Why Taking the Stairs Is So Damn Hard

Published On 02/04/2016 Published On 02/04/2016
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Whether you’re a fit person or just a person, you’ve known the misery that is taking the stairs. Stairs are a well-known form of sadism (if you're Don Draper) AND masochism (if you're Dr. Jack Shephard).

Either way, stairs suck. And they don't seem to get any easier, no matter how often you take them.

College track star-turned-personal trainer at Equinox Nikoloz (“Nik”) Rekhviashvili has some answers, and it turns out you can breathe a sigh of relief... after your heart resumes beating at a normal rate.

Flickr/Philip Dehm

Struggling with stairs doesn't (necessarily) mean you're out of shape

Being out of shape certainly doesn’t aid in this endeavor, but to those who crush five SoulCycle classes a week, max out every ClassPass studio, or are training for marathons like a boss, you can relax. It’s honestly not you.

To reiterate this, some seriously insane statistics: Nik can squat 385lb, runs 400 meters in 53 seconds, and does lunges with an 80lb dumbbell in each hand. He works out for a living. And it doesn’t matter.

“No matter what shape you’re in, going uphill is just tougher, and you’re going to feel it,” he admits. “I definitely still get winded on stairs, absolutely. All the time. It can be the smallest amount of stairs and I’m like, shit!”

We’re all doomed.

Flickr/Alysha Koby

Thanks a lot, gravity!

What they don’t tell you in high school physics class: Newton’s law is great at keeping us from floating into space, but a total bitch when it comes to conquering stairs.

"Gravity is pushing you down as you use more muscle to push up," Rekhviashvili explains. "We’re not [as] used to walking uphill or climbing stairs as we are to just walking. When you’re doing stairs you’re pretty much doing a lunge. So already you’re working against gravity, and on top of that, activating a lot more muscle, stabilizers, and your glutes to actually push off. In general everyday life, these are just not muscles we activate a lot.”

And if you do happen to still be carrying some holiday weight, well, that's just like adding more dumbbells to this hellish process.

"Weight obviously plays a factor here," says Rekhviashvili. "You’re lifting a lot more weight as it is, so the more you weigh, the more you’re lifting."

Flickr/Masa Israel Journey

There's a cure, but you're not going to like it

You almost certainly saw this coming. "You can absolutely beat it, but the only way is more stairs," laughs Rekhviashvili. "If I want to be a great runner, am I going to be rowing? No, I'm going to be running. If you want to be better at stairs, you do stairs. It just has to be a regular thing."

But don't people -- specifically New Yorkers -- climb stairs on a regular basis? Why doesn't huffing up those subway stairs get any easier? "The reason it’s hard in the first place is because we only climb stairs a couple isolated times of the day, like the subway or at work. Not constantly, like we walk."

Not to say a little weight training at the gym won't help, but it will need to be supplemental to stair work. Sorry.

"You can also do box step-ups and lunges with weights and squats. If you do strength training with stairs, that activates your quads, glutes, even your core -- it's a way to prepare for stairs, too."


You literally can't run away from it  

This whole phenomenon has got to be the biggest slap in the face to long-distance race runners. All those miles clocked won’t help you when you have to ascend to a second subway platform? That's some bullshit.

There is a silver lining, though. Climbing stairs can help you train for your next race. Think back to the age-old math saying, "Every square is a rhombus, but every rhombus is not a square" -- it oddly applies here.  

"You can train for a race [by] doing stairs, but you can’t train for stairs just running," says Rekhviashvili. "Stairs are a whole different ballgame."

"Running can help a little if you do a lot of uphill, or if you’re sprinting. The key is you're driving the knee a lot higher and extending your step and a lot more power. And that's what doing stairs is -- using more power to drive through."

Another benefit? You will tear up flat courses like a total beast.

"If you run a mile on a hill long enough, or run up flights of stairs, your mile on a flat will be a lot faster. Flat feels like nothing after incline."

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Liz Newman is a freelance writer for Thrillist and was actually trained by Nik the same year she ran two long-distance races. She still refuses to unveil the true identity of "Annoying Fit Person." Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lizn813.



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