Why does a hike in the mountains feel easier than climbing stairs?
August 14, 2016 2:49 AM   Subscribe

Trying to understand if this is physical or psychological -- why does a hike in the mountains feel much easier than climbing stairs with an equivalent elevation gain?

The backstory is that yesterday I did a hike with about a 1600 foot elevation gain (and then, of course, going back down again) over about 4 miles. This was not a very difficult hike, took us about 3 hours total, including stopping to rest and take pictures and pet the dogs guarding the herds of sheep. There were lots of families with elementary school aged children doing the same hike, so I can confirm that this is a family-friendly half-day hike, and not something crazy difficult.

However, when I started thinking about the elevation, we climbed a total elevation that is higher than the Willis (Sears) Tower. And it sounds absolutely ludicrous that I would be able to climb to the top of the Willis Tower via stairs, and then turn around and go back down again.

So what makes the difference? Is there a different physical motion to hiking that is easier than stair climbing? Is it just psychological -- there is varied terrain and views, so you don't notice the physical strain as much?
posted by ohio to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Isn't it just a function of slope? Going up stairs is a significantly steeper slope than what you did, although I haven't taken the time to crunch the numbers. All I know is that on my hikes, the sections requiring stairs have been the absolute worst.

Why is a steeper slope harder than a horizontal one? You're fighting gravity a lot more with each step.

But as I type this, I realize that it sounds incomplete. You're still doing the same amount of physical work to ascend, it just takes longer...
posted by dondiego87 at 3:14 AM on August 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

One factor seems to be the fatigue induced by the repetition of stairs. Building code specifies that the difference in riser height between the shortest and tallest stairs in a flight can't be more than 3/8 of an inch. I guess people trip if they're more irregular than that? So that's a totally different mindset than hiking, where you have to pick out each foot placement individually. The variety of movements could give your hip flexors and whatnot a rest even if the step is challenging in a different way.

Also, a lot of the time when I climb stairs indoors I'm wearing non-ideal clothing, like pants that exert resistance when my knees are lifted high, shoes with less traction and maybe elevated heels, and bras that don't control the bounce as well as exercise clothing.

Definitely the elevation per step is a big factor too.
posted by ecsh at 3:23 AM on August 14, 2016

Best answer: I can tell you from experience that climbing stairs on the side of a mountain is every bit as tiring as climbing stairs anywhere else. Even a really pretty mountain. It's just the slope. That means you take it all a lot slower and each increment is smaller, so of course it's easier. If you took three hours to climb then descend the Sears Tower that would also be a lot easier, and easier again if it was a ramp rather than stairs.
posted by shelleycat at 3:55 AM on August 14, 2016 [16 favorites]

Incline is what they say is the reason stairs are more taxing.

Even so, I still find that bushwhacking up a hill will be less difficult for me than mountain stairs up the same hill, so I think there's something about the motion which creates more cardio effort. I just don't know what it is. I have been told that stairs burn 50% more calories than walking up a steep incline, but I take all of that kind of estimate with a large grain of salt.
posted by frumiousb at 4:47 AM on August 14, 2016

I've wondered this myself. I've happily done stair climbs of many hundreds of feet on the sides of mountains, where I'm wearing a heavy pack and the stairs were over a foot high, uneven, sometimes missing, etc. But if I'm downstairs at home and there's something I need up in my bedroom, half the time I'm like "Ugh, I have to climb stairs? Nevermind."

I've concluded that it's mostly mental. When I'm hiking I'm a) having fun, so generally more inclined to be cheerful about things and b) looking for a bit of a physical challenge, so willing to fully engage with the task as hand. At home I'm generally not nearly so jazzed up and full of joie de vivre, and climbing stairs is an annoyance rather than a challenge. On the mountain I'm there to hike, at home I'm there to relax.

So I seriously think it's an attitude thing. Realizing this and trying to keep it in mind actually helps give me a better perspective on the annoyances and obstacles that I encounter in my daily life, and makes things like going upstairs easier to do. Mind over matter, baby!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:36 AM on August 14, 2016

Oh I have always wondered this!! I have no answer for you, but can confirm it's real; I have super well controlled asthma and am in good shape (running, hiking, etc.), and had an asthma attack over the winter going up three (outdoor) flights of stairs. THREE. I freaked out and asked my asthma doctor, who told me that stairs are a really common asthma trigger, even for people who have no trouble on hills. So weird.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:42 AM on August 14, 2016

The slope of a hill usually means you're leaning forward a little, so your central body mass isn't directly over your pelvis and knees like it is when you go up stairs, the weight distribution might feel lighter with hiking. Most people's quads are stronger than their hamstrings; with hiking, you're more likely using your quads to pull your body forward, and benefiting from some momentum from the swinging of your arms (usually); on stairs, you don't swing your arms, and there isn't the same kind of momentum, it's a stop-start motion that does use your quads but also your (usually much weaker) hamstrings and glutes to push your body upwards, from a dead start with every step. (This is me thinking out loud, I don't actually know for sure. But I think the biomechanics of movement do make a difference.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:45 AM on August 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

(so, thinking, stairs are subjectively more tiring bc you're using your weaker muscles, your hams and glutes [which are lazy for most. and a bit objectively, in that case, bc of chemical stuff actually going on in these less used muscles, they are actually fatigued sooner than your trusty quads]; maybe objectively also bc of different mechanics, velocity, etc.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:56 AM on August 14, 2016

It's incline. Even the steepest slope you climb when hiking is significantly less than a typical flight of stairs. It may not seem that way, because our brains tend to exaggerate vertical distance and compress horizontal distance, but it is. A few weeks ago I hiked up the Dune du Pilat, in southwestern France: it looked like it went straight up, but my Garmin Fenix tells me that the average grade was 25%, i.e. about a 15° incline. Compare that with a typical flight of stairs whose incline is around 45°, which is a 100% grade.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:40 AM on August 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I will self-report a couple data points that support some psychological component.

My job requires me to take my work laptop (a heavy beast) home each night. That plus lunch, snacks & my personal stuff means I'm carrying at least 20 pounds on my back when I get to work, and I work on the 3rd floor. Before I got a wrist fitness tracker I took the elevator everyday, now I take the stairs which winds me but I do it.

Also I have been to Disney World uncounted times and I find myself taking stairs more often but not minding it. Now, they are masters of design and subtlety so I can't prove anything, but it's probably got to do with the appearance, grade or decoration of the stairs, combined with having some aerobic warm-up before you get near them, and the fact that I am on vacation (yeah!). I would also point out that the ramps up to the monorail are (in my opinion) living hell. I especially dread walking down the Magic Kingdom monorail line ramp just to then walk up the same height EPCOT line ramp.

My 2 cents for what it's worth.
posted by forthright at 7:33 AM on August 14, 2016

Best answer: Compare that with a typical flight of stairs whose incline is around 45°, which is a 100% grade.

Stairs in commercial/public buildings will be around 30 degrees, or 50% slope (typically there's a 6" riser with a 12" tread, or a 7" riser with an 11" tread). Stairs in private residences can go up to a 8" riser and 9" tread, but that's pretty extreme, and still slightly less than a full 100% slope. Spiral stairs, fire escapes, and stairs built under older codes may be steeper.

Still though, even a 50% slope is way more than you'll find on a typical hiking trail.
posted by LionIndex at 7:37 AM on August 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Every mountain trail I've climbed had lots of switchbacks, and was going at a shallow slope compared to stairs.

One time I hiked a steep hill with no switchbacks, and I missed them badly. It was grueling and difficult and felt dangerous. Going on stair-level slopes without the stairs was, for me, crazy harder than stairs, up or down. Trust me. Nearly every slope you've hiked was less steep than stairs. If it was as steep as stairs without stairs, you would actually find it much harder.
posted by Strudel at 8:39 AM on August 14, 2016

Aside from the incline being greater on stairs, hiking is probably a lot more varied and interesting. You had sheep to take pictures of, whereas in a stairwell, only more and more concrete.

To take the slope out entirely, what seems more pleasant: walking a (flat) mile through a main street with interesting shops, busy cafes, and other people / pets walking by -- or blank sides of buildings, parking lots, and the exhaust of cars?
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:01 AM on August 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

brianogilvie: " Compare that with a typical flight of stairs whose incline is around 45°, which is a 100% grade."

Even a really shallow/gentle set of stairs with a code min/max of 355mm tread and 125mm rise is still a 35% grade. Practically all stairs are steeper than that because stairs are generally wasted space and so are built to waste the least space possible. Hiking a 35% grade is pretty tough outing.
posted by Mitheral at 10:28 AM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

In addition to the slope, which has been covered well above, you're more likely to move faster on stairs (and tire yourself faster). Most trails are not paved and graded, they're uneven surfaces, covered with loose material, where you have to spend at least a minimal amount of effort placing your feet firmly between each step, which slows you down. Stairs are evenly spaced, flat, and usually free of debris. You can move as fast as you want without looking. They also have rails which allows you to easily steady yourself so you can ascend that much faster. You don't have to take a moment for each footfall to make sure you're secure before taking the next step. The faster you move, the quicker you get tired.
posted by Ookseer at 11:25 AM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is an older street in San Diego that is one of the steepest ones in town, so steep that there's a stop sign at the TOP of the hill for downward traffic. You can tell from the photo that it's pretty steep, and having walked up a bunch of times and also having done a fair amount of hiking, I can say that it's generally steeper than most hiking trails I've been on.

It's only a 25% slope.
posted by LionIndex at 12:04 PM on August 14, 2016

It will be more that simply slope.

The turns consume a lot of time and energy as well.

Plus there is zero breeze in a stairwell.

I know this all too well because I climbed and descended the equivalent of the Chicago Hancock Center 3 times in just one week when my building had both elevators out of order.
posted by srboisvert at 12:42 PM on August 14, 2016

Also, stairs force a specific range of motion on you repetitively, even stairs on hiking trails feel more onerous than the trail often next to the stairs on the same slope because they force a specific range of motion on you which is rarely the same as the steps you would normally take on that same path.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:25 PM on August 14, 2016

Also, on a hillside you can adapt every step size to suit yourself, depending on leg length, fitness, fatigue etc. If you want to take small steps (like being in low gear on a car) you can. If you want to take big strides (higher gear), you can. With stairs your upward stride size is totally regulated and may not suit you/your fitness, which is tough. This is particularly relevant where you're talking about kids being able to get up a hill easily - they can adapt the step size to suit themselves.
posted by penguin pie at 1:46 PM on August 14, 2016

Trying to understand if this is physical or psychological

I think it's some of both. Maybe more physical than psychological, but partly psychological as well.

I find it a chore to climb, say, four flights of stairs in an office building. But I also enjoy visiting lighthouses, and I will fairly easily climb twice that height to go to the top of a lighthouse. And if anything, the tightly-wound spiral staircase typically found in a lighthouse has a steeper incline than office stairs. So I have to conclude that it seems easier because of the anticipation of the view from the top of the lighthouse.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:43 AM on August 15, 2016

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