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What Is Tower Running?

Sport & Activity

Like running, climbing stairs doesn't require any special equipment except for a good pair of shoes with a few specific characteristics.

Last updated: January 8, 2022
6 min read
 What Is Tower Running?

Tower running is the sport of climbing stairs competitively in skyscrapers around the world. Tower runs have been around since the early part of the 20th century and are now gaining popularity. Tower-running races take place in some of the world's most iconic buildings, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.

So what would inspire an athlete to climb inside a stuffy, dank stairwell with no scenery, no spectators and few (if any) water stops? According to top tower runners, the feeling of exhilaration is unparalleled.

Why Do a Tower Run?

Many runners participate in tower runs in an effort to raise money and awareness for worthy causes. Organisations such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, American Lung Association, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and others organise tower runs. Athletes of all levels participate, and many form fundraising and training teams.

But there are many other reasons to start climbing stairs for sport. Running or walking up stairs is a high-intensity workout. It's a great way to increase cardiorespiratory performance, improve lower-body strength and endurance, and build mental persistence.

In studies, stair climbing has also been associated with improvements in metabolism, dynamic balance, resting heart rate, daily energy and cognition. In older adults, stair climbing is even linked to a reduced risk of falls, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.

Despite these significant health advantages, veteran tower runners say that the benefits of tower running go far beyond the physical. Sproule Love has been running stairs competitively since the late 1990s, when he ran the Empire State Building Run-Up (ESBRU) for the first time. He is now a top-ranked American tower runner and competes all over the world. In 2019, he finished ESBRU in 12 minutes and 16 seconds, placing sixth overall and was the top American finisher.

"Tower running is relentless", says Sproule, "but there is a unique sense of accomplishment you get from scaling a building. It's visceral. Humans like to be at the top… at the pinnacle… and tower running puts you there". He adds that training for a tower run is a super compact and efficient way to stay fit, which can be important if you are an athlete, like Sproule, who balances his sport with family life and a career.

Tower-Run Training and Tips

The best way to train for a tower run is (not surprisingly) to run or walk up the stairs. So, the first step in your training programme will be to find a good set of stairs where you can complete workouts. Apartment buildings and office towers are great options. If you don't have access to one of those buildings, consider finding a football pitch at a secondary school or university near your home and train on the stands.

Tower-Run Training

You won't want to start your training by hitting the stairs hard, especially if you are a beginner. Start slowly and increase gradually. Runners can insert stair climbing into their training routine instead of hill climbing. So they might run the stairs once or twice a week at a volume and intensity that is challenging but not overwhelming.

When Sproule is training for a race, he tailors his programme to the specific climb event. Some tower events are very short (taking less than five minutes to finish), while some take slightly longer. For the ESBRU, he trains on stairs twice a week with a goal of doing short, high-speed intervals. For example, he might repeat segments climbing 10 storeys 10 times and repeat the sequence several times for a total workout volume of 200–300 storeys.

In terms of pace, Sproule describes tower running as more of a "fast hike" than a run. He says that pacing is the key to finishing well, and that the worst thing you can do is go out too fast. "It takes a lot of confidence to pace yourself properly", he says, referring to the fact that many runners sprint at the start of the race and may pass you as a result. But he says that it is much smarter to try for even, steady splits until you are at least halfway to the top and then increase speed if you have more to give.

6 Tower-Running Tips

Get ready for race day by preparing yourself with these tips:

  • Skip the downhill. When you're training to run up stairs, running down stairs provides little benefit. It will slow you down and can put extra wear and tear on your knees. Instead, run up, take the lift down and repeat (if possible).

  • Learn to use the handrails. Give yourself as much assistance as possible by using the handrails on the way up. Top-ranked female tower runner Suzy Walsham says in Men's Running magazine that she runs two stairs at a time, using the handrails to help her up.

  • Practise breathing. Stair climbing is intense and your breathing will become deep and laboured. During training, try to find a breathing rhythm that allows you to stay dialled in for the short duration of the race. Some experts advise that you focus on a long vigorous exhale and make the inhale shorter.

  • Know the race-day logistics. Do some research and find out how many storeys your event will be, and build your training around your specific event. Sproule suggests that your stair-training days should last about 30 percent longer than your predicted time on race day. Also, bear in mind that stairs in commercial buildings are taller than they are in residential buildings. So if you are training in an apartment building, climbing 50 flights may take slightly longer in a corporate tower.

  • Use the gym for strength training. On your non-stair-training days, you'll want to do some strength training to build strength and endurance. Exercises such as squats, lunges and planks can go a long way to enhancing your tower run power. But skip the stair-climbing machines unless it is an easy day. These machines don't teach you the technical aspects of tower running, such as turning properly, using the handrails or pacing yourself.

  • Have fun. Find a race that inspires you by visiting the Tower Running World Association or Tower Running USA website. Then set a goal, but give yourself permission to enjoy the experience even if it means letting go of a time expectation that you've set for yourself. Enjoy the journey to the top and savour the moment when you get there.

Tower-Running Gear

Like running, climbing stairs doesn't require any special equipment except for a good pair of running shoes. While there aren't shoes specifically designed for tower running, there are certain features of running shoes that make them better suited to running up stairs.

For instance, you may want to look for a lightweight shoe with less cushioning as stair climbing is a low-impact sport. In addition, most tower runs are relatively short. The average finishing climb time for the ESBRU is about 30 minutes. So you won't need to worry about the substantial wear and tear on your joints that you might take into account when training for a half-marathon, marathon or even 10K.

Sproule says he uses a super-lightweight, minimalist shoe for training and racing. He specifically looks for a shoe with a low rise, thin sole and a good grip for traction on the climb. He adds that a wider toe box helps with balance.

Tower-running clothing is based on your own personal preferences. There's no need to worry about weather conditions because you'll be running inside. But bear in mind that there is also no breeze. Staircases can be hot and stuffy. So wear comfortable, breathable, lightweight clothing that feels good while you climb.

Lastly, consider wearing compression stockings for your race to help keep the hard-working calf muscles energised. Sproule says that they are key for race day, but he doesn't wear them for training because he likes the added benefit to be significant on race day.

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