# Energy expenditure and efficiency walking vs running up stairs.

People have different approaches to climbing long flights of stairs. I am one of those rip the bandaid off fast and get it over quick people so i run up stairs two at a time and partially pull myself up with my hands on the handrails to help more evenly distribute the workload to more muscles. I feel like an object that is in motion tends to stay in motion and developing a good head of steam and hustling up the stairs is ultimately the least physically taxing and most efficient method. Is it all just energy to lift mass x distance no matter how you choose to mix it up and the rest is all in my head or is there something to my method?

I have thought the same thing before, I used to be a stair runner. Fast acceleration requires more energy than slow acceleration you also have more momentum behind you when moving fast. I don’t really know the answer or exactly how it could be figured out. Maybe you could measure a persons total body temp with infrared before and after both methods of doing stairs. Intuitively I would think climbing slowly conserves more energy.

Intuition says that you need energy to accelerate and waste it when you get to the top. Going up at walking speed avoids that energy expenditure and waste.

Physics would suggest that running would use more energy: You have to increase your kinetic energy to start with, and then throw that kinetic energy away again when you eventually stop. And although air resistance will be small in either case, it’ll be less small for running than for walking.

That said, we also have to consider physiology, and I suspect that the physiological differences are far more significant than the physics ones. Unfortunately, I don’t know which way those effects go.

Google tells me that the National Institutes of Health has studied the issue. (I so much want to go into a rant about silly grant-writing and research funding, but I won’t. On some level, even research that seems frivolous to me has some value in reducing the world’s aggregate ignorance.)

[Emphasis mine]Walking is more energetically expensive. Go figure.

The comparison I’d like to see is between walking up the stairs at a fast clip versus doing that SLOW. PLODDING. STEP. BY. STEP. thing that so many people do that drives me freaking nuts to be behind. My knees hurt if I do it that way. I wait until the people directly in front of me are 3/4 up and then I can go up at my preferred pace without slamming into them from behind. Or at least I do if there aren’t a thick clot of people impatiently lining up behind me wondering WTF I’m just standing there.

I imagine asking them to try walking up the stairs at 1/4 the speed they’re doing now. So their foot is in mid-air and their knees flexed up for a good 10 seconds for each individual step. Exhausting, right? And the whole journey takes forever and that’s exhausting, right? So when you plod up the stairs the way you’re doing it now, compared to how I’m doing it, it’s the same sort of comparison. The “get it over with” approach is easier all around. Now quit blocking the stairway, I need to get by your slow ass.

There probably is an optimum stair height for minimum energy expenditure. If the stairs were 1 inch high, you’d waste a lot of energy churning your legs going up 1 step at a time. If the stairs were 3 feet high, you’d need a lot of energy bounding up to each step. There must be a stair height somewhere in there where expenditure is minimized.

However, that has to contend with biomechanics. When I was younger I could do 2 stairs quickly, but not anymore. My knees can’t take it. So now it’s 1 stair at a time.

Try taking the stairs out of the equation and ask your question about walking on a flat surface. Different types of walking around or running will have different energy requirements.

but then you take the pulling yourself up with help from arms and railing out of the equation.

You can still use your arms to pull when taking 1 step at a time. So to be consistent, you’d want to see results of 1 and 2 steps both with and without help from the railing.

And there’s probably some inefficiency when you add your arms as opposed to just using your legs. When you use arms and legs, the work is distributed between both limbs. You may end up actually using more calories by incorporating your arms, although it may feel more comfortable since the work is distributed over more of your body.

Why would this be true? Its easier to walk up stairs with 2 legs instead of one, why wouldnt walking up the stairs with 2 legs and 2 arms also not be notably easier as well?

Easier? Yes. But use less calories? It’s unclear. It’s because “easier” and “energy efficiency” are not the same thing. By incorporating more muscles the activity may feel subjectively easier, but could end up burning more total calories in the body.

These numbers are made up, but maybe it could be like this:

Stairs with legs only: 10 calories per floor
Stairs with legs and arms: 12 calories (7 calories from legs, 5 calories from arms)

I wonder if there is a direct correlation between rate of respiration and calories burned. If so it might be easy to establish these kinds of things. You may have to wait for respiration to return to normal to gauge it.

If you want to accurately measure calories burned, you need to use one of those masks that they use to measure VO2. Most commonly seen on subjects running on treadmill. But it would be difficult to use those on a stairwell.

That study cited above did the next best thing. They calibrated the VO2 to heart rate for each participant on a treadmill and then used the heart rate as a substitute when actually climbing the stairs.

Note that while climbing one step at a time used the most overall energy, climbing two at a time used more energy per time unit. For getting a good cardio workout, that latter figure is much more important.

Actually, this makes sense. The higher rate of energy used by going 2 steps at a time (generally at a faster rate, as pointed out in the study) is not necessarily double the energy used to go up the same flight one stair at a time at a slower rate.

A study of 1 step vs 2 steps controlled for rate of climb would be interesting.

Whenever it’s practical I always trot up stairs two at a time …without using the handrail. I’m 75. The reason why I’m so fit is because I’ve been doing this all my life. When confronted with stairs most people go into a climbing stairs mode that makes them feel that they have to follow the herd and go up one at a time.

Not necessarily–you are decelerating due to gravity, so when you near the top you can convert your kinetic energy into potential energy by using less leg force. There is the possibility of there being a mismatch of lateral and vertical components to the kinetic energy, but you can use the top step to “lever” your momentum into the right ratio.

Sounds complicated but I suspect I do it naturally–I tend to run up stairs and I don’t feel like I apply any real braking force when I reach the top. I just kinda step onto the upper landing as if I had been tossed to the correct height with the right lateral velocity.