Seattle is hilly! This isn’t news to anyone who lives here. As runners, we can spend a lot of time cursing those hills. What many don’t know is how many stairs we have. Many years ago before there were a lot of cars, many of the neighborhoods of Seattle used stairs to connect people between the various streetcar lines, neighborhoods and parks. Those stairways are still there and are a fantastic way to get fit and see the city.
In fact, Seattle has over 600 staircases to climb! There are more than 80 which are considered “major” Stairways meaning they have 100 steps or more. Off and on over the years various people have taken interest in all of the Seattle Stairways. Doug Byerline maintains a website of all those major staircases in Seattle (and cities around the world!). Susan Ott Ralph has a comprehensive map with suggested walks of all the staircases big and small in the city. We also like Seattle Stairway Walks: An Up-and-Down Guide to City Neighborhoods by Jake and Cathy Jaramillo which was published in 2012.
In 2014 and 2015, Michael Yadrick put most of the major staircases into a 100k running route called the Seattle Stairway Foot Tour. On the summer solstice, they attempted to run this point-to-point route in one day. In 2014, no one made it but in 2015 a few managed to finish this very tough route!
2020 and Covid-19
Coach Andria was recovering from a foot stress fracture in early 2020 and not running at all. By the time we started to understand how serious the pandemic was in early March, she was just back to walking with short bouts of running. But she had no interest in going to a park as it just wasn’t certain how the virus was spread. She decided to use the time to explore her neighborhood in hilly North Seattle. In fact, she lives less than a mile from a major staircase and has always been a fan of stairs. As she was huffing and puffing up the staircase, she remembered the Seattle Stairway Foot Tour and thought that adventure might be the perfect antidote to the pandemic.
She took the original Foot Tour, added the outlying stairways not included in the original foot tour and broke out the now 102 mile route into 13 sections. Over the past few months we did a section (sometimes two) every week and timed the finish for the weekend in July when the CLAFitness.com Orange Ogres would normally run the Ragnar Northwest Passage. Andria normally captains this team for Coach Lesley and we knew it wouldn’t quite feel like summer without a fun challenge.
Truly, stairs are a fantastic tool in your fitness journey. Even if the gym is closed or you aren’t a fan of the gym, stairs are a great way to build strength. Almost everyone has access to stairs somewhere either in their house, their apartment, their place of work or if you live in Seattle, just out your front door! They are a great way to get in some intensity particularly if you don’t have time for longer workouts.
In these Covid-19 times, stairs are a great option to explore and still maintain social distancing requirements. Only a few of the biggest and most popular stairs tend to attract more people. However, we've found that everyone is masked and very respectful of maintaining social distancing.
How to Add Stairs
Treat stairs like you would any other workout. Aim for a variety of efforts. Mix it up to keep it interesting, fun and challenging.
Stairs can be great fun but they are also hard! If just starting with stairs, less is more. Gradually add more stairs just like you would gradually add more miles running or more time biking as you build fitness. As you tire, your form can change and place more stress on various body parts.
When climbing stairs, make sure you keep your gaze up thus keeping your spine, head and neck aligned. Make sure your knees are tracking directly over your ankle. Try to place your entire foot onto the stair so you don’t overwork your calves by only going on your toes. Work to use your glutes by pushing up through your heel and making sure to fully extend your hip.
Pay attention to what area you start noticing first. Do your calves start to burn? Or maybe your quads? That’s ok! To mix up the stress on your legs, you can even try climbing stairs with your body facing to one side and then the other. You can also use hiking poles for a different type of workout. Hiking poles can be effective if you use your upper body to help pull you up. If going down stairs, they can help stabilize.
Just like starting any exercise program, it’s easy to do too many stairs too soon. Start sensibly with short sections, be consistent and smile as you conquer another staircase!
Create Your Own Adventure
With the global pandemic continuing we don’t foresee that things will return to normal for quite a while. Not only is staying active important for your physical health, it is very important for your mental health. Many are suffering from overall angst of the pandemic, stay at home orders, social distancing, not going out, working from home, families all under the same roof all of the time and so on. In these challenging times, how do you stay focused on your fitness goals?
Our solution has been to create new adventures and find new challenges. The 2020 Seattle Stairway Foot Tour provided just such a distraction and we are sad that we are done. We are already talking about what other stairs we can explore or if we can do the same route in a different way.
Maybe stairs aren’t your thing. Look around and find what appeals to you. Is there a trail you like to hike? Maybe you work to hike certain sections faster or even work to be able to run it over the next few months. Maybe you have some small parks you can link together. We heard about a runner who ran to all branches of the Seattle Public Library system. Maybe you want to ride a bike further than you have before. Or maybe something like running 10 miles for 10 days or running a mile every day for 10 days. The ideas are endless.
Take this unusual time and find what adventure is calling you! Hope to see you out there!
2020 Seattle Stairway Foot Tour Map Covid-19 Edition (This opens into a google map)
2020 Seattle Stairway Foot Tour Spreadsheet details each section with MapMyRuns courses and lists stairs covered.
Original Seattle Stairway Foot Tour by Michael Yadrick. (This opens into a google map)
Byerlains Public Stair Website includes all Major Seattle Stairways and major stairways in cities all over the world.
Susan Ott Ralph's Seattle Stair map and suggested walks:
Jake and Cathy Jaramillo's Stairway website which has a link to buy their book.
Forest Stairways By Michael Yadrick (July 2015)
2015 Seattle Stairway Foot Tour 100k: http://www.seattlestairwaywalks.com/blog/2015/5/11/a-one-day-marathon-traversing-the-biggest-stairways-in-seatt.html
Liz Thomas’ 200 Mile Thru Hike of Seattle Stairs. https://www.outsideonline.com/2240636/liz-snorkel-thomas-wants-you-thru-hike-your-city
Stepping on Republican stairs, the most forlorn landmark in Seattle