Because you’re running against gravity, prepare to break a major sweat. Both uphill running and running stairs combine an aerobic workout with strength training. When pumping your extremities to get up that incline, your buttocks, thighs and calves are going to work much harder. If you’re using the downhill return trip as a recovery interval in which you walk or lightly jog, both hills and stairs reduce the pounding on your joints. However, there are some differences between the two activities, which can be subject to differing opinions.
The Running Motion
If you’re trying to improve the efficiency of your running, running stairs doesn’t cut it in the way that running hills can. According to Shannon Paterson’s article “Training” in Runner’s World, it’s better to run on treadmill to build strength and endurance. The movements of stair running are more similar to bounding than running. You land on the balls of your feet with little heel contact, which can strain your Achilles tendon. The high knee lift can also overtax the hip flexors. However, some believe stair running does qualify as a running-specific motion. If you compare the workout to swimming or cycling, stair running can substitute for hill running.
The two ways to improve your running is to increase stride length or accelerate the frequency of your leg turnover. When running stairs, the length of your stride is limited to the size and formation of the steps. You typically have to use a shortened stride so you don’t overstep the stair’s platform. To counter this problem, you have two choices. Either focus on speeding up leg turnover or use bounding strides, such as skipping every other step. When you run hills, you also have to shorten your stride as well as slow down. According to Sally Edwards’ “Be a Better Runner,” if you bound up a hill, you’ll exhaust yourself. So take your time. By shortening your stride, you can focus on boosting the power of each step.
When stair running, you can encounter the problem of non-progression, which means doing the same workout over and over again. To reap the benefits of stair running, you have to modify the pattern every six to eight weeks, according to author Dean Hebert's website, The World According to Dean. You have to increase the intensity by increasing repetitions or changing the movements, such as doing two-leg or one-leg hops up the incline. Unless you’re running up the same path on the same hill on every hill-running workout, you won’t have the same problem of non-progression.
Risk of Injury and Safety
According to Adam Bean’s “Runner’s World Best: Run Faster,” the impact of stair running on your joints is even less than hill running. Compared to running on flat land, a Nike study revealed that hill running imposes only 85 percent of the shock, according to Edwards. Both types of workouts will reduce the amount of pounding your joints take on a run. However, running back down the stairs can be tricky. If you get tired, you risk tripping on a stair and taking a tumble. With regard to hill running, you may risk twisting an ankle on a bumpy descent, but you don’t risk hitting your head on a wooden or cement step.
Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.