What's the most efficient way of running up stairs?

27 March 2017
Presented by Ricky Nathvani
Production by Georgia Mills.


What's the most efficient way of running up stairs? And does one step at a time or two lead to greater strength or cardiovascular fitness? Ricky Nathvani investigates.


James, you asked which is more efficient when climbing stairs, one or two steps at a time.

The best answer is that there is very little difference. I was interested in the same question about 4 years ago.

Halsey (2012) investigated the energetic costs and found that when climbing stairs, taking two steps at a time was roughly 12% more efficient than one step at a time (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0051213). To quote from their discussion; "For example, climbing just a 15 m high stairway five times a day represents an energy expenditure of on average 302 kcal per week using the one step strategy and 266 kcal using the two step strategy."

Listening to this podcast, I am concerned that the listener will be misled. Dan states (2:05 into the podcast) that the cost per 'step' for one step at a time is 0.6 ml O2 kg-1 min-1 compared to 1.1 ml O2 kg-1 min-1 per step when taking them two at a time. This would make two steps at a time almost twice as energetically expensive as one at a time. I cannot find any evidence to support this.

I think there is some confusion here as to what a 'step' is - is it the physical thing you are climbing or the action of moving the leg from one position to another? And, the use of mls O2 kg-1 min-1 is not helping since when climbing two steps at a time the ascent rate is faster.

Aziz & Teh (2005) (https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jpa/24/4/24_4_253/_pdf) found, like Halsey (2012), that double-steps were more efficient than single stepping - but the effect was marginal. To quote, "The higher calorie expended with the SS compared to the DS pattern was deemed to be of little practical significance."

My own view - having had students conduct similar experiments - is that Aziz & Teh were right. There is very little difference in energy terms between the two approaches. It is simple physics - the higher you go the more energy you use no matter what the strategy. If you are using stairs to get fit, do more of them. I have found that about 25 ascents of 15.9m which takes me around 40 mins is a pretty good workout especially since I have an empty staircase just the other side of my lab door! https://www.strava.com/activities/87503442

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