coach but I won't see him until tuesday and so I asked you.
posted by krautland to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Stairs really are a different exercise than any other type of running -- they're intense, even walking them. I'm more of a tourist when it comes to running than a born-and-raised local, but I dated a chap who was a fanatical runner (8, 9, 10 miles every day) and he talked about how embarrassing it was to feel winded when he'd bound up the stairs in the subways in NYC, so he started running up bleachers and the steepest hills he could find. It seems like the only sure-fire way to be able to handle stairs is to run them.
posted by MoreForMad at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2009

When you climb stairs, do you just seem to have cardio issues, like huffing, or do you get the lactic acid burn in your legs as well? What kind of running has ever made you feel like you do on the stairs now?

Can you define your hill workouts in more detail? You say these are sprints, but how long are the hills, what kind of slope are you dealing with, and what kind of pace are you using there?

I have found that slogging up steep, relatively long hills on my heavy mountain bike is what has made stairs much more manageable to me than they used to be (less heavy breathing, less lactic acid burn and leg tiredness). I went up 6 flights in a hospital with extra-high ceilings a few days ago, after a 15 km ride that included some of those long hills, with just a little leg burn on the last flight. The same stairs last year were a lot more difficult.

But as MoreForMad says, stairs are a different critter, too. If I want to climb the CN Tower next year, the only way to train for it is to climb lots and lots of stairs.
posted by maudlin at 11:04 AM on September 13, 2009

The incline distinguishes stairs from any other sort of running. Try running at an incline or running "stadiums" (up and down sets of bleachers) if you want to get a different kind of workout.
posted by achompas at 11:11 AM on September 13, 2009

As others have said, stairs use your muscles in very different proportions than running. However, you might note that running stairs a lot is probably not great for your knees, especially if you've had problems with runner's knee in the past.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 11:21 AM on September 13, 2009

I've actually noticed that the more I run, the harder it is for me to climb stairs. (My office is up one lousy flight of stairs that have become the daily bane of my existence.) So I don't think it's quite as simple as just not being used to climbing stairs.

My running coach strongly recommended against using stair-steppers or running stairs, because it overdevelops muscles you don't use for running, and that ends up slowing you down. I suppose it might work the opposite way, then — if stairs make you worse at running, running might make you worse at climbing stairs. That's been my experience anyway, though I don't know exactly why.
posted by adiabat at 11:33 AM on September 13, 2009

When you climb stairs, do you just seem to have cardio issues, like huffing
I am only out of breath and it's only embarrassing. sometimes a little post-exercise sweating comes in on top. this is unlike running where once I reach the point of exhaustion I get stitches, my legs get heavy or I just can't find sixth gear anymore. you know that feeling when you want to sprint but it's just not there anymore? that's total running exhaustion for me, I concentrate on lifting my knees back then and slug through it. it's wholly different than stairs, which seem much more mundane to me. that exhaustion is also gone within a minute. it's a very shallow sense of being out of breath if that makes any sense.

Can you define your hill workouts in more detail? You say these are sprints, but how long are the hills, what kind of slope are you dealing with, and what kind of pace are you using there?
I do multiple hill exercises. there are the short hill sprints, which are 300, 400 meters at the most. we do these after running 5-6k at cruising pace, then spring that little hill up 5-6 times and cruise back home where we come in at around 10k. the other hill exercise we do is a hill of about 1 km that is a pretty steep climb. we run up this hill at cruising speed, which is taxing, back down and do it three-four times over until we continue on our route. this, too is part of a 10k and we do one of these routines every other week.

I have found that slogging up steep, relatively long hills on my heavy mountain bike is what has made stairs much more manageable
I understand that. I also feel that these two hills, especially the long one, have given me a lot in terms of running condition but I am stunned to realize stairs haven't gotten that much easier.
posted by krautland at 11:38 AM on September 13, 2009

It's because you're lifting your weight "more vertically" when you climb stairs. You're not used to lifting your weight that way. Running is almost linear.

Just do some weight training so you'll build up a resistance to fatigue.
posted by Zambrano at 11:46 AM on September 13, 2009

n'thing "they use different muscles."
posted by rhizome at 11:59 AM on September 13, 2009

Different muscles, sure, but does it use your cardio system differently?

I ask because -- not that I'm in great shape now, but when I was -- I could run long-distance with no problems, but too many stairs too fast invariably set off exercise-induced asthma attacks that I never get just from jogging.

(Good question, krautland; thanks for asking)
posted by olinerd at 12:42 PM on September 13, 2009

Yeah nthing doing weight training to build up the other muscles.
posted by ob at 1:04 PM on September 13, 2009

Interesting question. I don't run, I'm a middle-aged woman, and I smoke a few cigs a day. I walk a few miles every morning. A couple of years ago I was staying with a friend who lives on the thirteenth floor of a newer, lower-ceilinged, apartment building. It was pouring and cold the first morning, so instead of going out walking I decided to go quickly down and up the stairs. I was quite surprised to find that it was pretty effortless, I was never out breath, and did the round-trip three times before I got really bored.

Would that mean that the way we use our muscles in walking is more closely related to the way we use them going up and down stairs, than the way we use them running?
posted by mareli at 1:08 PM on September 13, 2009

Completely amateur speculation, grain of salt, etc: One reason why cycling up hills may be better cross training for stairs than running up hills is the range of movements the legs go through and the power they must generate to successfully crest a hill.

When you're spinning on a bicycle, your knee is repeatedly being brought into a higher position than it is than when you are running on the flat. I would think that hill running doesn't raise the knee much more than flat running -- does it?

So when you compare the daisy cutter motion of flat running, to the slightly higher knee position in hill running, to the spinning of a cyclist trying to get themselves and a bike up hill with relatively little upper body involvement, to the effort required to walk up several flights of stairs, it seems to be that cycling is closer to the range of motion and energy requirements of stair climbing than hill running is.

Strength training is wonderful, obviously, but given that you're just feeling out of breath rather than weak when you climb stairs suggests that it's the effort of moving your lower limbs efficiently in an unaccustomed range of motion that may be your problem.
posted by maudlin at 1:12 PM on September 13, 2009

Your body has habituated to the pull of gravity while running and has an "endurance-capable" response to the pull. When running stairs, your relationship with gravity is a completely different.

Try this: take the stairs in your building very, very slowly, but use only your lower body: quads, hams, glutes, calves, feet.

Use your abs to stabilize, but not to climb, don't use your shoulders, back, or arms. Relax your jaw and tongue. That'll help send the "No upper body tension" message.

Stand straight and feel the pressure between gravity, the stair and your own poundage IN YOUR LEGS via your abs, all the way down to the pads of your feet. And, vertically, slowly, use your legs to move up the stairs.

I'm wagering that you're gonna be surprised how much your upper-body tries to "help" your legs climb those stairs by hunching, leaning forward, all that noise.

This exercise can show you where you where your lower-body is actually very weak and has been using upper-body tension to compensate.
posted by Moistener at 1:25 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you're just warming up as you climb the stairs, and then the exercise is over. When you run, you go through that warm-up and continue, so it isn't really noticeable.

Because of construction, I had to climb over a hundred stairs every day at my workplace, at least once, and sometimes up to five times in a day (seven times was the most I did in one day). I noticed that the first climb was a bear, leaving me panting, but after that they were trivial.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:41 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I hate running and almost never do it. However, I lift weights four times a week. I never have problems running up a flight or two of stairs.

Take that as you will.

My suspicion is that weight training exercises the muscles similarly to running up stairs.
posted by dfriedman at 1:46 PM on September 13, 2009

Conditioning is specific to the exercise, you perceive your ability to run 10k or whatever as solid overall conditioning for any leg based activities, but it is not.

If you want to not be winded by climbing the stairs, you have to train climbing the stairs.
posted by zentrification at 1:54 PM on September 13, 2009

When I ran competitively, hill workouts were part of our routine. Definitely a different exercise than long runs. I recommend that you add a stair or hill workout to your routine, and maybe some speed work on the track too. You'll be impressed by how it helps to bring down your times, even on an endurance event like a 10k.
posted by zippy at 2:13 PM on September 13, 2009

... and by hill workouts, I mean steep hills. Stairs are about the steepest hill you can do. When running, my hill workout was nearly 100' rise in 800' distance, repeatedly until exhaustion (with a warmup run before and a cooldown run after).
posted by zippy at 2:17 PM on September 13, 2009

Conditioning is specific to the exercise, you perceive your ability to run 10k or whatever as solid overall conditioning for any leg based activities, but it is not.

If you want to not be winded by climbing the stairs, you have to train climbing the stairs.

This is exactly correct. In other words, training adaptation is in many ways specific to the stimulus which brought about the adaptation.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:25 PM on September 13, 2009

The % grade on stairs is radically different than even the steepest hills. Stairs can be built at a 1 to 1 ratio of length to height (though most of them are probably more like 2 to 1.) Paved roads on hills are rarely this steep because people would fall off them all the time.
posted by Happydaz at 3:24 PM on September 13, 2009

It has a lot to do with you having to lift your entire body weight up each stair, fighting gravity the whole way.

Mareli: I'm guessing you weigh a lot less than 98kg (216lb)
posted by Nameless at 4:01 PM on September 13, 2009

I walk up ninety-six stairs every morning to work (I call it my 96-step program) and I find that even two days off leaves me at a significant disadvantage -- I'm always puffing a little on Mondays.
posted by tangerine at 4:46 PM on September 13, 2009

At 192cm and 98kg, you're a big guy. No doubt you're healthy and in very good shape, but the fact is that you are never gonna have a high power-to-weight ratio. I think you should just not worry about it and take comfort in the fact that you could snap the scrawny mountain-goat types like twigs with your bare hands.
posted by randomstriker at 5:52 PM on September 13, 2009

Echoing other comments about running being different from stairs. I also notice that when I walk stairs when I'm not paying attention, I use bad form and get winded easily. I don't know exactly what I'm doing wrong, but if I refocus and concentrate on using the butt muscles to do the work, it works better for me.

I also enjoy running up stairs two at a time occasionally.
posted by gjc at 6:19 PM on September 13, 2009

30yo M, 172cm and 95kg here... I can't run for shit as I have short legs, bad knees and a gut so I ride. Despite being pudgy, I can fly up three or four flights without really feeling it, even though I would really struggle to run 1km.

If your running form is good (particularly if you've got long legs), you should actually be exerting very little energy while cruising on flattish ground because your weight is supported mostly by your bones. You use energy only due to the inefficiencies of your body, not because your body is gaining any gravitational potential energy in the running process. Good form means low inefficiencies.

Weighing nearly 100kg and going up stairs though, you need to produce very nearly 1kJ for every metre that you climb (E=mgh) in addition to the inefficiencies of your legs. Say you're going up at 1m/s, that's 1kW, which is an unsustainable level of power for anyone but an elite athlete. If you're strong and fit, you can probably hit 2kW for 30-60s but 500W is more realistically sustainable for half an hour. If you're talking several hours of exertion, most fit people are capable of only 100-300W, so that's the sort of power level you'll be operating at for your 10km runs.

Your rapid exhaustion and describing it as a "shallow" kind makes it seem to me that you're running out of oxygen not glycogen, which means you've exceeded your VO2max, which is hardly surprising considering how much energy you need to produce to drag 100kg up a few flights of stairs. If your legs aren't sore at the end, you probably don't need much more strength, you just need better cardio power.

As everyone else says, sprinting up stairs is the solution. Or biking up steep hills. The reason they're good is that you are putting loads of energy into gaining elevation and there's no way that better form can help with that - if you want to gain 100m of altitude, you need to produce at least 100kJ of energy.
posted by polyglot at 8:52 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Beyond the training-specific points that several posters have mentioned, there's the simple fact that when you're going up stairs, you're adding potential energy (i.e. fighting gravity) very quickly. Happydaz and Nameless are on the mark.

When you run a 5K race at a pace just under 5:00, how much elevation are you gaining? If the course is flat, consider that you might be ascending more in your 4 flights at the apartment--in a couple minutes--than you ascend in 25 minutes of running. You're certainly doing it much more quickly. When I cycle to work I climb 100 feet in about 3 minutes on the bike, with a bit of a red face but no problem; if I climb the five flights of stairs to my office, I have to cover nearly the same distance in only a third of the time (unless I plod), and I feel much more winded as a result.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:02 PM on September 13, 2009

I noticed in college that I was always out of breath after running up three flights of stairs to class. It took me a while to realize that I was holding my breath up each flight and taking breaths only on each landing. I still have to notice my breathing on stairs and breathe evenly on purpose or I'll hold my breath. (Disclaimer: This is probably just me being an idiot...)
posted by artychoke at 9:48 PM on September 13, 2009

Experienced triathletes, runners and cyclists through-hiking the Appalachian Trail back in 2003 all said the same thing to me: "I thought I was in shape for this, but I should have spent more time climbing stairs." These are people with under 10% body fat saying this. The runners seemed to say it most.

So, yeah, nothing unusual. There's just not as much overlap as you'd think. Different muscles and conditioning. Spend some time doing stairs and you'll see a big improvement in a few weeks.
posted by Opposite George at 9:54 PM on September 13, 2009

I think polyglot's closest. It's not just a matter of different muscles, but of different metabolic pathways. You have a well conditioned aerobic metabolic pathway, which is great for running long distances. Your anaerobic metabolic pathways are not so well conditioned, perhaps.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 9:55 AM on September 14, 2009

It's also possible that your form when you run is not very good, but the way you move doesn't slow you down until you try to maintain it going up a flight of stairs.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:38 PM on September 14, 2009

« Older I need iTunes in my life but it won't install...   |   Help me get our Internet devices back on speaking... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.