As part of a marathon training plan, it’s a good idea to come up with a few different form of cross-training, as the jogging motion is quite repetitive and can lead to injury—not to mention boredom. The idea for this post came as I was running the infamous Howe Street stairs this past week. I thought to myself—who would ever do this for fun? Then I remembered Dan Lawson.

Lawson, a personal trainer and owner of Javelin Fitness, has long been an advocate of stair-running as a cross-training strategy. I caught up with him on Seattle’s Capitol Hill to hear his thoughts on the Big Climb, the importance of muscle-building exercises for distance runners, and the dreaded Howe Street steps.

Dan Lawson, owner of Javelin Fitness

The Marathon Newbie: How did you first get started with stair-climbing?

Dan Lawson: I think I just like the challenge. I had signed up for the Big Climb and liked the fact that if you’re good, it’s over in 10-15 minutes. Instead of, for example, a five-hour marathon. I prefer to rip the band aid off quickly.

TMN: Are you still running stairs as part of your workout routine?

DL: Definitely. I think I’ve done three of the past five Big Climbs. I still train at the Howe Street steps, mainly as cardio training. It’s a good workout that is relatively low impact on your joints. Probably best cardio exercise you can have.

Because of my leg (Ed note: Dan shattered tibia and fibula in a work accident several years ago), I can’t really run long distances. Stairs allow me to build up my strength and endurance.

The Howe Street Steps

TMN: Any special workouts you like to do on stairs?

DL: There’s quite a few, actually.You can do intervals. You can do a long duration. You can use additional weight. All of them are great all-around cardio and muscle-building exercise.

Running by itself is just cardio; there’s no real muscle building.

TMN: Why is that important – the idea of running being just cardio?

DL: Running by itself—it can be pretty hard on your joints. After a while of doing such a repetitive motion, where you’re not really lifting your body that much, it’s tough. You’re getting these repetitive strikes on the ground. It can be tough on your tendons and you’ll start to tighten up.

With running, you’re not using all of your leg muscles, like your hamstrings and your calves. When you’re doing stair climbing, you’re using the front and back of your legs. You’re lifting up your body each time, 6-8 inches or so—whatever the height of the stair happens to be.

When you extend and push off the stair, you’re pushing your glutes, quads, and your calves. You’re also getting good muscle burn because you’re decelerating into each stair. When you’re running, it’s different—you’re not really extending.

TMN: Are there any other activities you’d recommend for a marathon runner?

DL: Definitely. Anything’s good as long as you’re doing a full-body exercise. When you’re training for a long-distance event like that, you have to maintain your muscle mass.

You only have so much stored energy in your body. When you’re finished with that, your body starts converting muscle into energy. You have some fat energy that’s easily accessible, but basically, once you’ve gone through that you’re going to be losing muscle. That’s why when you look at marathon runners, they are bony and sinewy. They have like zero muscle.

I’ve heard that the average vertical for Olympic marathoner is four inches. I don’t have a source for that, but if it’s true it shows you how little muscle they have. If you want to do train for a marathon and have a normal life, though, you have to do other things. Any sort of resistance training where you get your whole body is involved is good.

It doesn’t have to be a lot of weight. It could be in a gym setting or even throwing a child in the air. Pushups and pullups are a really easy way to maintain strength in your upper body. Squats and lunges are also good for your lower body.

A lot of flexibility/mobility stuff is good, too–that’ll help prevent injury by keeping your hips and ankles loose.

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