Monday, May 19, 2008

Stair Climbing -- More than just going up?

A common misunderstanding surrounding stair climbing is the mindlessness of the training. Quite the opposite. There are many factors that combine to make completely different workout sessions...and education of these principles is step one.

If you manage to read even a portion of this blog, you'd quickly learn I do a lot of stairclimbing. My favorite place is at the old toboggan runs at Swallow Cliff Forest Preserve in Palos Park, IL. They have an outdoor staircase imbedded into a hill. The 120+ stairs climbs 90 feet. If you go by the number of stairs, it's about 6 stories. However, if you compare the height, it rises 9 stories. Since the workload is more a factor of distance than anything else, I say that 9 stories is a bit more realistic of an estimate.

One of my other favorite places is a 4-story tower by my workplace. It's an indoor steel staircase that is dry in the rain, and warm in the winter! Ideal. I also sometimes get permission from a 18-story building owner to use an indoor fire escape. Very accomodating during the cold months.

So with each of these various options, I've experienced a lot by trial and error. Here are some points I've held onto through my climbs:

Intensity. Intensity usually refers to the percentage of heartbeats per minute that your system can handle. The intensity of a workout is a derivitive of a number of variables, but none less than how quickly you can put one foot in front of the other. The faster you can get up, the more intense a session can be. Here are some variables:

Time Under Tension. TUT refers to the amount of time (in seconds or hundreths of seconds) that a muscle is working or flexed (under tension). The slower you climb, the more TUT. Generally speaking, the more TUT, the less cardiovascular the workout and the more it helps muscle growth/strength.

Range of Motion. Small steps (or those that have a short riser) do not have a great range of muscular motion. Taller steps (or hitting every other step) does demand a wider range of motion. Steps with taller riser also frequently have more TUT, since the time of each step is longer.

Time Duration. The amount of time you spend in an exercise session, the less average intensity you experience. This is of course a generalization. However, if you only spend 5 minutes exercising, I would expect you to work at a higher intensity level than if you spent 30 minutes. While events like sprints need strong anaerobic capacity, endurance events need strong aerobic capacity. Slow experienced stairclimbers may have the ability to do many repetitions or climbs, but do not necessarily have the speed to run up quickly...there is a huge difference.

Intervals. Training with intervals is not only fun, but quite effective at increasing performance. The idea involves periods of high intensity interspersed with periods of low intensity. An example of this is sprinting for 30 seconds, and walking for 45 seconds, then of course repeated. For stairclimbers, a climb down the stairs may be your REST period. Other climbers need more time to relax, especially if the climb was very intense or fast.

Plyometrics. While time-under-tension exercises may increase pure strength or size, plyometrics increase POWER and EXPLOSION. Power is sumarized as the ability to do work fast...such as jump. A jump uses energy for a split second, while a heavy squat or deadlift may take several seconds. The only way your muscles will make that quick-twitch for a jump is by practicing that same jump over and over again.

Heart Rate. Several years ago I purchased a pulse rate or heart rate monitor, specifically for my stair workouts. Since I have a lengthy opinion, I'll be addressing this issue in a later blog post.

I have completed several stair races...mostly in hi-rise buildings such as Oakbrook Terrace Tower and AON. I had trained and trained for long sessions at Swallow Cliff and my 18-story building. But when I got to the race, I didn't see all that great of increased performance. After some research and my own trial-and-error, I realized I had been training wrong!! One of the events was 32 stories...yet my training sessions had been over 100 stories. I was spending too much time doing slow aerobic work when I should have been doing fast anaerobic work. I changed and cut my repetitions down (time duration) and boosted the speed (intensity). I spent a shorter amount of time doing my training climbs and was seeing results. Imagine that: less time = better results. That goes against most popular belief that more is better. In this case, right is better.

I had been doing an extended workout that allowed me to continue climbing for a long period (which would have been perfect if the climb was 150-200 stories). What I was neglecting was my ability to do a shorter climb FASTER. The one event in particular was about 5 minutes at a fast pace, but I was practicing a slower pace for 45 minutes. Not helpful. When I began increasing my speed up the stairs, and also increased my rest period times, only then did I see results. I essentially decreased time-under-tension, made it more plyometric, increased my range of motion, decreased my time duration, upped the intensity, factored in proper rest....all as a part of tailoring the training sessions for the goal.

On the flip side, a few of us prepared for a hike into the bowels of the Grand Canyon. This was a totally different workout: lower (slower) intensity, longer duration, reduced rest periods, shorter range of motion (smaller steps), and virtually no explosive plyometrics. This preparation was for a grueling hike that required significant endurance...not the anaerobics of a 30-80 story building.

These two events: skyscraper race and Grand Canyon hike are the polar opposites of vertical goal-setting. They each require a different approach. Only through some bad experiences was I able to learn some valuable lessons.

There is in fact more to vertical training than just going up. I hope this post helps a bit with tailoring your own workouts to meet your goals, however high they may be :)

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