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Running Steps – A Good Workout or Not?


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Is Running Steps a Good Idea, or a Bad Idea?

An interesting question …..

I love to run steps whenever I get the opportunity.  Years ago when I was in my early 20’s, I was living with my sister and brother-in-law in their condominium in Pompano Beach, Florida.

The building we were living in at the time had upwards of 20 floors. This meant the fire escape stairwell had 40 flights of zig-zagged steps, with each flight containing about 10 steps.

In Florida, this meant that the non air-conditioned fire escape was extremely warm and got hotter the higher you climbed. I am pretty sure the temperature in that fire escape was well above 100 degrees on most days, but that’s another story altogether.

I remember racing up and down these 40 flights of stairs as if it were yesterday. The first time up was definitely easier than the second go around, and certainly, coming down was effortless in comparison to going up.

I would use the handrail as a propulsion device with each turn onto a new flight of steps.  I grabbed on to it to pull and launch myself up the first few steps of the next flight, creating some much needed momentum.

Steps Can Be A Great Workout

I can remember the burn in my legs, the pump in my thighs and the feeling of such an incredibly intense workout that, while only lasting about 10-15 minutes, seemed much longer when breathing in the hot and heavy humid air.

The instant sweat that was created from this unique environment was a good lesson on how to take advantage of your surroundings in a positive and productive way.

I only had the luxury of living in that building for about 8 months before I moved out on my own, but I will always remember the positive feeling I got from those workouts.

Nowadays, I go to high school football stadiums to do my step running in.  The local high school stadium near my home doesn’t have 40 flights of steps, but it does allow me to get close to the workouts that I once enjoyed in Pompano, Beach.

Is There a Bad Side to Running Steps?

So, to answer the question above, “Is running steps good or bad for you?” is, naturally, is going to be, “it’s good.”.

So imagine my surprise when I shared this experience with a gym member one day.  We were talking about cardio workouts, and he mentioned to me that he likes to run on the treadmill and around the track.

I mentioned to him that those are great exercises, but for some reason, I prefer to get my cardio by running steps. I even told him where I go to do it.

It was a friendly conversation, but he said something really interesting that got my attention.  He said that his orthopedic doctor never recommends that anyone run steps. I said, ‘Really, that’s odd, why would he say that?’

He said that his orthopedist believes that one’s own body weight is too much weight for one leg to support as the body goes up and down the steps, especially in an aggressive exercise-type of way.  He further said that the joints were not meant to support the body in this way very efficiently.

I politely “saw his point” but I have to be honest here, I have never heard such a thing.  I can see if perhaps you have some type of injury that you wouldn’t want to run steps, but for healthy and active living people, I see no reason why this exercise should be avoided.

 Structural Advantages of Running Steps vs. Running on a Treadmill

The way I see it, running steps has many advantages over running on a treadmill or track.  The main reason is when you run steps, the toes and the balls of your feet make contact with the step, and not your heel.

This allows the ankle joint to flex and absorb any shock going up or down the steps. The amount of force that may travel up your spine is dissipated very quickly, and thereby limits any problems such as neck or back pain that may result.

I find this shock absorption by the ankle joint while running steps to be extremely advantageous over a treadmill where the majority of times, I see people striking the belt with their heels first.

This does not allow for any shock absorption to take place in the ankle and foot and as a result a much harder and discrete force is shot up the leg, thigh, hip and upward through the spine and neck causing knee pain, back pain and even headaches.

Many of my patients can’t run on treadmills for this very reason, even though they may not have any problems with their feet.

The Muscular Advantages of Running Steps

Now, aside from the cardiovascular benefits that I believe you get from running steps, it’s also one of the best exercises I recommend for speed training outside of the programs we offer.

Running steps targets the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles, all of which are necessary to getting off to a fast start in a race or in most sports.

I personally recommend this workout to whoever asks me about them, so naturally I was taken back a bit when I heard advice to the contrary.

So in this particular article, I would like to hear what you think about running steps.

Do you think there is any particular danger to running them, or do you think they are yet another great exercise to incorporate into your workouts whenever the opportunity presents itself?

Please let me know by using the comments below.

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Always glad to help!
Dr. Larry Van Such



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One response to “Running Steps – A Good Workout or Not?”

  1. Tim says:

    I love your story about running up those steps. I totally agree with what you say about step running. I used to do a lot of swimming cycling and boxing training. I never used to fight but I did the training and part of that was doing step circuits. There were 9 steps so one set was up to the 3rd back down up to 6th back down then to the top and back down and repeat this 9 times in one go. It was brutal but I loved it. I was 15stone then but now I’m 18stone and I have just started now running up and down the 18steps I have out the garden. I start off doing 15 times up an down, have a breather then 12 up an down then 11 and finish off with 2x sets of 10 it works out about 1044 steps which for 18stone is not a bad start ERM I hope, then a bit of weights after. One thing I do notice is a bit of pain in my knees but i have always had clicky joints so its no surprise, but I do think maybe I’m not doing any good to my knees but sitting on the couch is no good either. I have seen a TV program explaining the science of running saying that there is more forces acting on the knee when walking and also your knee joints should be able to repair it self with a healthy person. Who knows, I’ll let you know when I’m 80yrs old haha. For now I will carry on doing what I do. Hope you find this interesting, many thanks Tim

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