Any winter sport you choose to pursue requires strong legs and a cardiovascular system that is well tuned. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments must all be strengthened for the task at hand and the body's oxygen delivery machine must be well oiled. Next to the winter sports themselves, I find stair climbing to be one of the best ways to achieve these ends. It works the legs in a way that closely simulates many of the demands of snowshoeing, winter mountaineering and skiing of all kinds. Each of these is heavily dependent on legs that are capable of moving up and down repeatedly for hours.
The training concept of specificity demands that you train your body to do what will be expected of it - specifically. Seems simple, but when it comes to getting the most out of training time, many people don't get the expected return on investment. An example is swimming to stay in shape for snowshoeing. Although swimming will keep your cardiovascular fitness high, it will not help your body to deal with the specific demands of snowshoeing.
Nothing can fully replace your individual sport for getting you into shape. World-class athletes know that only about 20% of the time you spend cross-training will contribute to your primary sport, but stair climbing runs a pretty close second for winter sport enthusiasts. And by this I mean real stairs, not the indoor machine version. While the machine is better than nothing, it can't deliver the whole body experience of honest-to-goodness outdoor stairs.
Actual stair climbing, as opposed to virtual, offers several advantages:
- Enhanced upper body workout - you can't lean on the arm bars.
- Stairs don't give when you push down, they offer full resistance.
- Outdoor stairs force you to deal with the elements - more like a winter sport experience, eh?
- Real stairs require full body balance, an important element of many winter sports.
- You get to breathe real air!
- Real stairs are not nearly as boring.
Veterans of the "Real Stair" experience find some things to work better than others. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of stair climbing:
- Explore your city - don't settle for the first set of stairs you find.
- Try to find a flight of stairs in the 200-400 step range for the best interval.
- An outdoor stadium is excellent.
- Go hard on the uphill and easy on the down - the essence of interval training.
- Vary your stride length - one stair at a time on one set and two at a time on another set.
- Start your Real Stair experience walking, but try running them occasionally for more intensity.
- Begin without added weight, but as you strengthen consider carrying weight in a backpack.
- Be careful adding weight to the feet - it's easier to injure yourself.
- Walk down for safety, especially near the end of the workout.
- Start with once a week and later go to two times a week.
- Keep a training log to view your progress - how many flights, how long, how you felt.
- Bring a friend - companionship makes the workout more fun.
- Be careful driving home - the first few times your legs will shake uncontrollably on the clutch.
I've had enough positive experience with the results of stair climbing that I make them a big part of my preparation for several different activities. Several months prior to ski season I find myself hitting the stairs and I always do the same before mountaineering expeditions in the spring. I've laid down a lot of running shoe rubber on my favorite stairs in Seattle - The Death Stairs, located on the west end of Howe Street on Capitol Hill. See you there.