Reaching the Top: Tips for Your Next Stair Climb

by Sarah Ryerson, PT, ATC, CSCSLeave a Comment

I registered on a whim for my first Hustle Up the Hancock stair climb thinking it would be something cool and unique. However, my rationale for registering did not provide the best parameters for designing a training program.

As a physical therapist, six time Hustler and elite climber, I have put together the following guidelines to help anyone else getting ready for a stair climb event to optimize their own training program and reduce the risk of injuries.

1. Strengthen your hip flexors

You definitely work your hip flexors (the muscles used to bring your knee toward your chest) running stairs, which I learned from the year I did not incorporate hip flexor strengthening into my program. In addition to quadricep and gluteal strengthening, I recommend adding “flavor” to your training with mountain climbers and standing hip flexor strengthening. Focus on fast, lighter weight repetitions to mimic the drive necessary for bounding up steps. Also make sure to incorporate calf strengthening. Again, train the explosive portion necessary to propel your body up stairs with exercises like wall jumps, skipping, jumping rope or rapid jumping. Notice the word, “flavor.” Recognize the hip flexors are not a primary mover for daily activities and are easily strained, therefore training should be an adjunct, not replace, more functional lower extremity strengthening. Any hip flexor soreness or strains should be managed judiciously by immediately discontinuing training to avoid further provocation and avoiding excessive hip flexion motions with daily activities.

2. Focus on the task

Practice running stairs. While multiple flights are optimal (those of you living in a high rise downtown have the perfect equipment in the stairwell), even a single flight will be beneficial. For shorter flights, perform multiple sets or train for a specific duration of time. Run up and walk down. Think creatively for places to practice – parking structures, football stadiums or local businesses are great locations. Walking down stairs is advised especially for beginners as falls may result from lower extremity muscle fatigue. Additionally, the descending component of stairs results in increased loading of the knee joint. This loading increases with muscle fatigue when the muscles are not effectively stabilizing the joint – resulting in joint line soreness (directly to the right or left side of the kneecap). Managing the overloading of the joint that has occurred should naturally avoid excessive loading.  When training, substitute seated leg press and static partial depth squats for jumping, step ups, and full squats, and change to biking or elliptical.

3. Incorporate explosive training

Jumping rope, plyometrics and step taps all fulfill this criteria. Work to achieve rapid foot turnover. Your goal is to make rapidly negotiating stairs automatic. Form is key to plyometric training as injuries and increased joint loading occur as form fails. Joint line pain, mentioned above, or sprains and strains are some of the most common injuries. Sprains or strains can initially be managed by avoiding the painful motion, but make sure not to compensate or alter normal gait mechanics. Gentle stretching can be beneficial for some strains to regain full motion. Should pain persist, seek medical attention before continuing your training.

4. Don’t neglect abdominals

Abdominal and “core” strengthening is essential to keep your body upright and provide a stable foundation for the lower chain. Optimally, train abdominals in standing to mimic race conditions – medicine ball throws and planks can both be effective. Any abdominal training should be felt in the abdominals and not in the back when done properly. Onset of back pain following abdominal strengthening may signal a strength and stability deficit. To avoid back pain in the future, decrease the difficulty of the exercise (perform planks elevated on the edge of weight bench or medicine ball rotations in a shortened position with decreased weight) and discontinue training when fatigue results (contraction of the abdominal cannot be maintained).

5. Stay flexible

Stretch hamstrings and calves for maximum force generation. If your hamstrings are not flexible enough, they are unable to elongate fully to enable the opposing muscle group, the quadriceps, to contract through its full available length, and therefore to generate maximal force. Before training, use dynamic warm up inchworms and straight leg kicks. Following a workout, long duration stretching can be used. Incorporating daily stretching or foam rolling into any exercise program helps to balance strength and prevent injury.

6. Train breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing and proper breath control is essential to any endurance activity. Breathing with the belly rather than the chest is the key. Deep controlled breathing prevents side cramps and optimizes oxygen flow to working muscles. Alternate the exhalation phase between right and left foot strikes. Stairwells are dusty and dry, so breathing is especially important.

Enjoy the View!

Once your training is done and it is time to climb your way to the top of the Hancock, the last tip is to enjoy the view – you earned it!

Should any injuries occur leading up to or on race day, make sure to schedule an appointment at a nearby Athletico location so our experts can help you heal and get back to doing the things you love to do!

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

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