Intro to Tower Running: Conquer Your Own Stair Climbing Race

Years ago, in my quest to discover new sources of active travel inspiration, I stumbled up on the concept of tower running.  Instead of a “horizontal” race on pavement or dirt, this type of racing is exactly what it sounds, a vertical race running stairs to the top of some of the most iconic and looming structures that dominate our cities’ skylines.  My own hometown was the scene of my first tower run race, at the Dallas Vert Mile tower race (now called Big Climb Dallas).  If you are looking for a new kind of active travel vacation, here is a short introduction to what tower running encompasses, including tower running training tips and how to find your own tower running races!


Introduction to tower running tips and tower running training

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What is Tower Running?


The concept of tower running is pretty straight forward, and the courses are pretty self explanatory.  What varies are the locations, distances, and structures themselves.  Tower running is a vertical race up a set flight of stairs, often held in some of the tallest structures that a particular location has to offer.  Races include distances such as one lap sprints, quarter mile laps, and full mile laps.   


Most often, these types of races occur in the internal stairways of structures, hence why it is referred to as running stairs.  Climbers attempt to race up these structures as quickly as possible, with the option to use handrails to help hoist themselves as well.


Tower races focus on the climb up, not down.  Racers will be timed on their ascent, and based on their distance, will climb one or multiple laps.  In between laps, racers are transported down and begin a new lap fresh from the bottom.  The time in between laps to be transported down does not count against a racer’s time.  



Benefits of Tower Running


Overview of tower running benefits:

  • More effective workout in less time than regular running
  • Full body workout
  • Great for the cardiovascular system
  • Lower impact than regular running
  • No specialized equipment necessary
  • Travel opportunities and races at iconic sites
  • Breathtaking finisher views!


In a nutshell, tower running can be nearly twice as effective in half the time as regular running on a flat surface.  The major focus with tower running is on the lower body, and it is true that areas including your glutes, quads, and legs will be the subject of most of the toning that occurs with tower running and running stairs. 


It is not just about the lower body though.  Upper body strength comes into play when racers are hoisting and propelling themselves up the staircase, and utilizing the handrail.  Because this is a high intensity workout that occurs over a relatively short amount of time ( I climbed the Dallas Vert Mile Sprint in just over 12 minutes ), it is an incredibly efficient, high calorie burning, full body cardio workout.  



Tower Running Training in 7 Steps


Training for tower running requires a coordinated effort and a planned out regimen. Follow these 7 simple yet effective tower running tips when formulating your own tower running training plan.


#1: Take the Stairs


This is probably the most obvious, yet most crucial, tower running training tip.  Even if you do not have the time or resources to run a full set of stadium steps repeatedly, you can almost certainly find creative ways to take the stairs whenever possible, whether that is the stairs at the office, out shopping, or outside your home.  Take the stairs every time.


You may think that you do not naturally encounter stairs or a series of steps in your daily life and routine, but you probably have not been actively looking for them either!  Once you start intentionally planning out where you can get some steps in, you will undoubtedly start to see stairs and steps everywhere!


#2: Increase Your Vertical Mileage


Much the same way that you should gradually increase your weekly mileage when training for a half marathon or marathon, you should strive to increase your vertical mileage as well, with the goal ultimately being the ability to run close to your set race distance a week or two out from race day.  For example, if you are planning to run a vertical mile tower run, plan to be able to climb stairs for eight or nine tenths of a mile a week before your scheduled race.


#3: Sprint the Stairs


Interval training (like this at home HIIT interval routine I developed) and speed increase are great methods for training for your stair climbing challenge.  One way to achieve this is to find accessible bleachers or a lengthier set of stairs and run them, focusing on speed.  Recover for approximately the same amount of time you sprinted, then repeat your set.  Over time, you can gradually increase the speed, if possible, and amount of time you are sprinting, making sure to recover for the same amount of time you are sprinting in between sets.  Gradually, you can increase your speed and sprint time between recoveries.


#4: Go for a Hike Or Walk at an Incline


One of the best methods for training for a vertical race like tower running is to go for a hike, specifically hiking with elevation and grade changes.  Especially for those without regular access to an extensive network of stairways or bleachers, finding a way to walk or hike at an incline is still an effective mode of training.  Equipment such as a stair machine, or a treadmill with the incline upped, can also give you a similar training experience.


#5: Cross Train


As with training for a “horizontal” running race, tower running training has to include a mixture of cross training.  Not only does this strengthen and condition various sets of muscles necessary for the full body workout that is tower running, but it helps to prevent injuries that can completely derail you as you train for your stair climb challenge.


Cycle, weight lift, kayak, walk, run, do yoga, high intensity interval train – basically find ways to incorporate cross training into your regular tower training plan.  Squats, lunges, step ups, push ups, and rows are great strengthening additions to incorporate into a tower run prep.


One often overlooked area of tower running training is arm strength.  Using the handrails during a tower run can be a crucial part of the race, and so it is advisable to make an extra effort to strengthen your arm muscles prior to a race by incorporating exercises such as push ups, planks, chest presses, arm raises, curls, and rows


#6: Ease Your Way Down


There is not much of a need to practice running down stairs.  In fact, in can cause unnecessary strain on your knees to run down.  Instead, save that extra exertion for race day, and when training, take the elevator down if possible!  If taking the stairs down is unavoidable, at least resist the temptation to race down in a hurry.


#7: Build in Rest


As hard as it is sometimes, rest is critical.  Allow your body the time that it needs to recover.  Over-training can have damaging effects, often in the form of injuries that take weeks or months to recover from.  It is better to allow your body to pace itself, than to skimp on rest and completely derail your training schedule.  Listen to your body and be extra mindful of your knees, as they can often take the brunt of training.



Finding Tower Running Races


It is easy to find local or destination tower running races, as there are nearly several hundred organized tower running races held each year worldwide at this time.  Most large metropolitan cities have at least one, if not several, annual tower running events.  In my hometown of Dallas, Texas, the annual Big Climb Dallas is held each March!


Some of the big names in tower running races include examples like the Willis Tower, Eiffel Tower, and Empire State Building tower running races.  In fact, the first organized tower run to occur in the United States took place in the Empire State Building.


Schedules can be found online, most reliably on the Tower Racing World Association website, or the Tower Running USA website.  These types of tower running races are scheduled and held annually, much the same as organized marathons, half marathons, and 5k’s are organized and held. 


Also similar to running race events, expect to pay a registration fee for your race, and receive not only a rewarding and challenging experience in return, but some cool swag such as event shirts!  Fundraising opportunities also abound with tower racing, and is something to consider when selecting a tower running race.


Tower racing is yet another active travel option for active travelers, for those looking for a different kind of vacation.  If this is you, use the chance to travel to a new location for your tower running race as the extra motivation you will need to complete your training.  Tower racing can take you anywhere, from your own state to the other side of the world.


Approach selecting a tower running race destination much the same way you would go about approaching how to select a “runcation” race and destination. With a destination tower race, you are guaranteed everything from personal growth, to a reward for your dedication, to that unmistakable feeling of accomplishment, to an amazing panoramic view from the top of whichever tower running structure you choose!


Reunion Tower, home of the Dallas Vert Mile tower running race
Reunion Tower, home of the Dallas Vert Mile (now Big Climb Dallas) tower running race



Review of the Dallas Vert Mile Tower Run


The Dallas Vert Mile tower race is held annually in January, at Reunion Tower in downtown Dallas (it has since changed its name to Big Climb Dallas, and is held in March). While Dallas is home for me, my experience climbing stairs here still allowed me to make some new discoveries and pass along a few recommendations.


First, tower racing is no joke.  It is an incredibly difficult endeavor, even for fit athletes and experienced long distance runners.  Training is imperative.  If you are new to tower running and are looking for a suitable introductory race, start off with the lowest distance, even if you are competitive in other sports.  


Tower running race at the Dallas Vert Mile
A tower running race at the Dallas Vert Mile


Second, tower racing is short and sweet.  I am used to several hours of long distance running, so, for example, my short sprint race at the Dallas Vert Mile was a departure from the norm for me.  However, I have realized very quickly that the same benefits can be achieved through a short stair race as in a longer, traditional, flat race.  


Third, the “scenery” is quite different.  Seeing as you are racing in a stairwell for the entirety of the race, the downside of tower running is the lack of views.  However, the race crews at some races, for example the Dallas Vert Mile crew, got creative and hung inspirational posters for every racer inside the stairwell.  There were also volunteers dressed up and cheering in several locations along the course.  Due to the limited space, spectators, including family members, are not able to line the course and cheer as they might in a traditional running race. So it is always a nice touch to still have some morale boosters and designated volunteers providing inspiration. Also, you won’t be seeing aid station set ups along the “course”, as you would in a traditional long distance running race, also due to the limited space.


The "course" of the Dallas Vert Mile tower running race
The “course” of the Dallas Vert Mile tower running race



Fourth, the payoff is the views! I doubt there is a bad view from the finale of any tower race.  The 360 degree views from the top of Reunion Tower, which normally cost but were included in registration, were an amazing way to enjoy the finale and cool down of the Dallas Vert Mile.  Being able to view Dallas from that perspective was one of the defining moments of that hometown tower run, and definitely has my curiosity piqued into what other city skylines I might be able to conquer!



Recommendations for Tower Running


  • a good pair of running shoes are first on this list for obvious reasons! I run all my road races, whether I am climbing stairs or running 13 miles of pavement, in Brooks Glycerins!  CLICK HERE to get your own pair of Brooks!


  • wear breathable, moisture wicking clothing for your stair climb challenge! Since tower running is largely held in internal stairwells, protected from outdoor elements, you do not need to worry about rain or other elements like you have to with traditional outdoor running events.  It might still be cold in the winter or hot in the summer, but you will be able to regulate your temperature more easily.  And even in the winter when it may be cold as you are climbing stairs, you will warm up quick! Wear fabrics that are both breathable, and moisture wicking.  Avoid cotton at all costs! My favorite moisture wicking clothing items come from the IceBreaker line, which utilizes highly breathable and wicking wool.  Check out my favorite IceBreaker running tank and my favorite Icebreaker running shorts!




And that’s pretty much all the equipment you have to have to start tower running!  It is definitely one of the advantages of this sport.




An introduction to a tower running


Get ready for your own tower running race


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  1. THank you for this. I’ll pin it for later since I’m thinking about doing a climb here in Seattle next year at the Space Needle. I really need to focus on cross training so this is great info.

    1. Josh, how cool, that sounds like such a fun race and I’m sure it will be a great view from the top! I would love to do a tower race at the Space Needle some day! Good luck with your training!

    1. Alexandra, even as a long distance runner, my fitness level still needed a lot of work for tower running! It’s an amazing workout and a fun experience, I hope you get to enjoy a race someday!

  2. thanks for this! I’m beginning working out for a stair climb (charity) at the NYC WTC tower 1. I’m looking at a few years out as I want my son to join in and we both need to be prepared or both need to pull out early. Your article was great advice and there’s not a ton out there for stair climbs. thank you

    1. I agree Sharon, there is not a ton of info on tower running, and I hope that changes. It is a great experience, a great workout, a great physically demanding goal, a great reason to have to commit to long term training, and a great way to travel to different destinations! Hope your preparations go smoothly and you and your son are able to participate, that sounds like a great and meaningful race!