Running Technique: How to Run Stairs Without Knee or Hip Pain

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Touted as a fat burner and leg toner, running stairs has always been a popular exercise. However, it is also a common trigger for injuries.

When it comes to preventing injuries, nothing is more effective than performing the task correctly. Changing or softening the surface is ok but won’t change the injury rate that much, wearing special shoes will be good for your feet but won’t do much for your knees, etc. Knowing how to run stairs correctly will allow you to run up or down any set of stairs without subjecting yourself to overload all the while reducing potential of injuries.

Sometimes steps are lower and sometimes higher, the one thing that should never change in your technique is that you keep your knees bent at all times. That will help lessen the impact and prevent overloading of your knees and hips. As you keep practicing it will become your second nature and you’ll look like you’re flowing up and down the stairs instead of fighting each step.

As a general rule:

Running Upstairs

Compared to running on flat surface, the pulling of the foot up under the hip happens right after the non support foot lands (on the next step on stairs) and becomes the support foot. Being now the support, the foot does not actively produce the straightening/unbending work, it simply provides support. The work is now being done by the swing leg that is now being pulled up under the hips as the runner falls forward towards the next step. The foot of the swing leg is then placed on the step and becomes the support. Thus the elevation of the runner’s body upwards is produced by unweighing with the shoulders and the swing leg, instead of the unbending of the knee of the support leg. Such transfer of weight takes the loading off the knees when running as well as walking up the stairs.

  1. Keep your knees bent at all times
    Similar to regular running on flat, even surface, this reduces impact on your knees, reduces vertical oscillation and bouncing, and promotes efficient movement forward with minimal effort.
  2. Don’t raise your knees
    This is the move that results in various hip issues and adds bouncing. When you raise your knee, you move your bodyweight back which obviously interferes with movement forward. Your knees will come up following the trajectory set by your feet. Being the support for your entire body and its weight, your feet play the leading role.
  3. Pull your feet up and under your hips
    This is the move that makes all the difference. It requires less effort, it is more effective. Similar to running on a flat, even surface, pulling foot off the ground and changing support is all you need to move forward and up the stairs. There is not as much free falling happening however, but just enough to move your forward.

Running Downstairs

When running or walking downstairs, the framework of movement is modified and constructed according to a concept of ‘diluted effect of gravity’. We still use the power of free falling but its magnitude is softened by a soft step down with a slightly bent knee of the support leg as we ‘catch’ our bodyweight with the following support leg (type of pony drill). Such fluid movement produces no breaking and keeps knees from overloading by softly transferring bodyweight from one support to the next by utilizing gravity. The impact on all tissues is dramatically reduced when weight is simply transferred in such swift manner.

  1. Keep your knees bent at all times
    As stated above, this reduces impact on your knees and overall load on your body, reduces vertical oscillation and bouncing, and promotes efficient movement forward with minimal effort.
  2. Remove the non support foot off the step promptly
    Stay compact, maintain the running pose and think ‘change of support & weight transfer’. Don’t let the foot lag behind.
  3. Pull your feet up and under your hips
    As mentioned above, that is the correct actionable element of running and it does not change. Minimal falling forward, light and prompt pulling just enough to keep movement flowing.

Prevent Overload & Injury

A very important part of running stairs, besides technique, is knowing when you need to wrap it up for the day. This type of workout is not your average load and many people are simply not ready for it. So pacing your attempts and allowing yourself time to get acclimated is worth more than your desire to nail that extra set. At the first sign of muscle tension outside of supporting your bodyweight as usual, you should stop and proceed with cool down part of your training. Once your muscles are unable to function normally and accept the load, the load switches to joints and tendons that are not meant for this task.

Even minimal loss of your body’s ability and its systems to perform their normal functions (like muscles tensing up and not being able to contract and relax) brings on a domino effect of negative consequences. With the exception of ‘slip and fall’, virtually all injuries start this way.

It is also highly recommended to not leap across steps and instead cover each step. The knee load going up and the tremendous overall load going down can be extremely damaging and is simply an unsustainable way to train. Unless you’re catching a train and your life depends on it – don’t do it.

Always keep in mind that our movement becomes effortless and more efficient when we work with the natural forces. We remain injury free as long as we stay within the natural framework of movement.

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