Sometimes climbing the stairs can feel hard. You get out of puff, legs feel heavy, and you need to use the banister to pull yourself up. If you’re suffering from fatigue or are generally out of condition following treatment, everyday movement can feel laboured. Some people find that they become fearful about climbing steps, and might go out of their way to avoid them.
It is quite normal to get out of breath on stairs, and even the fittest runners say that even though they can run for miles, they can find themselves puffing after a couple of flights. Here’s an explanation: as you climb stairs, your legs must lift your body instead of just propelling it forward. This requires extra oxygen for your legs and so your heart and lungs need to work harder to deliver it. We often hit a staircase relatively quickly and with little run-up and so rather than being warmed up and prepared, it’s a shock to the system. And then to compound the effect, we often don’t breathe effectively as we go upstairs. It’s hardly a surprise then, that we start puffing and panting,
If you want to make stairs feel more manageable, do three things: improve your breathing when you climb, increase the amount of exercise you do that gets you out of breath, and increase your strength. This doesn’t need to be a huge task, but with some daily tweaks and a little time spent training, you might see really satisfying improvement.
There are broad benefits in training to climb stairs beyond the improvement in day-to-day living. Climbing up steps or stairs is weight-bearing, so you’ll be improving the strength and density of your bones. It’s a form of cardio-vascular exercise, so you’ll improve the capacity and functioning of your heart and lungs. As you elevate your heart rate, you’ll burn calories as you go, and you’ll improve the strength of the muscles on your lower body.
Dig your heels in.
Want to make stair climbing feel easier instantly? Try planting your whole foot on each stair, rather than stepping on your toes. Then press down firmly through your heel as you bring your body weight upwards. This will activate your gluteal muscles and allow the strength that you already have in them to propel you upwards.
We do it all the time of course, but we often don’t do it well. So first, remind yourself what good, deep breathing feels like.
Try this: Lie on your back and relax your chest and shoulders. Place both hands lightly on top of your abdomen. Inhale deeply and allow your tummy to rise under your fingers. Hold the breath for a second, then exhale and focus on allowing your stomach to fall. Practice deep breathing through your nose and your mouth. Practice concentrated deep breathing for five to 10 minutes each day. Try it in a sitting or standing position when working on other tasks.
Then learn how to control the rhythm of your breath. While lying or sitting, do some relaxed belly breathing for several minutes. Now count your breaths: Inhale for three counts, then exhale for two counts.
Try this 3: 2 rhythm as you stand – then progress to tapping your feet to the rhythm breathing in for three taps, and out for two. It’s up to you whether you breathe through your mouth or nose – there’s no right or wrong. Some people find that when they’re exercising they prefer inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth. Now progress to walking on flat ground, fitting that rhythm on with your steps, before you finally hit the stairs.
Finding and keeping this rhythm should mean that you feel more confident and that your breathing stays more controlled as you climb.
(This method of breathing can be used in lots of circumstances and I’ve used it many times to help people who are learning to run. Getting control of your breath is a really effective way to make running feel much more manageable.)
Get out of puff
Once you’re happy that you can control your breath, try challenging yourself to get lightly out of puff every day. Start gently and add in things like walking a little more briskly to a given landmark. Try to walk a little bit faster or further than you did yesterday. Don’t overdo it though – allow yourself to stay comfortable and in control.
When you’re ready to, add into your daily routine a stair climb where you purposefully breathe well. Stand tall with your chest open and shoulders back, and practice climbing the flight with as much control as you can. Count how many steps you can manage before needing to hold the banister and then challenge yourself to make the point that you hold on gradually higher up than previously.
If you don’t feel ready to do this, step on and off the bottom step of a flight of stairs. Do as many step-ups as you can and then rest. Try to gradually increase the number of steps that you can do before you stop.
Your gluteal muscles – the big muscles in your buttocks – are your powerhouses for lifting the body. ‘Sit to stand’ is an exercise used widely – I use it all the time with clients who are trying to improve their lower body strength. Sit in a hard-seated chair that’s either heavy or resting against a wall (so it can’t slide backwards). Looking ahead, rather than at the floor, stand up without pushing yourself off with your arms. Try to avoid stamping the floor – keep your feet flat, firm, hip-width apart. Sit back down again, trying to control your downward motion so that you land on the seat gently. Repeat this for as long as you can – 10 or 12 stands might be enough for now. As you get into a rhythm, try to dig your heels into the floor, as this activates the glutes. Gently squeeze your bum as you come to stranding straight. Build this up – it’ll really help. See if you can get to a point that you can sit-to-stand for a whole minute. Then try speeding up and work on how many you can fit in – with good technique, mind – during that minute.
The Bridge is an exercise that does loads of things, including helping to strengthen the glutes. Lying on your back, bring your heels close to your bottom. Adjust the angle of your pelvis, bringing the base of the bone upwards so that your tummy muscles shorten and give a gentle stretch into the small of your back. Lift your hips as high as you can, feeling a stretch in the front of the thighs. Hold briefly, and then lower gently. Repeat 8-10 times, have a rest and if you’ve got the strength, do another lot.