Tower running is a relatively new, elite sport. It’s been around for a few years, but is gaining notoriety as a tough-man’s game, as well as increasing in popularity and media attention. We give you the low down on what’s involved, why people do it, and how to train for it.
Tower running, what is it? Well, running up towers, literally. Tower running, also known as stair running or vertical running, began to take off in the UK at the beginning of 2010, and the first UK race was held in March 2009 with over 600 competitors running up the 920 steps of Tower 42 for the homeless charity, Shelter. Races involve running up tall man-made structures in either a time trial or mass-start format and is popular with elite athletes from various sports disciplines to fitness fans who like to raise money for charity... and enjoy good views.
Recently the Gherkin Challenge was held in London, involving 550 participants - sane or insane, you decide - running up 1000 steps across a distance of 180 vertical metres. The winner, Matthias Jahn of Germany set a new record for the event, completing the task in a mere 4 minutes 18 seconds. So does he make it look easy? Well, no, not really. This is a serious sport, not for the faint hearted. It’s physically hard and is becoming increasingly competitive. Although currently tower running is done purely for charity in the UK, internationally it is a competitive sport often with large cash prizes in store for the winners.
The toughness, and associated pain, comes from the vertical gain and the work that the body has to do against gravity. The greater the mass of the body, the more work it has to do. Tower running doesn’t just require cardio stamina and strength, but a certain dedicated and passionate mental attitude; stairwells are small spaces and when filled with hundreds of runners, can become very hot. From the offset, runners jostle each other for an early advantage, and to win, runners pass each other on the stairs requiring extra bursts of energy and strength. For some, this would be considered at the very least unpleasant, but for others, these conditions just add to the adrenalin rush once they’ve reached the top and their sense of achievement.
Tower running and organised races, may not be for the faint hearted, but it’s worth bearing in mind the physical benefits of vertical motion on the body. Tower running is an extremely rapid form of weight loss, but any form of stair climbing is good for weight loss too. An average sized person weighing 11 stones, will burn approximately 700 calories in one hour of flat running. Add a vertical ascent on to that, and the rate of calories being used increases by approximately 50%. During stair climbing, 80% per cent of energy consumed is used for transporting the mass upwards. Climbing just a few flights of stairs each day will quickly shed a few unwanted pounds, with the added bonus of it being free!
Tower running enables its participants to fulfil an inner human desire to reach the top. Not only have they completed the race, but they are then rewarded with magnificent views at the end. It’s an intense form of physical activity, but despite the huge amount of energy it expends, the post-race exhaustion does not last for long.
Having said, concrete walls and stairs, metal handrails and hundreds of sweaty competitive runners jostling for the top spot is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s generally an indoor event, and is certainly not for the faint hearted. If you’re thinking of going in for one of the international races or UK charity event, a lot of training will be required, in the same manner one would train for a marathon.
This may sound obvious, but the best type of training you can do for a stair running event is running up flights of stairs, repeatedly. It’s important to remember to pace yourself, and there’s an art in that alone. Ultimately you need to practise stair running, build overall physical and cardio stamina, maintain a good weight (the less mass there is, the easier it is), keep doing squats and lunges, and build good upper body strength to help with pulling up on the handrail. Preparation for what’s in store involves checking out the stairs you’ll be embarking upon, looking at which side the hand rail is on, how wide the stairwell is, and looking at the height and depth of each stair so that can be replicated during training.
During training for a tower running event, it’s important not to forgo your normal fitness schedule as you need to keep the weight down. Current training and workouts can be complimented by stair climbing, with the amount of stair climbing being gradually increased. Once you’ve found a good staircase to practise on, you can set yourself a training regime. For example, how many repetitions you should do, and what recovery time you should allow for. On a staircase that takes less than 10 seconds to climb, a good start would be to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions, and have a 2 minute recovery time between each set, including walking down after. Over a 4 to 8 week period you can then aim to reduce the time it takes to ascend, as well as the recovery time.
If you’re London based, a good place to rehearse is the Underground. Covent Garden tube station is a popular choice, with 193 stairs, or the equivalent of a 15 storey tower. During tower running, do not run down stairs, especially if your legs are tired, as this will not allow for an effective recovery period and will affect the quality of your training.
There are several gym based activities that will also put you in good stead for tower running. Spinning is great activity as it strengthens thigh muscles. It’s the thighs that need to be developed more than the lungs, so find a class or instructor that places more emphasis on resistance, as opposed to speed and cardio fitness. It is also important to also spend time focusing on calf muscles which can be strengthened by doing calf raises on a leg press. And finally, rowing machines are ideal for building upper body strength which will in turn help with pulling the body up on handrails.
If you’re looking for your next challenge, wanting to raise money for charity, or simply looking for a very effective way to lose weight, tower running might just be for you. And if you start to hit the international scene, you’ll get to travel to some of the world’s best cities. It’s probably not the best sport for someone with a fear of heights though... you have been warned.
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