A typical obstacle course race (OCR) calls for navigating tough terrain, whether it be steep mountains, rolling dirt hills, or woodsy forests. OCRs at stadiums, however, require you to run up and down the entire set of bleachers at the venue. To conquer an OCR, you’ll need a combination of leg strength, cardiovascular fitness, upper body and grip strength, and mental grit. OCRs are races after all, so they contain more time running or climbing than anything else. Therefore, your legs, heart, and lungs need to be up to the task. The stair climber machine works the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and calves. These are all muscles that you’ll need when ascending the inevitable incline of an OCR. Find out how to use the stair climber for obstacle course race training to prepare your body for the demands.
Stair Climber 101: How to Use It
Escalator-type stair climber machines reduce ground reaction forces when compared to non-machine stair climbing, as the downward stroke of the leg is assisted by the moving step. This moving step may be a disadvantage to very short (under five foot tall) people since you can’t adjust the step height. To use the stair climber, face the machine and step forward into the pedals. Maintain good posture with the torso over the hips.
When using a stair climber, DO NOT:
- Let your knee come in front of your toes when the leg is bent. This adds strain to the knee and can cause injury.
- Rock your hips too much from side to side. Exaggerated/extreme hip movement usually means that you’re bending your spine forward too much.
- Step too fast so that you’re taking short, chopping steps, resulting in a step depth that’s too shallow.
- Step too slow so that you’re taking giant, deep steps.
Stair Climber for Obstacle Course Race Training
The stair climber machine is a favorite piece of fitness equipment for elite and amateur OCR athletes alike. It mimics the demands of some of the elevation gain you’ll experience on a mountainous OCR. Here are several ways to use the stair climber for obstacle course race training.
Stair Climber and Second Machine Intervals
Use the stair climber machine for three to six minutes at a hard intensity (80-90 percent maximum heart rate). Then, stop it, step off, and recover by walking on a treadmill, cycling on a stationary bike, or using an elliptical for two to three minutes. Repeat this pairing for a total of 30 minutes work.
Stair Climber and Muscular Endurance Training
Try this workout to build climbing ability while increasing muscular endurance for the obstacles that lie ahead.
Directions: Complete three rounds total. Rest as needed between rounds. Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises.
- Five minutes stair climber at a hard intensity (80-90 percent maximum heart rate)
- 30 bodyweight squats
- 20 push-ups (modify using a knee push-up)
- Ten walking lunges (per leg)
- Ten burpees
- Five to ten pull-ups (modify using inverted rows or dumbbell rows)
Stair Climber Only Workouts
When using only the stair climber during your workout, it takes a few training sessions to get acclimated to the machine. Eventually, you find what speed is your hardest, what speed is your coasting speed, and what speed is basically resting. OCR training should include one to two steady state cardio sessions per week. Make one of these the stair climber and the other running, to vary the demands on your muscles and heart. Spend 30-50 minutes on the stair climber at about 50-70 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR) for a complete steady state/long slow distance aerobic workout.
If using the stair climber for interval training, try the following protocol until you reach 20-40 minutes total.
- Five minutes work (70-85 percent MHR)
- Two minutes rest (50-60 percent MHR)
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is the hardest type of training to do on a stair machine. Here’s a sample HIIT stair climber workout. Ten rounds of:
- Two minutes work (80-95 percent MHR)
- One minute rest (60-70 percent MHR)
Total Work = 20 minutes (plus 10 minutes rest)
Cross Training Using the Stair Climber
Cross training is combining several exercise modes (types of movement) for aerobic endurance training. The benefit of cross training is that it divides the physical stress of training to different muscle groups during the different activities, and increases the adaptations of the cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal systems. The mixture of running and obstacles like wall/rope climbs, crawls, monkey bars, and heavy carries during OCRs make it the epitome of outdoor cross training. A sample cross-training workout that mixes in elements of OCR is:
- Ten minutes of treadmill running at your 5K pace
- 40-60 second plank
- Ten broad jumps
- 100-yard heavy dumbbell farmer’s carry
- Ten minutes on a wind resistance bike
- 40-60 second wall sit
- 60-second dead hang
- 20 box jumps
- Ten minutes stair climber
- Ten knee-to-elbow push-ups
- 20 dumbbell biceps curls
- 20 dumbbell squat-to-press
The Final Step
If you’re a seasoned endurance athlete and you’re looking to really challenge yourself before your next race, try wearing a ten to 30 pound weighted vest then hopping on the stair climber. Only go for five to ten minutes maximum. The difference between wearing a weighted vest on a stair climber and not wearing one is extremely noticeable. Seriously, don’t even bother trying this unless you’ve already completed a few taxing stair climber workouts.
Mark Barroso is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and a Spartan SGX Coach.