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Why you should take the stairs for a great cardio workout

Endurance athletes tell Lounge how they maintain their cardiovascular and lower body fitness by climbing stairs

Take the stairs for a great workout.
Take the stairs for a great workout. (Istockphoto)

The most basic act of climbing stairs is an integral part of an endurance athlete’s workout these days. Most have integrated it as part of their weekly training routine for different reasons and have seen its benefits over time.

For Kuntal Joisher, stair climbing became an essential cardiovascular workout ever since he went for his first mountain climb around nine years ago. He first experimented with running and cycling, but found them rather boring. Hiking was always a major part of his training in order to prepare for the big mountains. In stair climbing, he found an activity that was quite similar to hiking and which he could regularly pull off back home in Mumbai. 

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“You need a cardiovascular activity that you enjoy and can help you build a strong base. Even if you are a cyclist or a runner, stair climbing is a good activity as part of cross training,” Joisher says.

“Hiking was what I preferred, but I couldn’t do it all the time. With stair climbing, I realised that similar muscle groups were being worked out, though it didn’t offer the different gradients and terrains that I am exposed to on the mountain,” he adds. 

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Stair running is a cardiovascular exercise that focuses on key muscles in the lower body such as the calves, glutes, quads and hamstrings. “It’s a well-rounded, lower body routine because everything comes into the picture. The entire movement happens in a vertical plane and you drive it through your hips. Besides involving lower body muscles, it also engages the core since it is used to stabilise the upper body,” Joisher says.

When Praveen Sharma was gearing up for La Ultra—The High, a high-altitude ultra marathon in Ladakh, he missed training for elevation while in Noida. So, he added a 30-minute stair running workout to his routine. “It was quite a heavy workout, as I would go all out during this time. I would schedule it mid-week since the body would get really sore, followed by a light workout the next day. It would give me enough time to recover for my back-to-back long runs on the weekend, since most of my focus was on mileage,” Sharma says.

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It was a similar scenario for Anjali Saraogi when she was training for the Comrades Marathon in 2017. She found the flyovers in Kolkata to be inadequate for getting used to inclines and started visiting a multi-storey building nearby. Soon, she realised that it was the perfect substitute for the strength work she would otherwise have to put in at the gym.  

“Stair climbing to me is more of a strength workout. I climb stairs instead of working with weights or doing squats and lunges. It is great to get my legs used to climbing as well. On the days I’m not running, I take to the stairs for an hour, else I add a 30 minute session alongside a short run,” she says. 

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Joisher used to indulge in faster stair climbing sessions at one point. These days, he focuses on lower intensity efforts that last for longer durations, while monitoring his heart rate. A reasonable indicator of his progress was when he could climb more floors while maintaining the same heart rate. At the same time, it was an indication that his body was adapting to the workout and that there needed to be some modifications.

“I would increase the duration or climb faster, or climb two or three stairs at a time. So depending on what my end goal is, I would vary these things,” Joisher says. While Saraogi added weights of around 5kg on her back to increase the level of difficulty, Joisher believes that with a heavier backpack, there could be some benefits of growing muscle size as well. 

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“It’s primarily a cardio-driven exercise and makes your body more efficient because it is a repetitive movement and the body can neurologically adapt to it over a period of time. The energy systems also become way more efficient to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. And I genuinely think that if you are doing it smartly, with a reasonable amount of rest, there are some muscular benefits when it comes to stair climbing,” he says.

These days, Joisher is spending a lot of time bodybuilding and working on resistance training to achieve his mountaineering goals. As part of the Vegan Society’s 77th anniversary, he has taken on a project to climb 77 floors each day for a month. This in turn will help him launch into his training for two likely climbs up Denali and Puncak Jaya during summer next year. “It’s going to be good conditioning work that I can keep doing on the side, so that I’m ready when I start training specifically for the climbs in November,” he says. 

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