If you’ve ever walked up several flights of stairs and felt more winded than the last time you ran a mile, it isn’t your imagination. “Stair-climbing requires more energy, or calories per minute, compared to running,” says Dustin Slivka, PhD, associate professor of health and kinesiology and director of the exercise physiology laboratory at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. What’s more, “people typically do not, or cannot, climb stairs continuously for 30 minutes, as they might while jogging.”
Here, a look at the factors that play a role in making you extra winded when it comes to stairs and how you can reap benefits from both stair-climbing and running.
WHY DISTANCE AND VERTICAL MATTER
Although the distance you’ll cover is much shorter — to reach the top of the Empire State Building, for example, it’s 86 flights of stairs, which is roughly equivalent to traveling 1/5 of a mile — the exertion is considerably greater. You’ll feel much more fatigued than if you’d run 1/5 of a mile on flat ground.
“It’s much tougher to work against gravity or work vertically and requires significantly more energy,” says Martin Gibala, PhD, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
HOW MUSCLE GROUPS PLAY A ROLE
What’s more, “you use muscles you don’t normally use when you climb stairs, so you may perceive the exertion as more difficult or you may feel sore afterwards,” adds Gibala.
A lot can depend on your strength level rather than aptitude for endurance. “Stair-climbing may be more similar to resistance exercise and lead to local muscle fatigue of the thigh muscles, as opposed to being limited by aerobic or endurance capacity,” notes Slivka. “You have to lift your legs higher when you’re climbing stairs than when you’re running, and the extra work can add to the perceived exertion.”
As a result, “you need a greater range of motion because you have to clear the steps,” says medical exercise specialist Chris Gagliardi, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. “You get more activation of the gluteal muscles, compared to running and walking.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Both running and stair-climbing are forms of cardiovascular exercise and benefit your overall health. “The cardiovascular system doesn’t know what the muscles are doing; it just knows it’s experiencing a challenge,” says Gibala, whose research has shown short bursts of stair-climbing can improve cardiorespiratory fitness. “I think if people were to climb stairs for 10 minutes at a slow pace or run on a flat surface for 10 minutes at a quick pace (where the heart rate for both is around the same) the benefits they would receive would be similar.” At the end of the day, opt for whichever form of cardio you enjoy most.