The 3 Best Stairs Workout Variations: Push Yourself To New Levels

A stairs workout isn’t common to find on a runner’s schedule, especially when training for a marathon. But maybe it should be. After all, stair workouts provide a host of benefits for runners that may translate into better race performance. 

But doing a stair workout isn’t for the faint of heart (in fact it’s a surefire way to get that heart pumping quickly) and it comes with risks of falling, injury, or overtraining. When done correctly, tough, stair workouts for runners can improve overall running economy

In this article, we speak with experts and look at the research to provide all you need to know about the stairs workout, including our three best stairs workouts for runners. 

In this article, we will cover:

  • The benefits of a stair workouts for runners
  • How stairs make you faster
  • Does a stair master provide the same benefits as a stairs workout?
  • Tips for safety and enjoying your stairs workout
  • How to incorporate stairs workouts into your running schedule
  • Our 15-minute best stairs workout for runner, plus
  • Alternative stairs workouts we like

So, let’s get started!

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels

3 benefits of a stairs workout for runners

A stairs workout can be very beneficial for runners, says Steve Stonehouse, NASM CPT, certified running coach and director of education at indoor running studio STRIDE

Like hills, stairs can serve as strength training for runners. One reason is that you will typically get more hip (glute) flexion with stairs and hills than you will on flat ground. This increased hip flexion and range of motion can help you gain strength in those areas,” he shares. 

In fact, stair workouts have three main benefits for runners that can combine to improve running economy and running performance—what we all want! 

1. Improved VO2 Max

Sometimes even the most advanced runners get winded climbing stairs. That’s because walking or running stairs is a tremendous cardiovascular workout that can boost aerobic capacity. 

A 2019 study of sedentary people had them climb six steps three times a day for six weeks and found improvements in their peak oxygen uptake (OMax) in a cycling test. More oxygen to the muscles and more efficient use of oxygen by the muscles mean you can farther and faster

Related: What is VO2 Max?: How to Improve It and Measure It

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 2

2. Improved Power And Strength

Stair workouts can be a type of plyometric workout, and studies show that plyometrics can improve running performance by increasing strength and power. 

Stair workouts improve the function of smaller stabilizer muscles along with the strength of larger muscle groups such as your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. They also are a neuromuscular activity, teaching your brain to better recruit muscle fibers, expending less energy. 

All this translates into faster running with a faster cadence. A faster turnover plus improved strength in your muscles, joints, and tendons also translates into running injury prevention. 

3. Improved Running Form And Technique

A stairs workout forces your body to shorten its stride, have a forward lean, drive from the hip, and move more efficiently. All these movements emphasize proper running form, allowing runners to exert more power with less energy.

How do stairs make you run faster?

The combination of improved VO2 Max, power, strength, and running form from stair workouts make you a faster runner. 

Plus, stair workouts can be a full-body workout, since the force of gravity is working against you, acting as resistance training. This makes you stronger and more durable. 

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 3

Where can I do a stair workout?

The best place to do a stair workout is on bleachers or stadium steps of a nearby school. You can also run stairs inside a building or even your house

For this reason, stair workouts are a great tool to add to your toolkit should you be faced with inclement weather

Does a stair climber have the same benefits as a stair workout?

Doing the stair climber, stepper, or stair master can be a good cross-training activity for runners, but it doesn’t quite provide the same plyometric-type benefits that stair workouts on actual stairs provide runners. 

Certified running coach Laura Norris says that the stair climber can be beneficial for ultra and trail runners to practice their power hiking for steep segments of the race. 

The stair climber can help them become stronger climbers and add more volume to ultra-training with less strain on the body,” she explains.

Related: The Ultimate Cross-training Guide for Runners

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 4

Some safety tips for Your stairs workout

Stair workouts can be intense so it’s important to proceed with caution, says Stonehouse.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew! There’s no reason to try and climb 100+ floors on day 1,” he says, suggesting runners take regular breaks. “You can even take an elevator if there is one nearby.” 

Walking downstairs can be riskier than running upstairs.

Going downstairs puts a different kind of stress on your knees as your quads play a major role in deceleration. If this applies to you, spend some time strengthening your quads and you’ll notice a big difference,” he says.

Focus on proper form in stair workouts, as well. 

  • Eyes should be straight ahead. 
  • You should lean forward slightly. 
  • You should drive with our knees. 
  • Your arms should be swinging by your sides. 
The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 5

If you begin to feel like your form is suffering, it’s time to call it a day. Otherwise, you risk injury and ingraining poor running technique

Running stairs are like running strides in that they provide excellent neuromuscular training as long as your form is current. 

Also call it quits if you feel light-headed, dizzy, or weak (including jello legs!).

What are tips to make stair workouts more enjoyable?

Running stairs is a gruelling workout so it requires mental toughness and distraction. 

  • Change up the scenery. 
  • Do stair workouts with a group. 
  • Change up the type of workouts.

Try throwing in some hops. Stay on both feet and just hop up to the next step with both feet at the same time. Once that gets easy, try skipping steps. You can follow this same approach but going right leg only for one flight of stairs. Then, switch to left leg only,” advises Stonehouse.

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 6

3 ways to incorporate stairs workouts into your running schedule

Because of the intensity of stair workouts, runners should not run stairs every day or even twice a week. 

Instead, runners can incorporate stair workouts in three ways. 

1. They can substitute a hill workout for a stairs workout.

The workout intensity should vary throughout the month with some sessions being shorter, higher intensity workouts while others are longer, slower, lower intensity workouts,” says Stonehouse, adding to start easy and gradually increase duration and speed.

Stairs are lower impact, so if you need a day off running but still need a good workout, do stairs, Todd Buckingham, Lead Physiologist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital

2. Runners can substitute resistance training for a stairs workout. 

Stair workouts aren’t limited to running upstairs. You can hop or mimic box jumps. You can do lunges. You can do step-ups with weights. You can do push-ups or reverse push-ups on them. 

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 7

3. Runners can sprinkle a stairs workout into their daily lives.

Reap the muscular, neuromuscular, and cardiovascular benefits of walking stairs whenever you can, suggests Buckingham.

Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk stairs on your lunch break or during a conference call,” he advises. “You’ll burn calories and get more blood flow to the brain which can improve thinking and give you creative ideas to talk about on your call.”

Indeed, stairs can provide both cardio and strength training for runners.

Related: Guide to Weightlifting for Runners

Here are our best stairs workouts for runners you can do in 15-minutes:

Workout 1:

Here is our 15-minute workout for runners. This workout can be a great substitute on a leg strength day. 

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 8

Do this workout after an easy 1-2 mile warm up on a flat road and dynamic stretching

  • Set #1: Run every step
  • Set #2: Run every other step
  • Set #3: Squat jump every step
  • Set #4: Squat jump every other step
  • Set #5: Hop every step (right leg)
  • Set #6: Hop every step (left leg)

Repeat 3 times or until max time is reached (running down after each set). Cool down for 1 to 2 miles plus static stretching and foam rolling.

Workout 2:

Here is our 15-minute workout for runners to substitute for a hill workout.

Do this ladder stair workout after an easy 1-2 mile warm up on a flat road and dynamic stretching. 

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 1
  • Set #1: Run stairs for 1 minute, rest for 1 minute
  • Set #2: Run stairs for 2 minutes, rest for 1 minute
  • Set #3: Run stairs for 3 minutes, rest for 1 minute 
  • Set #4: Run stairs for 4 minutes, rest for 2 minutes
  • Set #5: Run stairs for 3 minutes, rest for 1 minute
  • Set #6: Run stairs for 2 minutes, rest for 1 minute
  • Set #7: Run stairs for 1 minute, rest for 1 minute

Cool down for 1 to 2 miles plus static stretching and foam rolling.

Workout 3:

Here is our 15-minute total body workout for runners to substitute for a strength training day. 

Do this workout after an easy 1-2 mile warm up on a flat road and dynamic stretching. 

The 3 Best Stairs Workouts Push Yourself To New Levels 2 1
  • Run stairs for 1 minute
  • Do 10 push-ups on the bottom step
  • Run stairs for 1 minute
  • Do 10 tricep dips on the bottom step
  • Run stairs for 1 minute
  • Do 10 single leg hops on bottom step for both legs
  • Run stairs for 1 minute
  • Do 10 double hops on the bottom step
  • Run stairs for 1 minute
  • Do ten plank marches 

Repeat 2 more times or until you’ve reached your max time. Then cool-down for 1-2 miles with foam rolling and dynamic stretching. 

Here’s some extra credit! This video provides creative examples of strength training exercises you can do on stairs:

And this video provides an intense full-body workout you can do on stairs:

We would love to help you reach your running goals. Check out our marathon, half-marathon and ultramarathon training resources.

Whitney Heins
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the 2024 US Olympic Trials marathon.

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